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Tennessee freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey played during the fourth quarter of last Saturday's 34-7 loss to Kentucky. Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt is evaluating that position this week after starter Jarrett Guaranrano struggled. / Contributed photo by Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

The "We led Georgia at halftime and Alabama didn't" T-shirts aren't exactly flying off the shelves in Knoxville this week.

As Saturday's colorful and historical football rivalry between Tennessee and the No. 2 Crimson Tide inside Neyland Stadium approaches, it's hard to find any edge for the home team, especially with this season's socially distanced crowds. Alabama is coming off a 41-24 thumping of No. 3 Georgia in which the Crimson Tide closed on a 24-0 surge, while Tennessee is coming off a 34-7 home loss to Kentucky in which the Wildcats scored the final 17 points.

Tennessee showed tangible improvement last year in Jeremy Pruitt's second season, going 8-5 and taking Alabama into the fourth quarter in Tuscaloosa, but has that improvement continued this season?

"Absolutely," Pruitt said Monday afternoon during his weekly Zoom news conference. "If you look at where we were when we got here and where we are right now — I understand in this business that everything is based off wins and losses, which is what counts, right? Unfortunately we got beat last week and got beat soundly by a good football team, but if you look at the last six quarters and the seven turnovers in the last six quarters, it doesn't matter who you play. You're not going to have a chance.

"In the first two games and in the first half against Georgia, we took care of the ball. In the last six quarters, we have not, and our margin of error is not big enough to overcome those situations."

Tennessee did reel off 10 mostly impressive quarters to start the season, winning 31-27 at South Carolina before hammering Missouri 35-12 and then taking a 21-17 halftime lead at Georgia. The Vols played turnover-free during that stretch, but their barrage of miscues since has resulted in them getting outscored 61-7 by the Bulldogs and Wildcats.

Alabama counterpart Nick Saban also was asked Monday about whether Tennessee was still improving and offered a similar response.

"I think they have made progress," Saban said. "When you look how a team does down-in and down-out and how their players play — they're playing with a lot of effort and toughness, and they're very well-coached. They're in the right spots, but when you turn the ball over in this game — I don't care if it's us or them or whoever it is, it's really hard to overcome.

"We do a little chart every week and show our players the record of every team in the country that's plus-three, plus-two, minus-three, minus-two in turnovers, and all you have to do is look at it. It's very telling the impact that turnovers have on the game. That's been their issue. It's not the rest of their team and how they're capable of playing or the progress they've made. It's just taking care of the ball."

Saban's Crimson Tide have won 13 straight series matchups, including 11 by double-digit margins. Their last two trips to Neyland Stadium have resulted in a 49-10 drubbing in 2016 and a 58-21 whipping two years ago.

Alabama and Tennessee seem miles apart at quarterback this week as well.

Crimson Tide redshirt junior Mac Jones was named Southeastern Conference offensive player of the week Monday after completing 24 of 32 passes against the Bulldogs for 417 yards and four touchdowns. Jones averaged 17.4 yards per completion.

Tennessee fifth-year senior Jarrett Guarantano, however, threw two interceptions for touchdowns against Kentucky and was briefly replaced by redshirt sophomore J.T. Shrout. Pruitt said Monday that the quarterbacks are being evaluated this week and certainly did not sound like someone who is ready to bail on Guarantano.

"Jarrett didn't play his best game, but there are other guys who didn't play their best game, too," Pruitt said. "He's going to have to go out here and earn it in practice just like everybody else. Am I wanting to put Jarrett Guarantano on the shelf? No, absolutely not. I think the guy has a lot of really good qualities about him. He's helped us win a lot of football games. Did he make a few mistakes, Saturday? Sure he did, but I think everybody on our football team and organization all could have done better, starting with me.

"This isn't about one person. It is about everybody within our program, and everybody within our program understands that."

When asked about freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey, who saw his first action of the season during Saturday's fourth quarter, Pruitt said, "We just called plays that we knew he would know."

That Tennessee is no longer set in stone at quarterback is not affecting Alabama's preparation.

"They do a lot of different things on offense, and that will be challenging for our defense to make the adjustments they need to make in this game," Saban said. "We don't have enough evidence to know what they would change, what they do if they played somebody different at quarterback, so we can't prepare any different."

 

Odds and ends

Alabama led its rivalry with Tennessee 44-38-7 before Saban's arrival, and it's now 57-38-7 ... Crimson Tide left tackle Alex Leatherwood didn't have any missed assignments against Georgia ... Pruitt is hopeful of having offensive linemen Jerome Carvin and Wanya Morris this week.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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