KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee Volunteers will become the second football team this season to face both of the Southeastern Conference's national title contenders when they play this afternoon at top-ranked Alabama, which is favored to win by five touchdowns.
Vanderbilt also had the displeasure of playing both Alabama and Georgia, falling 59-0 to Alabama and 45-14 to the Bulldogs, and this week Commodores coach Derek Mason said he thinks Alabama (7-0, 4-0) is better than third-ranked Georgia (7-0, 4-0).
The Vols (3-3, 0-3) soon will have the chance to make their own assessments, but they are bracing for a challenge similar to the one they faced in a 41-0 home loss to the Bulldogs three weeks ago. CBS will televise the 3:30 p.m. game.
"A couple weeks ago I commented on the depth of the running backs group at Georgia," Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said this week. "Well, this group is every bit as deep as that."
Alabama running backs Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris and Najee Harris have each sustained an average of 5 yards per rush or better this season while carrying the football more than 40 times apiece. Damien Harris's rushing average of 9.2 yards and his nine touchdowns stand out above the rest.
"You could do a survey of the defensive staff room, and probably each of us has a different favorite guy," Shoop said. "Harris is as much improved as anybody in the country."
Alabama ranks first in the SEC in total yards per game (485) and rushing yards per game (303).
"Then, oh yeah, they've got a quarterback that runs as well as any running back that you play against as well," Shoop said.
Sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts is "a defensive coordinator's nightmare" because of his ability to run the football, Shoop said. Hurt's dual-threat prowess differentiates the Alabama offense from Georgia's, which is led by freshman pocket passer Jake Fromm.
Hurts is Alabama's second-leading rusher with 558 yards and six touchdowns on the ground in addition to his 1,025 passing yards and eight touchdowns through the air.
"When it's third down and you feel like you've got the play covered and you've done everything right and your rush lane integrity breaks down just a little bit, he has the ability to make plays with both his arm and his feet, and he does an excellent job with that," Shoop said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and their group."
The Vols spoke respectfully of their opponent this week without showering the Tide with too much adulation.
"Alabama is a great team, and it's a team that, obviously, there is a rivalry there," Tennessee sophomore receiver Brandon Johnson said. "But we're not going to approach this week any different than we would any other week. We're just going to approach it like we would any SEC or any other opponent and just go out there and play our best."
Tennessee has the Bulldogs to thank for giving them a taste of what to expect.
"Everybody knows they have a stable of running backs. They have a good offensive line," linebacker Quart'e Sapp said. "Like I said, their running backs, they roll them in and out like Georgia."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.