No. 1 Alabama heads into Tennessee heavy favorites
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry doesn't have the national relevance as it did in previous decades, but the series still has plenty of meaning to both teams.
Longtime fans make sure of it.
"It's kind of grown on me now,'' Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest said. "Last year, I didn't know. I thought it was always Alabama-Auburn. I didn't really know about the Tennessee game. But a lot of the older fans take this game real seriously. It's bigger than Alabama-Auburn to them.''
It may not mean as much to the younger generation because it's been a while since each program was strong at the same time. The last time both teams were ranked when they faced off was in 2005, when No. 5 Alabama edged No. 17 Tennessee 6-3. This year, the top-ranked Crimson Tide are favored by three touchdowns.
Tennessee (3-3, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) has lost 10 of its last 11 conference games and is 0-13 against Top 25 opponents since Derek Dooley took over the program in 2010. Alabama (6-0, 3-0) is the defending national champion and has won each of its first six games by at least 19 points.
"They've absolutely annihilated everybody they've played, physically and on the scoreboard,'' said Dooley, who expects to coach from the press box for a second straight week as he recovers from surgery on a fractured right hip.
Although those numbers suggest a one-sided game, the Vols remain confident. They note that all of their losses came against ranked foes - No. 3 Florida, No. 13 Georgia and No. 15 Mississippi State. Each game wasn't decided until the fourth quarter.
"I just feel like these last three SEC games, it's been more bad luck than anything,'' Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson said.
Tennessee's already had some bad luck heading into this game, as an ankle injury could force the Vols to play without leading rusher Rajion Neal. Each starting quarterback in Saturday's game will be wearing a knee brace, as Alabama's A.J. McCarron bruised his right knee last week while Tennessee's Tyler Bray hurt his left knee.
Even if Neal doesn't play, this game features an intriguing matchup between Tennessee's offense and Alabama's defense.
For the first time in school history, Tennessee has scored at least 31 points in each of its first six games. Bray, who leads the SEC with 16 touchdown passes, throws to a pair of future pro receivers in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Bray works behind an offensive line that has allowed only three sacks all season. Air Force and Oklahoma State are the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs that have allowed fewer sacks.
Bray "does a good time getting the ball out of his hand quickly and not taking sacks,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They probably have two of the best receivers we've played against all year. They have, by far, the biggest and best offensive line. To me, it's how do you stop all the components? They're not one-dimensional. They're one of the leading rushing teams in our conference and one of the leading passing teams in our conference. That's what makes them one of the best offensive teams in the conference, or very near the top.''
Alabama's defense has been even better. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in total defense, scoring defense, run defense and pass efficiency defense.
"They're big, fast, physical,'' Bray said. "They're an NFL defense.''
The potential mismatch comes when Alabama has the ball.
Alabama averages 40.5 points per game. Tennessee has allowed 43 points per game in SEC competition. Tennessee is struggling with the shift from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Sal Sunseri, the former Alabama linebackers coach. Sunseri's son is Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri.
Although the Vols have struggled on defense all season, Alabama isn't taking anything for granted.
"This game is more about the rivalry and less about people's record,'' Saban said.
For Tennessee, it's also about redemption.
The Vols insist they've made major progress in the last year, even though their record doesn't reflect it. They've been more competitive in SEC games this year, but that hasn't satisfied an impatient fan base. If they can pull off the upset of the year Saturday or at least give the reigning national champions a scare, the Vols can back up their claims that they're headed in the right direction.
"We all know about Alabama,'' Dooley said. "They've been the standard of college football the last four years. It's a good opportunity for our players. We've gone toe to toe with all the teams so far. Let's see if we can do it with the best team in college football.''
AP Sports Writer John Zenor of Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.
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