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UT quarterback Justin Worley carries the ball as UTC's Josh Freeman approaches Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

NO. 4 ALABAMA (6-1, 3-1 SEC) AT TENNESSEE (3-4, 0-3)

7:30 p.m. * Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn. * ESPN2, 106.5 FM

THE MATCHUP

Which version of its offense did Alabama pack for its trip to Knoxville? Tennessee certainly hopes its the one the Crimson Tide took to Ole Miss (396 yards in a 24-17 loss) or Arkansas (227 yards in a 14-13 win). Alabama racked up at least 538 yards in every other game it's played this season, including 600-yard outings at Bryant-Denny Stadium against Florida Atlantic, Florida and Texas A&M.

With the injury issues on offense, the Vols will need to rely on their defense even more. Tennessee had five sacks and 10 tackles for loss at Ole Miss, and it'll need that and some turnovers tonight.

"This is a really good defensive team, very attacking, very aggressive and they create some problems and negative plays for you," Tide coach Nick Saban said.

"If you get behind in down-and-distance on them, that plays into their hands. They do a really, really good job on third down, one of the best third down teams in the country."

ONE TO WATCH

Jacob Gilliam probably doesn't know exactly how many plays he'll be able to handle, and chances are he'll get beat for a sack against Alabama's improving defensive line. Still, the Tennessee offensive tackle, who likely will start in the place of injured freshman Coleman Thomas, deserves kudos and respect for gutting it out and playing despite a torn ACL he suffered just eight weeks ago during his first start after four long years as a walk-on.

Gilliam said this week he is throwing caution to the wind in risking even more damage to his knee, but he's been practicing for a few weeks now and returned to action at Ole Miss last week.

"I'm on a bit of borrowed time, but I feel like every senior is," he said. "Everybody's got so many games their senior year, and you're always fighting for that bowl game. I feel like I've got a second chance out there, and I'm going to make the most of it."

IN THE END

This is the 11th ranked opponent Butch Jones will face in his first 20 games as Tennessee's coach, so the Vols may see a light at the end of the tunnel with four unranked SEC East teams on the other side of the Tide. After a couple of hiccups, Alabama looked like a vintage Tide team in crushing Texas A&M 59-0 last week. With games against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn remaining, Alabama still is playing to stake its claim to a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The Vols would have tough enough a time with Alabama at full strength, but they're not there and could be even more shorthanded on offense. Tennessee would need a special performance from its defense and an unexpected one from somebody on offense to end Alabama's seven-year streak in the series.

PREDICTION: ALABAMA 23, TENNESSEE 6

KNOXVILLE - Will he or won't he?

Tennessee's quarterback question will have its answer soon enough.

The status of starter Justin Worley for tonight's visit from fourth-ranked Alabama remains a mystery as the Volunteers coaches remain publicly coy about the health of their beaten-up senior. Tennessee could turn to both of its backups if Worley, who landed awkwardly on his shoulder in the fourth quarter against Ole Miss last week, is unable to face the Crimson Tide.

In his last public comments on the issue Thursday evening, Vols coach Butch Jones said again that Worley's status was up in the air, but it didn't necessarily sound good for his prospects of playing.

"We'll know a little bit more probably later today and into tomorrow," Jones told WGFX on his weekly appearance on the Nashville radio station. "He has taken some shots, and I believe it's a cumulative effect, not just from Ole Miss, but a very, very long season. He's meeting with our doctors again to see exactly where he's at and how we move forward.

"That's kind of an ongoing process right now with our doctors," he added, "and if he's able to go and be effective, then he'll play. If not, then we'll move on, and that's part of football. He has been on the practice field a little bit this week, so we'll see where this leads us to."

Both Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs have had increases in first-team work in practice this week, and Jones indicated both would play if Worley is too hurt to play.

When Jones elected to go with Peterman at Florida last season, the announcement came in the hours leading up to kickoff.

"We try to get both Nate and Josh throughout the course of the season very, very premium reps and very important reps throughout practice," Jones told WGFX. "It's a very long season, and as we've become accustomed to, you need more than one quarterback, especially in this conference. They've taken some valuable repetitions over time.

"If Justin isn't able to go, then they'll be ready to step up. We'd play both quarterbacks if Justin doesn't go on Saturday."

It's a daunting situation for whoever is playing quarterback.

Alabama ranks second in the SEC in scoring defense (13.1 points per game) and second in total defense (262.1 yards per game), behind an Ole Miss unit that last week held the Vols to three points, 191 yards of offense and zero net rushing yards and sacked Worley seven times.

The Vols figure to be down at least one and possibly two starting offensive linemen with right tackle Coleman Thomas (ankle) not expected to play and left guard Marcus Jackson (leg) questionable after he was hobbled in limited practice work this week.

The situation is so bleak that the Vols will replace a freshman former high school center playing tackle, Thomas, with a former walk-on who tore his ACL only eight weeks ago. That is Jacob Gilliam, the Knoxville native who decided to tough it out.

Redshirt freshman tackle Brett Kendrick also could see an uptick in his playing time.

"The results aren't what we want, but you know what, there's got to be a reality check for all of us at times," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "Here's the part about last week: It was not acceptable. It wasn't good at all. But our communication's better than it's ever been in an environment such as that.

"We got physically whipped on some things. We didn't just have outright flat-out missed assignments where guys came free. We had some physical things that there's got to be improvement built on as we move forward, and that's how it's gone. It's easy to come in and work, especially at a place like this. Those guys, we're going to find a way."

Both Peterman and Dobbs are better runners than Worley, but there's a reason the Vols tabbed him their starter after only a couple weeks of preseason practice.

Peterman bounced back from the disastrous start at Florida and ensuing thumb injury in 2013 to win the backup job, but the three possessions he led at Georgia when he came off the bench with Worley nursing an elbow injury ended in a fumble and two punts.

Dobbs made his debut in the second half at Alabama last season and started the season's final four games, during which he threw two touchdowns and six interceptions and ran 189 yards. He appeared to be taking a redshirt season after struggling with his accuracy in preseason practice.

"Those guys are doing a good job," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said after Wednesday's practice. "We always stress to all of our players -- quarterbacks obviously included -- to prepare as if you're the starter.

"The approach never changes for them."

Their roles soon might.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

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