2024 Alabama Football Early Opponent Preview, Game 7: Tennessee

BamaCentral takes a long first look at each of the Crimson Tide's upcoming opponents this season with the Third Saturday in October up next.
Tennessee defensive back Doneiko Slaughter (0) looks down over Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (9) during Tennessee's game against Alabama in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

Kns Ut Bama Football Bp
Tennessee defensive back Doneiko Slaughter (0) looks down over Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (9) during Tennessee's game against Alabama in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. Kns Ut Bama Football Bp / Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA

The Third Saturday in October has awoken from its dormant state since Josh Heupel's arrival at Tennessee, bringing one of the SEC's premier rivalries back into the national spotlight after over a decade of irrelevance thanks to Nick Saban's dominance.

Alabama and Tennessee used to be appointment television for college football fans, that is, until Saban rattled off 16 straight victories in the series, the longest in the history of the rivalry.

Everything changed in 2022, as Heupel's second year in Knoxville not only brought one of the most dynamic offenses in college football, it brought one of the biggest wins in the history of Tennessee's program, a 52-49 shootout won by the Volunteers on a last-second field goal as time expired.

Images from the celebration that night in Neyland Stadium will remain in college football highlight reels for decades, as orange and white stormed the field, tore down the goal posts and hurled them into the nearby Tennessee River.

Since that game, Tennessee is no longer an afterthought on the Alabama football schedule. The Volunteers gave Alabama everything it could handle in Bryant-Denny Stadium last season, even holding a 20-7 lead at halftime that ultimately evaporated. Now, the Crimson Tide is staring another trip to Neyland Stadium in the face, its first time back in Knoxville since that infamous night in 2022.

So, let's dive in and take a look at what head coach Kalen DeBoer is going to have to face in his first game against Tennessee:

Offense

Tennessee took a step back offensively from 2022 to 2023, and a large part of that was due to the quarterback play dowgrade from Hendon Hooker to Joe Milton. Milton was fairly disappointing to say the least, but Tennessee fans are more than excited about next season's starting signal-caller after Milton's graduation.

Nico Iamaleava is set to take the reigns as Heupel's quarterback, a former 5-star with a 6-foot-6 build and a massive arm to go with it. He saw limited playing time last season, but did start in the bowl game, completing 12-of-19 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown in Tennessee's 35-0 routing of Iowa.

Iamaleava is inexperienced, but the talent he possesses is undeniable. If he's able to hit his potential, he could be the catalyst for Tennessee's offense returning to its 2022 levels of firepower in the passing game.

He'll have some very talented weapons around him as well. Leading receiver Squirrel White is back after an 800-yard season, and Bru McCoy, a 600-yard receiver in 2022, returns for a sixth year of college football after suffering a season-ending injury during September of last season. Heupel also brought in Tulane transfer receiver Chris Brazzell II, who posted a 44-reception, 711-yard, 5-touchdown line as a freshman for the Green Wave last season.

Three offensive linemen return, center Cooper Mays, guard Javonte Spraggins and tackle John Campbell Jr., while also adding LSU transfer Lance Heard, a former 5-star recruit, at the other tackle spot.

Tennessee's running game last year ranked No. 9 in the nation, and though it lost starting running back Jaylen Wright to the NFL, backup Dylan Sampson will step in as the starter after posting 600 rushing yards and leading the team with seven rushing touchdowns last season.

The Volunteers have the pieces to field a dynamic offense once again in 2024, and if Iamaleava is a hit, it could approach the levels of the 2022 squad that gave Alabama's secondary fits in Neyland Stadium. The matchup isn't until Week 8 of the season, so by then we should have a better idea of how successful this Tennessee offense is, and how weary the Crimson Tide should be of it.

Defense

Heupel's defenses have been consistently solid, but not elite throughout his tenure, and 2023 was another example of that. The team ranked No. 32 in total defense, No. 64 in pass defense and No. 19 in rush defense.

There's a very good chance that rush defense, which was one of the top units in the SEC, remains at the top of the pack as all four of Tennessee's returning starters on the defensive end come from the front seven.

Of those returning starters on the front line is edge rusher James Pearce, Tennessee's lone first team All-SEC player a year ago and undoubtedly one of the best returning defenders in all of college football. Next to Pearce, the Volunteers bring back starters in defensive tackles Omari Thomas and Bryson Eason, as well as linebacker Keenan Pili.

Pearce is a game breaker, and has become one of the most well-known names among returning defenders headed into the 2024 season. With the returning production Tennessee has up front, it should once again be a top defense against the rush.

