The Tennessee Volunteers are a 34-point underdog to the Alabama Crimson Tide this weekend, and for good reason. The Crimson Tide look like they just keep getting better and better. They are more talented. They are Top 10 in six of twelve defensive statistical categories, including first in rushing defense, second in scoring defense, and fourth in total defense.
And Tennessee’s offense hasn’t scored a touchdown in more than two full games.
We’ve delved into the stats and stared into the eyes of the devil. I don’t care what Nick Saban says, these guys are good. Here’s what we found.
Alabama’s schedule (7-0, 4-0 SEC, #1)
- W1: Beat #3 Florida State, 24-7.
- W2: Beat Fresno State, 41-10.
- W3: Beat Colorado State, 41-23.
- W4: Beat Vanderbilt, 59-0.
- W5: Beat Ole Miss, 66-3.
- W6: Beat Texas A&M, 27-19.
- W7: Beat Arkansas, 41-9.
- W8: #25 Tennessee
- W9: Bye
- W10: #12 LSU
- W11: At Mississippi State
- W12: Mercer
- W13: At #13 Auburn
That schedule to date is ranked as the nation’s 38th most difficult. Tennessee’s schedule is ranked 51st.
Alabama features the best rushing defense, the best scoring defense, and the best scoring offense the Vols have seen all year. Either sit down or hold on to something before reading on.
Tennessee is averaging 134.7 rushing yards per game, and Alabama is giving up only 66.7 per game. The closest comparison, for a prior Tennessee opponent that is not as good at run defense as is Alabama, is Georgia, which is giving up 82.1 yards per game on the ground. Tennessee got 62 against them. To date, Tennessee has played no one better against the run than Alabama. I do think that having Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback may be worth another 10-20 yards rushing, so put me down for 80 rushing yards for Tennessee against Alabama.
The Tennessee defense is allowing 242.8 rushing yards per game, while the Alabama run game is averaging 302.6 yards per game. The closest “not-as-good” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent is once again Georgia, which is getting 282.9 yards per game on the ground, and they got 294 against Tennessee. The closest “better-than” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent is Georgia Tech, which is averaging 362.0 rushing yards per game and got 535 against Tennessee. A modest reasonable goal for the Vols this weekend would be to hold the Tide to their average on the ground like the Vols did against Georgia, and so I’m going with Alabama getting about 300 rushing yards against Tennessee’s defense. It will feel like 500.
Tennessee is averaging 185.3 passing yards per game, and Alabama is allowing 187.6. The closest “not-as-good” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent is Florida, which is giving up 211.0 yards per game through the air, and Tennessee put up 259 against them. The closest “better-than” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent is Georgia Tech. They’re allowing 186.0 passing yards per game, and Tennessee got 221 against them. Based on all of that, I’m going to go with Tennessee putting up the averages this weekend and getting about 185 passing yards.
The Tennessee pass defense is allowing 129.2 passing yards per game. Alabama is getting 182.3. The closest “not-as-good” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent is Florida, which is getting 181.3 yards per game through the air, and they got 212 against Tennessee. The closest “better-than” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent is South Carolina, which is averaging 226.4 passing yards per game and got 129 against Tennessee. I’m going with Alabama putting up about 170 passing yards against Tennessee.
Tennessee is averaging 21.7 points per game, and Alabama is allowing 10.1. The closest “not-as-good” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent is Georgia, which is allowing 12.6 points per game, and they goose-egged Tennessee. Tennessee has not played anyone better than Alabama in this category. The Vols have not scored a touchdown in more than two full games, and they are now playing the stingiest defense they’ve faced all season. Regardless, I think that the rivalry aspect of this game will somehow kick in and result in six or seven points. Officially, I’m going with 7 points for the Vols.
Tennessee is allowing 23.8 points per game. Alabama is averaging 42.7. The closest “not-as-good” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent is Georgia, which is averaging 37.6 points, and they got 41 against Tennessee. In addition to being the stingiest defense the Vols have played this year, Alabama also has the highest-scoring offense they’re seen so far.
