Photo by University of Alabama Athletics (@AlabamaFTBL)
By Tucker Harlin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn- No. 17 Tennessee (5-1, 2-1) travels to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama (6-1, 4-0) in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday. The game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET and will air on CBS.
The Crimson Tide is 58-39-7 all-time against the Vols. The Tide has not dropped a game to the Vols in Tuscaloosa since 2003, and the Tide amassed a 15-game streak against the Vols between 2007 and 2021.
But the Vols put a halt to the losing streak in 2022. A prolific connection between Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker and wide receiver Jalin Hyatt resulted in six completions for 207 yards and five touchdowns. A wobbly Chase McGrath kick gave the Vols a 52-49 win and a sea of orange and cigar smoke engulfed Neyland Stadium.
2023 began bumpily but has smoothened out for the Tide. Quinn Ewers led Texas to a 34-24 victory in Tuscaloosa, the worst margin of defeat ever suffered by the Tide in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Nick Saban’s tenure.
After the loss, Saban opted to remove the starter tag from Jalen Milroe at quarterback and experiment with Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson in the Tide’s game at USF. The result was an ugly 17-3 victory for the Tide in a game in which it was favored by more than 30 points.
It was clear after the USF game that Milroe gave the Tide the best chance to win among the three quarterbacks, so Saban renamed him the starter ahead of the Ole Miss game, and Milroe remains the starter ahead of this weekend.
Since he was renamed the starter, Milroe has guided the Tide to wins over SEC foes Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Arkansas. Milroe has acted as a game manager for the Tide for most of SEC play. However, Milroe threw for 321 yards and 3 touchdowns at Texas A&M, so the Tide can rely on him through the air if needed.
Accompanying Milroe in the backfield will be a mix of Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams. McClellan usually gets double the work Williams will in a game, but both had one game each in which they rushed for over 100 yards.
The Tide’s top targets in the receiving game are Jermaine Burton and Isaiah Bond. Burton led the Tide in receiving yards in 2022, and he was the heaviest contributor in the win at Texas A&M, finishing with nine receptions for 197 yards and two touchdowns. Bond was further down the pecking order his freshman year but has ascended to Milroe’s second best target this year.
At the line of scrimmage, it has been a struggle for the Tide. It has surrendered 31 sacks, the most in the SEC.
Seth McLaughlin and JC Latham are the two seasoned veterans on the offensive line, occupying center and right tackle for the Tide. Jaeden Roberts and Tyler Booker are the guards. Both were depth pieces last year that have assumed starting roles this year. The lone freshman is left tackle Kadyn Proctor, the No. 2 tackle in the class of 2023. Proctor is a physical mismatch for any defender as he goes about 6 feet, 7 inches and weighs about 355 pounds.
Similar to the offensive line, the Tide has had to rebuild on the defensive front due to key departures. Tim Smith and Justin Ebiogbe are manning the edges, and Ebiogbe has been the more productive of the two with 30 tackles and four sacks. Tim Keenan is at nose tackle position for the Tide.
Linebacker is usually a deep position for the Tide, and this year is no exception. Dallas Turner is in the Jack spot, and he leads the Tide with seven sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. Turner’s backup Chris Braswell has tallied seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Trezmen Marshall and Deonte Lawson are at the Mike and Willie positions, and both have recorded 3.5 tackles for loss.
The Tide have Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold back at corner this year. Vol fans will remember McKinstry for the pick six he had called back because of a pass interference penalty in Neyland Stadium last year. Arnold leads the Tide with six passes broken up ahead of the third Saturday of October.
The other key components of the Tide’s secondary are Caleb Downs, Jaylen Key, and Malachi Moore. Downs is a freshman and leads the Tide in both tackles and interceptions with 54 and two. Key is a transfer from UAB and has made an immediate impact, ranking third in tackles with 38. Moore missed a significant portion of 2022 with an injury, and he missed the Arkansas game with an injury as well. It would be a harsh blow to the Tide secondary if Moore is unable to go Saturday.
The last phase of the game is full of veterans, starting with kicker Will Reichard. As of last week, Reichard now holds the all-time record for most points scored by a member in the SEC. Reichard has not missed a kick this season, but he did miss the go-ahead kick that likely would have given the Tide a win in Neyland Stadium last year.
James Burnip is the punter for the Tide this year. Burnip’s current average is just under 49 yards per punt. McKinstry will handle punt returns and Kendrick Law will return kicks. Neither McKinstry nor Law has returned a kick for a touchdown this season.