KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is battered and bruised, but can the No. 9 Volunteers cobble together enough bodies and conjure up some more magic to upset top-ranked Alabama?
We’ll find out.
I had a solid week nailing predictions against Texas A&M, especially on my final question.
Can the Volunteers win three-straight games over ranked foes?
Tennessee’s injuries finally catch up to them. The lack of depth at linebacker was exposed at times in the miracle win over Georgia and Texas A&M possesses the best group of skill-players in the SEC.
This is the first week where the Volunteers really feel the hurt of no Cam Sutton — make it 12 straight losses agains the SEC West.
Let’s see how well I do this weekend.
Here are five predictions for No. 1 Alabama at No. 9 Tennessee (3:30 p.m., CBS).
1. Will linebacker Darrin Kirkland play?
No. After watching Kirkland at practice Tuesday, the linebacker certainly did not appear ready to play Saturday — especially against the top-ranked team in the country. His ankle remains heavily-taped, and the sophomore moved gingerly while reporters were on the field.
He could give it a go at 70 percent. But with the bye week coming up, I’d rest the All-SEC linebacker and get him healthy for the stretch run.
2. Who wins the battle between Derek Barnett vs. Cam Robinson
It’s a matchup featuring two future first round NFL Draft picks.
I’m going with Barnett. Why bet against him right now?
Robinson is among the best offensive tackles in the country, but Barnett is playing on another level right now. The junior All-American has been a nightmare for opposing offensive lines, beating guards, tackles and tight ends to rack up 5.0 sacks the last three weeks.
Against Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M, Barnett recorded 6.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two batted passes and five quarterback hurries. He’s been a one-man wrecking crew lately.
3. Will Alabama score a non-offensive touchdown?
Let’s see, Tennessee leads the nation with 21 fumbles (losing 8) and ranks No. 124 with 16 turnovers. Alabama has scored 9 non-offensive touchdowns this season, including two against Arkansas last weekend. The Tide have returned either an interception, fumble, punt or kickoff in eight-straight games.
Ergo, I expect the trend to continue Saturday.
4. How will Tennessee’s running back rotation sort out?
With Jalen Hurd returning from his one-game absence, the Volunteers have a big decision to make at tailback. Who will get the lion’s share of carries/touches against ‘Bama? Alvin Kamara was electric in relief vs. Texas A&M, totaling more than 300 yards and 3 touchdowns. Sophomore John Kelly Jr. provided a spark, too, rushing for 89 yards and a touchdown in the first extended action of his career.
While Kamara is clearly the most dynamic threat of the bunch (and probably the best scheme fit, too) the guess here is Tennessee reverts back to Hurd as the team’s bellcow ‘back, hoping the junior’s physicality will prove the difference against the nation’s best run defense.
5. Will Tennessee upset Alabama, snapping a nine-game losing streak to its longtime rival?
The Volunteers haven’t knocked off a top-ranked team since 1985 (a 38-20 win over No. 1 Auburn and Bo Jackson). They’re too dinged to upset a humming Alabama team on Saturday. They’ll score more than 20 points in regulation vs. Bama for the first time since 2001 … but it won’t be enough.