This is the most difficult thing in the matchup to predict, I think. The thing is, Tennessee’s defense isn’t terrible this year. It’s just that the offense is struggling so much that the defense ends up looking worse than it is. With two exceptions, the Vols have held all opponents to under 26 points, 20 if you discount that last play against Florida. And one of the exceptions was a double-overtime game. And yet, that still leaves the last exception: Georgia put up 41, and honestly, Alabama looks just like Georgia except even better. The Tide are basically scoring 41 points in every game they play. Texas A&M gave them a good game and held them to 27, but Alabama also averaged over 60 points against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
Honestly, I think the range here is a vast, gaping chasm with teeth, something like 32-60. I’m going to split the difference and call it 45 points for Bama.
Tennessee rushing yards: 80
Alabama rushing yards: 300
Tennessee passing yards: 185
Alabama passing yards: 170
Tennessee points: 7
Alabama points: 45
Those are my eyeball-adjusted predictions. For the record, the SPM itself is spitting out Alabama 33, Tennessee 7 and covering the spread.
Current betting lines and other statistical models
The SPM is more optimistic than Vegas, as the current spread is between 35 and 36.5, with an over/under of 50.5-51.5. That makes it look like Alabama, 43-8 or so.
ESPN’s FPI gives the Vols a 2.1% chance of beating the Tide, and S&P+ gives them a 5% chance, setting the game at Alabama, 39.1-10.9. So both S&P+ and the SPM like the Vols to cover this week. Of course, computers don’t know when wheels are about to come off.
What does Alabama do especially well?
National Unit Rankings
Offensive observations. Okay, so they’re going to run the ball. No surprise there. If there is a surprise, it’s that the run game is actually not very well balanced out by the passing game. So sell out to stop the run. It may not matter a great deal, but maybe it makes the difference between 300 and 200 rushing yards.
Defensive observations. Sheesh. First in the nation in rushing defense. Second in scoring defense. Fourth in total, fifth in interceptions. Top 10 in two other categories. No worse than 55th in anything. Top 25 in all but two categories. This presents a huge dilemma for the Vols, as their strength is John Kelly and the run game. Alabama is going to take that away and make you want to pass, but is that something that the Vols can actually do? And even if they can, do they really want to do that, make the game longer, and give the Alabama offense more time on the field against a tired defense? If you’re looking for answers, or even ideas, well, I’ll have to get back to you.
Special teams, Turnovers, and Penalties observations. Oh, and they don’t turn the ball over, either. Great.
Honestly, we’re looking at a huge David vs. Goliath matchup here, which means employing some non-traditional thinking. Once upon a time, Lane Kiffin used this strategy to nearly upset Alabama. It doesn’t mean you’re not playing to win; it’s recognizing that your best chance to win is to first make it close, and making it close means reducing the number of plays because they have an advantage in each and every one of them. Do something unexpected. Fake something. Take more risks on fourth down. Hit them with a rock in the forehead.
On defense, I think you absolutely sell out 100% to limiting Alabama’s run game, live with any passes down the field, and also redefine success so that you can keep your mind right all the way to the end of the game. Don’t get discouraged by them still succeeding running the ball against an all-out sell-out. Just make it more difficult than what they’re used to and see if maybe they get frustrated.
On offense, I don’t know. I think I’d still focus on running the ball even against the nation’s best run defense because it’s the only way to shorten the game. Alabama is better than Tennessee, and the longer the game, the more it will get out of hand. Get your defense as much rest as you can and start early. Use the entire play clock in between every play beginning with the very first one. Try to frustrate them by making them impatient, by making it excrutiatingly slow. Even if you end up going 3-and-out, at least you’ve maximized the rest for your defense and shortened the game, thereby maximizing the possibility that something crazy will happen and that it might make a difference.
Alabama is a 34-point favorite in this game, and for good reason.
Here’s how the statsy preview machine did for the game between Tennessee and South Carolina two weeks ago.
|Prediction||Score||Rushing Yards||Passing Yards||Total Yards|
|Actual Results||Score||Rushing Yards||Passing Yards||Total Yards|
Did the Statsy Preview Machine win in Vegas?
The line was Tennessee -3.5, and the SPM picked South Carolina to win outright, so yes, the SPM won in Vegas this week.