Why Alabama has the edge against Tennessee … and could still make the College Football Playoff

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Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe has improved greatly over the course of the season. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

There are eight undefeated teams at the top of the AP Top 25 rankings all vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Alabama is not among those teams. However, as the only one-loss contender in the SEC West, there’s a chance we still see the Crimson Tide in the SEC championship game. Not only can ‘Bama run the table for a spot in the SEC title game, but if they happen to defeat Georgia, the Tide would be in the playoff picture as well.

That exact scenario could come to fruition. The Tide are getting better each week and they have another chance to prove it Saturday when they face No. 17 Tennessee.

This is Tennessee’s second true road game; the first was a 29-16 loss at Florida. With three straight home games, the Vols have racked up 21 total sacks, 12th most in the country. What catches my attention: The Tennessee pass rush was able to produce just one sack in that loss to Florida. Gators quarterback Graham Mertz is one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the FBS and was pressured on just 26% of his dropbacks, completing 79% of his passes.

Jalen Milroe: a productive quarterback

Tennessee has had the privilege of playing at home. Through a one-game sample size, there’s at least some concern that the statistical strengths of Tennessee don’t translate on the road. If that’s the case, Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe should have a productive outing. As someone who had a Texas A&M underdog ticket, I was impressed with his play against the Aggies. Despite six sacks, Milroe still generated 321 passing yards and three touchdowns while being pressured on 36% of his dropbacks.

Milroe’s abilities are underrated. He’s graded second by Pro Football Focus for passing depth of 20 yards and beyond, behind only LSU’s Jayden Daniels. We saw his arm talent against the Aggies as he completed 67% of his passes of 20-plus yards with two touchdowns, including a 52-yard toss to receiver Isaiah Bond. The Alabama offense has had a run-heavy approach, but Milroe is proving that the Tide can indeed win with a passing game.

If the Vols fail to apply the pressure on the road, Milroe has been quite effective when kept clean, 67% completion with six touchdowns.

Tennessee offense is in trouble

Unlike Milroe, Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton has been less impressive. Against a suspect Aggies secondary, Milton finished 11 of 22 for 100 yards. The gameplan for the Alabama defense will be simple: Take away Milton’s rushing ability and test his passing ability. Things could get ugly quick. Milton has thrown three interceptions in his last two games. He’s thrown under 60% in three of his last four games.

MIlton ranks fourth worst in completion percentage (27.8%) when pressured, behind quarterbacks from Miami (OH), Kent State and UMass, with six turnover-worthy plays (tied for sixth-most).

Turnovers are possible with Milton against the Alabama defense, as they’ve forced seven on the season while grading out as the seventh-best pass rush in all of college football. Alabama and Tennessee have similar defensive fronts, with roughly 140 total pressures and 26 sacks combined.

The key will be which quarterback can handle the pressure better, exploit the opposing secondary and make plays through the air if the run game is stopped. Based on recent performance, the edge goes to Milroe. He’s been consistent, accurate with the deep ball and stronger with ball protection.

Alabama is the most complete team Tennessee has faced, both on offense and defense. With an inaccurate passer in Milton in a raucous road environment, look for Alabama to win and cover the 9.5-point spread before its bye.

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