David didn't drop the rock when trying to slay Goliath. The Tennessee Volunteers did -- in one case, literally -- in a 44-13 mistake-riddled loss to top-ranked Alabama on Saturday night. Justin Hunter dropped a potentially momentum-swinging touchdown pass just before halftime, and the Crimson Tide's elite athletes and championship depth made sure the Vols paid for the mistake afterward. Bama rode 21 consecutive points in a second-half stretch to win its sixth consecutive game against Tennessee and send the Vols below .500. Derek Dooley, meanwhile, remains in a precarious position of having to either win out or lose just one more down the stretch to make a case for his job. Last week was unacceptable. Tonight was just embarrassing.
If UT fans weren't familiar with Cooper before Saturday, they are now. The freshman entered Neyland as Alabama's leading receiver. His numbers, though, a modest 21 receptions for 263 yards and three touchdowns, weren't exactly eye-popping. Then he played the UT secondary. Cooper reeled in a career-high 162 yards on seven catches and scored two touchdowns. He would have had a third score if not for an uncharacteristic Alabama illegal formation penalty. "It was just technique issues that broke down on those deep plays he was catching," Moore said. "It wasn't anything he did special."
"He's had some big plays all year long," UA coach Nick Saban said. "We think he's an outstanding player. He's gotten better and better every week. He really has learned to be really consistent in how he plays. He plays fast and he plays hard." McCarron-to-Cooper is quickly becoming one of the biggest weapons for an Alabama offense that set a school record Saturday with 33 or more points in seven straight games. "He's awesome," McCarron said. "It doesn't surprise me one bit. He can be as good as he wants to be. As long as he keeps working and keeps putting forth the effort, the sky's the limit for that kid."
But there was more to this victory than Cooper and McCarron. Freshman T.J. Yeldon ran for 129 yards and two touchdowns and now has rushed for at least 100 yards in three of his seven games. Alabama compiled 539 total yards and held Tennessee to 282 – 200 yards below its average. "They break the line, and they do that to everybody," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said after his team fell to 3-4 (0-4 in the SEC). "We just joined the ranks of the rest of the country."
The Tennessee Volunteers were in a hurry Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, and at times the University of Alabama had trouble slowing them down. The Crimson Tide's defense came in ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense, scoring defense, pass defense and rushing defense, but Tennessee was able to exploit its fast-paced no-huddle offense to gash UA for some big gains and even sustain a few drives. While Tennessee didn't copy the warp-speed no-huddle offense Ole Miss utilized with some degree of success a few weeks prior - Tennessee has operated its offense that way all season - it showed again that Alabama has at least some vulnerability to that approach.
Although the UA defense was largely successful in defending Bray, it wasn't without its rougher moments. Bray connected with Cordarrelle Patterson, Marlin Lane, Mychal Rivera and Justin Hunter for completions of 25, 26, 41 and 44 yards, respectively. UA coach Nick Saban said the key for his defenders was to not allow one big play by Tennessee to follow another. "One of our musts coming into this game was that we would have to play the next play," Saban said. "They have so many big play capabilities, and they've made so many big plays all year long, we kept telling our guys 'You've got to have resiliency, because they're going to make some plays in the game some kind of way, with the two wide outs they've got and the quarterback's ability to throw the ball down the field.'"
"We came in with a game plan. We executed it," he said Saturday night after a 44-13 victory over Tennessee. "We like to impose our will on our opponents, and we feel we did that to the best of our abilities. "It was just the regular Alabama game plan. Play physical, play tough, play smart. We feel like if we do those three games, we’ll win any game we play."
"Everybody's got to understand that we're going to take what the defense gives us," McCarron said. "One week we might have to run it, the next week we might have to throw it. Tonight, I felt like we got them on their heels and we were able to do both."
Alabama’s seniors never experienced a loss to Tennessee. "It’s unbelievable," linebacker Nico Johnson said after a 44-13 victory Saturday. "Being able to come to the university and being here four years and being 4-0 against a team that’s a rivalry like ours, it feels real good."
Tennessee’s offense found little success against the Tide’s defense, which entered the game leading the nation in every major statistical category. Alabama suffocated the Vols’ attack and held them to 200 yards and 35 points below their season average. "I’m really disappointed we didn’t execute better on offense," Dooley said. "That’s probably the thing I was a little surprised at. That’s not to take anything away from Alabama. "Nobody’s really done much on them, but we thought we’d measure up pretty good."
Previous games were mere tuneups for what lies ahead. Now, Alabama’s true tests come, and the difference between the SEC and more lies within the next two weeks. Heading into Saturday, questions still remained. Alabama did a great job of answering them. Everyone harped on Alabama’s passing. On Saturday, quarterback AJ McCarron couldn’t throw it enough, as he passed for a career-high 306 yards and had four touchdowns on 17-of-22 passing. People wondered how Alabama’s secondary would fare against a talented passing game. It shined, as Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson were targeted 14 times but combined for five catches for 95 yards and no touchdowns. Tyler Bray threw for just 184 yards and two interceptions.
