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Drawing by Mark Wiedmer for UT vs. Alabama game.

KNOXVILLE — Under Nick Saban, the Alabama machine is the gold standard of college football, the benchmark by which many top-flight programs and the Crimson Tide's Southeastern Conference rivals judge themselves.

For Tennessee, the Alabama comparison is one of the many methods of measurement showing the obvious progress the Volunteers have made under Butch Jones.

Alabama and Tennessee face off Saturday as top-10 teams for the first time since 2005, and though the Tide are two-touchdown favorites against the shorthanded Vols, Tennessee has closed the gap on its Third Saturday in October rival.

"It's what we expected to do when we came here," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "Guys like me, Jalen (Reeves-Maybin), Cam (Sutton) — that was the goal, getting Tennessee back to where it should be. We're top 10, and we feel like we definitely can play a lot better and we can continue to grow and continue to improve as a team.

"It's definitely great to see the strides that we've made over the time that we've been here, and now our mindset is we still want to finish strong."

While leading Alabama to four national championships in the past seven seasons, Saban also guided the Tide to a nine-game winning streak against Tennessee.

Prior to last season, when Alabama answered Tennessee's fourth-quarter score with Derrick Henry's late touchdown to win 19-14, only the 2009 meeting was decided by fewer than 20 points.

Each of Derek Dooley's three defeats to Alabama as Tennessee's coach was by 31 points. Jones lost his first meeting with Alabama in 2013 — when Dobbs made his debut as a freshman — by 35 points, and in 2014 the Tide won by two touchdowns after racing to a 27-0 lead.

Until the Vols drastically improved their talent and depth levels, they could not expect to compete with college football's best.

"I think in the previous years we didn't really know how we would do against the premier SEC teams, but now we see ourselves as one of the premier SEC teams," safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. "We know we can play with anybody. We went head to head and squared up with a top-10 team in Texas A&M down in Texas at College Station.

"Having the game in Neyland Stadium and playing the No. 1 team in the country, we have a lot of confidence if we play our style of football, then we know we'll always have a chance of winning the ballgame."

Coaches and players at Tennessee long have been measured by how they perform in games against the program's primary rivals, and Jones indicated this week that he believed Alabama was the Vols' top rival.

"This game means a lot to a lot of individuals," Jones said. "Former players, our players, donors, boosters, fans, administration — it means a lot. The thing at Tennessee is we've developed a program where we do have a few rivals. All I can speak on is the Alabama rivalry because it's this week. I understand the tradition and the passion that goes along with it.

"When I took the job, you asked me about that, and I said we have to get back to making all of our rivalry games relevant."

The Vols already beat Florida and Georgia this season, but beating Alabama would require a perfect performance from a team decimated by injuries.

"I would say one of the most resilient teams, just because of all the things that they've been through already in a relative short time," Jones said. "What I've seen is a never-quit mentality. They don't flinch. They don't blink. They don't get too emotional when things happen. They've just kind of stayed the course, and that's been great to see.

"The way they've approached each and every week, we're going to need that more. The more you win, the more that's at stake. That's what we've been talking to them about, because they're in a situation right now and position — none of our players have been in this situation. Tennessee football hasn't been in this situation in a long time.

"What do you, you take it one day at a time and you work to be 1-0 each and every week. In terms of their competitive character, their grit, their approach day in and day out — it's been great to coach."

Since going 10-3 in 2010, Alabama has lost just seven games and enters the 99th meeting between the two traditional rivals on an 18-game winning streak, but Tennessee believes it's capable of handing Alabama one of its rare defeats.

"There's been a lot of change and a lot of positive growth as a program," Dobbs said. "Obviously we see it with the results, and our goal is to continue to grow and continue to improve. It's crazy to look back at how far we've come in just two years, and we definitely can continue to improve moving forward."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

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