Were it not for the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry between Georgia and Auburn, the case study in why the SEC should keep interdivision rivalries is Tennessee-Alabama. Sure, during the long drought of respectability in Knoxville, there was some carping from the fans of other SEC West teams that Alabama got to face a down-on-its-luck Volunteers squad. But the Third Saturday in October* is one of the more tradition-rich match-ups in the SEC.
Asked which SEC team Alabama has played the most, fans of other teams would probably pick Auburn. The answer is really -- well, the answer is really Mississippi State, with 98, but Tennessee is just two behind. With 81 Iron Bowls now on the books, that annual series actually comes in third on the list of the Tide's most-played games. And while annual grudge match between the two teams from Alabama will always be more emotional, the face-offs between the Volunteers and the Tide matter a good deal on their own.
And going into this year, it looked like the game might finally be regaining some of its old relevance. Alabama was, of course, supposed to compete for the SEC West yet again. But Tennessee was an up-and-coming program that might be able to factor into the race on the other side. The Tide has kept up their end of the bargain; the Vols have struggled to do the same. But even without clear-cut conference title implications, there are plenty of reasons to tune in to this one.
1The Fourth Saturday in October. In some ways it's such a little thing, but in others, it's not. This is the only rivalry game in the SEC that I'm aware of that is literally named after the week in which it is played. And it is no longer played in that week. I can't imagine it would require major reconstructive surgery to the SEC schedule to simply make sure that Alabama and Tennessee play on the Third Saturday in October. It just takes the SEC doing the right thing and respecting a tradition. So, you know, do it.
2Domination. There are so many impressive aspects of Nick Saban's coaching career in Tuscaloosa that a perfect record against a down Tennessee team (at least in historical terms) probably doesn't rank very high on the list. But Saban hasn't just gone undefeated against Tennessee; he's done so while coming close to losing precious few times. The average margin of victory for Alabama over the last eight seasons has been 23.5 points; only in the 2009 nail-biter, which the Tide won 12-10, has Tennessee lost by less than two touchdowns. It is a rivalry that tends to swing back and forth between periods of dominance by each team, but Alabama's streak right now is impressive.
3Watch Your Throws. Remember the narrative that was growing at one point that the Alabama secondary was an area of concern? Maybe not so much anymore. The Crimson Tide have allowed just 5.3 yards per passing attempt this year, best in the SEC by almost half a yard, and have held opponents to an embarrassing 97.32 passer rating. Meanwhile, the Alabama has 12 interceptions this year -- which also leads the league, as you might imagine. (Thanks, Texas A&M!) Eddie Jackson leads the way with five picks, while Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick have two apiece. But Tennessee has been particularly good at taking care of the ball through the air this year; their 1.1 percent interception rate ranks third in the SEC, behind only Mississippi State and LSU, a team that never throws the ball. If Joshua Dobbs remains on the right track in that department, it should help the Vols keep this game within reach. (Stats from cfbstats.com.)
Erich Schlegel -- USA Today Sports
4Born to Run. On the other hand, there's not much of a reason to believe that either of these teams will throw the ball very much. Tennessee has 290 rushing attempts to 181 passing attempts, while Alabama's attack is slightly more "balanced" (in the television analyst sense of the word) with 291 rushing attempts to 237 passes. Part of that is simply doing what works, or at least what works better; Tennessee and Alabama rank near the bottom of the SEC in yards per pass and better (significantly better in Alabama's case) in yards per rush. Also, having large leads late in the game will lead to more runs. Oh, and speaking of large leads late in the game ...
5Finishing. In case you haven't heard, Tennessee has had something of an issue with locking down wins late in the game. The Volunteers have been outscored 56-31 in the fourth quarter and overtime, losing two touchdown leads in the final frame twice. Alabama, meanwhile, has outscored its opponents 64-37 in the fourth quarter. But the Tide has gone into the last 15 minutes needing to regain the lead just once -- against Ole Miss. And we all saw how that went. Because Tennessee's in the game, it's not over until it's over, but Alabama might not want to press its luck too far.
THREE TO WATCH
Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama. One reason the Alabama secondary might be feasting on interceptions is Allen, who has already piled up five sacks and seven tackles for loss on the season. Two of those sacks and four of those tackles for loss came against Texas A&M last week, costing the Aggies a combined 31 yards. Allen's also hurried the quarterback two more times this year, broken up four passes and forced a fumble. And he's going up against a team that's in the bottom half of the SEC in sacks allowed per game. If he's able to spend a significant amount of time in the Tennessee backfield, things could get ugly for the Vols.
Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee. The dynamic Tennessee quarterback is coming off perhaps his best game (adjusted for the competition) this season, completing 25 of 42 passes against Georgia for 312 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Dobbs also rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. With the possible exception of Jalen Hurd, Dobbs is the only bona fide offensive star for the Vols right now; if he plays as well as he's capable of playing, Tennessee might just have a chance in this one.
Jim Brown -- USA Today Sports
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. The other monstrous running back in the SEC West, Henry doesn't have as many 200-yard games as Leonard Fournette has, but he's still put up 901 yards on 152 attempts a little more than halfway through the Tide's regular season. That includes his 32-carry, 236-yard day against Texas A&M last week. In almost any other division in college football, Henry would be receiving even more Heisman buzz than he's gotten; as it is, he might be the second-best running back in the SEC West -- and maybe the nation.
I'm really struggling to get a handle on how I feel about this game. Alabama has been on a tear since the Ole Miss loss, though the game against Arkansas was closer than the score makes it look. I'm just not sure Tennessee is quite there yet; clearly, they can hang with very good teams into the fourth quarter, but the Tide is a great or even elite team. It will start out competitive, but I doubt Tennessee has the opportunity to blow a two-touchdown lead in this one. Alabama 28, Tennessee 13