KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee believes it has regained its status as one of the Southeastern Conference's top programs.
An opportunity for the Volunteers to prove that comes Saturday.
No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0) puts an 18-game winning streak on the line when it heads to Neyland Stadium to face the ninth-ranked Vols (5-1, 2-1). Tennessee is seeking to end a nine-game losing streak in this annual series and a 12-game skid against all SEC Western Division programs.
''In the previous years, we didn't really know how we'd do against the premier SEC teams, but now we see ourselves as one of the premier SEC teams,'' Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. ''With that being said, we know we can play with anybody.''
Tennessee's most recent meeting with Alabama gives the Vols cause for confidence.
The Vols led in the fourth quarter at Tuscaloosa last season before falling 19-14 to the eventual national champions. Only one of Alabama's previous eight victories over Tennessee in this nine-game streak had been decided by fewer than 14 points.
''The skill players that they have make them very difficult to defend, and I think they have gotten better each year on defense,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ''Certainly their defense has played a lot better this year and has been very, very difficult to defend. This is a very, very good team, for sure a top-10 team in the country, and it's going to be a very challenging game for us.''
This marks Tennessee's fourth straight game against a ranked foe. Tennessee also is dealing with multiple injuries, including the losses of defensive captains Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton.
That helps explain why Alabama enters this game as a 13-point favorite.
Vols coach Butch Jones calls this the best Alabama squad he has faced in his four-year tenure, but he also says this is his most confident Tennessee team.
''They don't care who the opponent is,'' Jones said. ''They feel like we're the University of Tennessee. Do we have great respect for our opponents? Absolutely. Do our players understand what's at store on Saturday? Absolutely.
''This is a monumental challenge, again, with the No. 1 team in the country. All you have to do is watch (Alabama's) video... and they get instant respect, which they deserve. But it's something that we've talked about in our program since we've come here. Why not Tennessee?''
Here are some things to watch Saturday when Tennessee hosts Alabama.
BAMA ON THE ROAD: Alabama's first two SEC road games had the common denominator of inconsistency. The Tide fell way behind in a 48-43 victory at Mississippi and jumped out far ahead of Arkansas before letting off the gas some in the second half of a 49-30 triumph . ''We've played very well at times both the road games that we've had in the SEC,'' Saban said. ''And then we've had some not so good times in those same games. I think the big thing is you can't relax when you're on the road.''
TENNESSEE'S TURNOVER TROUBLE: Tennessee has fumbled 21 times this season, the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision program. The Vols have lost eight of those fumbles and have a total of 16 turnovers. Kansas, Duke and Bowling Green are the only FBS teams that have committed more turnovers. Tennessee must protect the football against Alabama, which has scored an FBS-leading seven defensive touchdowns .
VOLS' BACKFIELD: Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd is expected to play Saturday after missing a double-overtime 45-38 loss at Texas A&M last week due to an unspecified injury. The Vols must figure out how to divide carries between Hurd and Alvin Kamara, who had a school-record 312 all-purpose yards last week.
INTRIGUING MATCHUP: Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson is expected to spend much of the day blocking Tennessee's Derek Barnett, who has five sacks over his last three games. Both players are considered potential first-round draft picks.
ANOTHER SLOW START? Tennessee has been outscored 62-17 in the first quarter and has trailed by double digits in five of its first six games. The Vols came all the way back in each of those games - they lost to Texas A&M in overtime after erasing a 28-7 deficit - but they likely can't afford to fall too far behind against a team as strong as Alabama.
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.
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