- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Lane Kiffin factor has added intrigue to the increasingly lopsided Alabama-Tennessee rivalry.
Kiffin, who coached Tennessee in 2009 before leaving for Southern California, is back in the Southeastern Conference this season as Alabama's offensive coordinator. Kiffin's presence has made Saturday's matchup a much-anticipated moment for Tennessee's fans, though both teams have downplayed the impact his return to Neyland Stadium will have on the game itself.
Nobody on Tennessee's current roster ever played for Kiffin. Tennessee coach Butch Jones says he has never even met Kiffin.
"The game means everything to our football program and our fans because it is the University of Alabama — not because it is Lane Kiffin," Jones said.
Rather than using Kiffin's return as a revenge motive, the Vols simply want to make this series competitive again. No. 4 Alabama (6-1, 3-1 SEC) has won its last seven meetings with Tennessee (3-4, 0-3) by an average margin of 24.9 points. Each of the last four games in this series has been decided by at least 31 points.
Both teams have said the recent results haven't diminished the meaning of this rivalry.
"You ask, a lot of old people around here know that's the biggest game of the year," Alabama safety Nick Perry said. "Five, 10 years from now people are going to ask what's my record against Tennessee. Hopefully I can say 4-0 or 5-0."
While Tennessee is attempting to boost an offense that hasn't scored a touchdown in its last two SEC games, Alabama is seeking to keep its playoff hopes alive and build on the momentum it established last week in a 59-0 blowout of Texas A&M. That game featured three touchdown passes and one touchdown run from Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, who strongly considered going to Tennessee when Kiffin was still coaching the Vols.
"If he didn't go to USC, that's where I would have" gone, Sims said.
Here are some things to watch Saturday when Alabama plays at Tennessee:
VOLS' QB UNCERTAINTY: The accumulation of hits that Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley has taken this season could prevent him from playing against Alabama. Worley was knocked out of last week's 34-3 loss to No. 3 Ole Miss, and his status for Saturday's game has been uncertain all week. Jones has indicated he might play both Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs at quarterback if Worley is unavailable.
THIRD DOWN: Alabama has converted 53 percent of its third-down opportunities to rank third among all Football Bowl Subdivision programs in that category. Tennessee ranks eighth nationally in third-down defense. Tennessee is allowing opponents to convert just 28 percent of their third-down situations.
HOME vs. ROAD: Alabama hasn't been the same team away from home this season. Alabama has won all four of its home games by an average margin of 40.3 points. Alabama's 2-1 away from home (including one neutral-site game), and one of those victories was a one-point decision at Arkansas. This game represents a chance for Alabama to prove it can deliver a dominant road performance.
GILLIAM'S COMEBACK: Tennessee offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam, who tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in a season-opening victory over Utah State, could return to the starting lineup Saturday in one of college football's most remarkable comebacks this season. Gilliam, who hasn't undergone surgery yet, returned to action in a reserve role last week. Starting right tackle Coleman Thomas sprained his ankle at Ole Miss and probably won't be able to play against Alabama. Gilliam is the most likely replacement. "I feel like I've got a second chance out there, and I'm going to make the most of it," Gilliam said.
RUSHING DISPARITY: Alabama is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has one of the nation's most dynamic running-back combinations in T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, who have combined for 1,018 yards rushing. Tennessee is gaining just 2.6 yards per rush - the lowest average in the SEC - and hasn't been able to help out freshman Jalen Hurd. Although Hurd has rushed for 414 yards, nobody else on the team has run for more than 160 yards.
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.