The UA secondary -- the one that lost three of four starters to the NFL from a year ago -- stood up to the challenge. Vols quarterback Tyler Bray, who came into the weekend 16th in the country with 288 passing yards per game, threw for just 184 yards. His two interceptions all but extinguished any chance of hanging with Alabama through four quarters. "It was their big moment," said UA linebacker Nico Johnson, describing a secondary that's played with a chip the size of Rocky Top on its shoulder all season. "All they heard was they weren't going to be good enough because we lost Mark Barron, we lost Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie and all them. So, they took it among themselves to be accountable to their job. That's what they're doing. They're showing what they can do and what they're able to do out here on the field. I think each week they've proven it."
Free safety Byron Moore, trailing the play by 10 yards, had a front row seat for Amari Cooper's first touchdown. Cornerback Justin Coleman, splashing onto the grass, fell down running stride-for-stride with Cooper on his second touchdown. Another game, more blown assignments and missed tackles. Bama's McCarron threw for a career-high 306 yards.
"I think Tennessee’s team really played hard," Saban said. "I think that Derek is doing a fantastic job. They have been better and better every year that we’ve played them. We were fortunate today that our defense played well enough to keep their high-powered offense to just 13 points."
"Well, to some degree they're right," he said after a 44-13 victory at Tennessee. "We haven't played anyone ranked really high. "We've got that coming up. We've got three games in a row here with three really good teams. We'll certainly be tested. I think we'll be up to the challenge."
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: The junior had a career night against the Vols. People wondered if he could throw the ball in key situations when asked to, and he definitely delivered with his career-high 306 yards on 17-of-22 passing. He also threw four touchdowns. He had a lot of help from his fantastic offensive line, but thanks to McCarron's arm, 12 of Alabama's 23 first downs came on passing plays. McCarron was both a game manager and a playmaker Saturday. Oh, and the knee is fine.
"We just kept grinding and grinding," Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters. "We squandered a few opportunities at times, but I think the key to the drill was just keep playing and play the next play. Compete and be relentless in how you do it."
That Alabama's offense would have success was a given considering both the Crimson Tide's precision and the ineptitude of the Volunteers' defense. Sure enough, the Tide rolled up 539 yards (the third of four SEC foes to gain more than 500 against UT), led by quarterback AJ McCarron's career-high 306 yards and four touchdowns, while Amari Cooper set a freshman record for Alabama with seven catches for 162 yards and two TDs. So the Vols' chances of threatening Alabama, or even possibly giving embattled coach Derek Dooley a badly needed signature win, rested in the hands of Tennessee's offense. Facing an Alabama defense that came in giving up just 1.8 yards per rush and 55.3 rushing yards a game and a total of five touchdowns and one field goal, falling behind early meant certain defeat. And that's the script the game followed.
Tennessee didn't break any losing streaks, but it did break a trend Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. This time, the offense and defense were almost equal partners. And that's not a compliment. No. 1 Alabama took advantage of both in a 44-13 victory that extended Tennessee's SEC losing streak to five, including four this season. The Vols, who are 3-4 overall, also continued their losing ways against Alabama, which won its sixth consecutive game in the series while chasing the majority of Tennessee fans home by the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. By then, UT fans had figured out that their offense was almost as lacking as their defense — a scary development in that the defense is already regarded as one of the worst in school history.
"It was a great win for the University of Alabama," Saban said. "It’s still a big rivalry to us. It’s still a big game to all of us and all of our fans. Tennessee is getting better and better every year we play them, and Derek (Dooley) is doing a great job."
It's time for Jimmy Haslam to rescue the rest of the Southeastern Conference from Alabama and its maniacal genius of a football coach, Nick Saban. I say this after the top-ranked Crimson Tide's 44-13 shellacking of Tennessee on Saturday night inside a Neyland Stadium where the Haslam family owns at least a couple of luxury boxes. And just in case you missed it, Haslam also now owns the NFL's Cleveland Browns, which he agreed to purchase in August for $1 billion. No NFL team needs to improve more than the Browns, which is where Haslam can endear himself to the entire SEC that doesn't cheer for Alabama simply by hiring Saban as his head coach, general manager, president or doorman, whatever permanently gets him the heck out of Tuscaloosa.
We got whipped by a great football team, in about every phase,’’ UT coach Derek Dooley said. Dooley returned to the sideline after one game in the coaching booth as he continues to recover from hip surgery. Whether his team can recover from a three-game losing streak remains to be seen, "It’s disappointing we couldn’t go four quarters with these guys,’’ Dooley said. "We thought we could.’’
Tyler Bray's started 2012 started with eye-popping numbers and a hope that this could be a season filled with defining moments that might propel him into the nation's elite quarterbacks. In four frustrating SEC losses, there have been defining moments, but not the kind Tennessee anticipated. Bray couldn't shake a "jumpy" start in Tennessee's 44-13 loss to Alabama Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. He finished 13 for 27 for 184 yards and had two interceptions and no touchdowns. After a long wait, a media relations representative announced that Bray would not be meeting with reporters as he had after every game this year. "Our quarterback didn't play well," said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley. "I'm not sure why."
While there is still myriad uncertainty as it pertains to several aspects of the 2012 season, one thing crystallized itself in Week 8: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Florida and No. 4 Kansas State are head and shoulders above anyone else in the nation this season, and any combination of the two could very well find themselves in Miami vying for the right to hoist the crystal at season’s end. In the games involving those teams this weekend, the undisputed top four teams in the country rambled over, around and through their opponents by a combined score of 186-59. While it appears in the here and now clear how this quartet stacks up against the rest of the college football world, the final few weeks are fraught with potential scheduling landmines