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Initial Impressions from the Tennessee Game

The surprising Alabama defense dominates the potent Tennessee passing attack, while the 'Bama offense lights up the scoreboard in Knoxville.

Kevin C. Cox

Initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama’s 44-13 victory over Tennessee:

If the moment that the 2011 team made clear that they could be something truly special was the thrashing of Florida in Gainesville, that same kind of statement performance for the 2012 team could well have been last night in Knoxville. Yes, Tennessee is now 3-4 overall and Derek Dooley is clearly on the hot seat. Even so, they are a better team than the record indicates, and they matched up very well with Alabama, and despite that ‘Bama went on the road into a hostile environment and crushed the Vols – something Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi State did not do – without ever being challenged in the second half. ‘Bama will face tougher opponents in the next three weeks, but even so that was a very impressive overall performance against Tennessee.

The 44 points may turn much attention to the offense, but make no mistake: The defense led the way in Knoxville and as a unit they have surpassed all reasonable expectations. Despite the presumably poor match-up, the Alabama secondary held strong, and with the exception of a handful of big plays, dominated the Tennessee passing game in its base nickel defense. Tyler Bray hit passing plays of 25, 26, 41, and 44 yards, but outside of those four big completions went only 9-23 for 48 yards and two interceptions. With the exception of a few nice throws, Bray was effectively simmered down to the equivalent of Kiehl Frazier by the ‘Bama defense.

Most impressively of all was how the secondary limited Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Hunter did not catch a pass until the late third quarter, and after picking up 25 yards on his first reception of the game in the first quarter, Patterson did not catch another ball. Combined they posted only five receptions, and both were non-factors until garbage time deep into the second half. In the same tone, Zach Rogers did not catch a pass all night and Mychal Rivera only had one reception– which admittedly was a great play call and execution by Tennessee isolating him on a safety in the face of a double A-gap blitz. The leading receiver on the night for the Volunteers was tailback Marlin Lane, which speaks volumes for how limited the Tennessee passing game was.

Perhaps the key to it all last night was the strong performance of Deion Belue. Consider Knoxville the site of his coming out party, and in general his progression in recent weeks has solidified the defensive backfield. DeMarcus Milliner has played like an All-American all season, but Belue had some issues early as a JUCO transfer, and left many observers wondering how he would hold up down the stretch, but he calmed all such fears last night. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart isolated him in space opposite Hunter and Patterson on numerous occasions, but each time he answered the bell and largely contained the threat. His only mistake on the night was mental, when he was caught napping and allowed Hunter to get separation on a go route in the waning seconds of the first half, though Tennessee failed to take advantage of that misstep. Depth remains very thin at the position, but if Alabama can get this caliber of production at cornerback opposite Milliner, this will be an exceedingly stingy pass defense in the final two months.

Run defense did not have quite as much success, with tailbacks Marlin Lane and Devrin Young having some limited success on the ground and ‘Bama not necessarily making a lot of plays in the Tennessee backfield. Having said that, though, the emphasis last night was never really on stopping the run, and if Tennessee wanted to effectively waste a down running into the line of scrimmage for three or four yards, then so be it, 'Bama was more than happy to oblige them. As such, stopping the run really became something of a sideshow. The run defense’s time will come in two weeks in Baton Rouge, and we will see what they are made of then.

While the defense was busy controlling Tyler Bray and company, the ‘Bama offense essentially went about its business and dismantled the struggling Tennessee defense. Doug Nussmeier had perhaps his best coaching performance since the season opener against Michigan, and he did not hesitate to attack the weaknesses of the UT back seven. Crossing routes underneath consistently took advantage of the Tennessee linebackers’ inability to move laterally, and ‘Bama went through the entire route tree in attacking the badly struggling Volunteer cornerbacks. Blown assignments were a major issue in the Tennessee secondary, and on the whole it was just methodical destruction. Alabama went three-and-out twice, but ever other drive on the night resulted either in points or significant yardage gained, and in truth Tennessee only managed a stop when Alabama gave them an assist with a self-inflicted error.

Perhaps not best to heap too much praise on the offense, simply because you do not receive a great deal of credit for achieving success against such a bad defense. Having said that, though, they should be credited for effectively doing what they had to do. Given the surprising strength of the defense to date, including how well the defensive backfield played against the potent Tennessee passing game, this is not necessarily an offense that has to take the entire load on their shoulders. As long as the defense holds strong, the offense just needs to protect the football, run the ball reasonably well, and make enough plays in the passing game, and they did more than that last night.

The one real negative last night was the continued struggles on special teams, which is once again becoming a legitimate concern. Cade Foster missed two intermediate kicks, his kick-offs were routinely short and low, kick return defense continues to have coverage breakdowns, and AJ McCarron dropped a snap on a PAT. The only real bright spot on special teams for most of the night was the effectiveness of true freshman Cyrus Jones as a punt returner, except that Jones then proceeded to put a ball on the turf late in the second half. Though obviously not a fatal flaw last night, but winning a close game against a comparable opponent will be difficult with the caliber of special teams play seen the past two weekends.

In other quick hitters, this game largely answered the question of whether Alabama would use a third cornerback in the base defense (it won’t). Coming out parties for both Amari Cooper and Deion Belue. Interesting to see Blake Sims running the Wildcat in meaningful situations. Robert Lester dinged up his right ankle late, which could be something to keep your eye on next week. Kelly Johnson has inherited the fullback role in some short-yardage situations. True freshman Reggie Ragland is back on special teams and looks to be recovered from his ankle sprain. LaMichael Fanning did not make the trip to Knoxville, with what was presumably punishment for his belly-to-back body slam against Missouri. Not sure if Tennessee cornerback Justin Coleman has a day job, but if he does he would be well advised not to quit. The Big Three for UT disappointed, but the offensive line was as good as billed in pass protection. Senior class goes out undefeated at 5-0 against Tennessee. Three consecutive years that ‘Bama has beaten the Vols by 31 points. Not sure Alabama has ever had that may fans in Neyland Stadium.

On the whole, a very impressive performance last night in Knoxville. Alabama will face better opponents in the three weeks that follow, but that was arguably the single toughest pure match-up of the season, and despite that ‘Bama just laughed in the face of Tennessee and proceeded with the pummeling. Nevertheless, if ‘Bama expects to repeat as national champions, the margin of error is likely zero and the gauntlet run continues unabated next weekend against Mississippi State. Few things are better than smashing the Vols in Knoxville, of course, but the real battle is only just now beginning.