The secondary is a bit more unproven, with no returning starters from last year's unit. Heupel brought in reinforcements via the transfer portal in Oregon State cornerback Jermod McCoy and Middle Tennessee State safety Jakobe Thomas, but the jury is still out on whether this unit will br improved from its No. 64 ranking as a pass defense last season.

Schedule

The expectation is that Alabama will have either one or zero losses entering the Third Saturday in October, depending on what the Crimson Tide does in its home date with Georgia in Week 5.

Tennessee has a few challenging games before it reaches Alabama, notably playing NC State in Charlotte in Week 2 and a road trip to new SEC foe Oklahoma in Week 4. Tennessee also has SEC games at Arkansas and vs Florida in the early part of the SEC schedule, but not much is expected out of those two teams.

If Tennessee is able to even get through the NC State and Oklahoma games at 1-1, it would set up for a monster matchup in Neyland Stadium on Oct. 19. If the Volunteers enter the game undefeated, which isn't at all out of the question, we could be getting an atmosphere that rivals the last time these two teams squared off in Knoxville.

Outlook

There's no doubt that this is going to be one of the most challenging games on Alabama's schedule.

If Iamaleava takes the steps Heupel and his staff expect, the Tennessee passing game could be a force to be reckoned with against a completely rebuilt and inexperienced Alabama secondary.

Combine that with the rejuvinated Volunteer fanbase eager to see another win against the Crimson Tide, and Neyland Stadium very well might be the most hostile environment Alabama plays in the entire season.

Early lines have Alabama as around a field goal favorite, and I similarly expect an extremely close game in Knoxville that goes down to the wire once again.

The Game

Date

October 19

Time

TBA (announced to be between 2:30 p.m. CT and 7 p.m. CT)

TV

TBA

Location

Neyland Stadium

Series History

Alabama leads, 59-39

Last Meeting

Alabama rallied from a 20-7 halftime deficit to beat Tennessee 34-20 at home last season, outscoring the Vols 27-0 in the second half.

The Team

Coach

Josh Heupel, fourth season, 27-12 record

Offensive Coordinator

Joey Halzle

Defensive Coordinator

Tim Banks

2023 Record

9-4 (4-4 SEC)

2023 Rankings

Total offense: No. 19; Total defense: No. 32

Returning Starters

9 (five on offense, four on defense)

Players to Watch

EDGE James Pearce, QB Nico Iamaleava, WR Squirrel White, WR Bru McCoy, DT Omari Thomas, DT Bryson Eason, RB Dylan Sampson

Top Newcomer

Tulane transfer wide receiver Chris Brazzell II is expected to be an immediate contributor in the passing game after posting over 700 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman last season.

Biggest Question

Will Nico Iamaleava be able to return the Volunteer offense to the same heights it saw in 2022 when Tennessee was a playoff contending team?

The School

Location

Knoxville, Tennessee

Founded

1794

Enrollment

24,957

Nickname

Volunteers

Colors

Orange and White

Mascot

Smokey

The Program

Last Time Beat Alabama

2022

Last Time Won SEC

1998

National Championships:

6 (1938, 1940, 1950, 1951, 1967, 1998)

Playoff Appearances

None

Conference Championships

16 (1914, 1927, 1932, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1946, 1951, 1956, 1967, 1969, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1997, 1998)

Bowl Record

30-25

Last Time Missed Bowl

2020

Heisman Trophies

None

2024 NFL Draft

  • RB Jaylen Wright, Dolphins, 4th round, 120th overall
  • QB Joe Milton, Patriots, 6th round, 193rd overall
  • DB Kamal Hadden, Chiefs, 6th round, 211th overall

Last Four Recruiting Class Rankings

No. 10 (2023), No. 17 (2022), No. 22 (2021), No. 11 (2020)

The Schedule

Aug. 31: Chattanooga
Sept. 7: vs NC State (Charlotte)
Sept. 14: Kent State
Sept. 21: at Oklahoma
Oct. 5: at Arkansas
Oct. 12: Florida
Oct. 19: Alabama
Nov. 2: Kentucky
Nov. 9: Mississippi State
Nov. 16: at Georgia
Nov. 23: UTEP
Nov. 30: at Vanderbilt


Published |Modified
Blake Byler

BLAKE BYLER

Blake Byler is a staff writer for BamaCentral and primarily covers Alabama basketball and football. He has covered a wide variety of Crimson Tide sports since 2021, and began writing full-time for BamaCentral in 2023. You can find him on Twitter/X @blakebyler45.