"Sometimes, you just have to let the horse run..." - Nick Saban
For a legion of Alabama fans debating the struggles of the Alabama football program in back-to-back weeks (first in a loss to Ole Miss and then in a one-point victory over unranked Arkansas), the Crimson Tide's performance against Texas A&M was a cool spring for the thirsty, a roasted flagon of beef for the emaciated.
Alabama was explosive. They were dominant. They won nearly every play of the game. They competed the way Bama fans have come to expect from Nick Saban-coached teams during his tenure in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide, quite simply, looked as good as it has in the last two years against the struggling Aggies and their supposed lightning-strike offensive attack.
In the wake of the devastation, Alabama vaulted back into the college football playoff conversation, establishing itself as a contender once again in the eyes of the faithful and many national pundits (not named Tim Brando.) If the selection committee had picked its top four last Saturday night, the Tide would most likely have been in after its stunning shell-shocking of the Aggies.
Indeed, much was gained in Alabama's throttling of the ineffectual aTm squad. The offense had one of its best statistical performances in history in front of the home crowd at Bryant Denny Stadium. The defense re-established itself as one of the pre-eminent units in the nation, shutting down the (previously) second-ranked offense in terms of production and slamming the door with authority on the first chapter of the Kenny Trill legend. The Tide slashed its penalty count to 0 in the game, and the turnover issue simply wasn't an issue.
As Saban discussed in the post-game following A&M, he elected to do something that the sometimes dictatorial head coach has been unwilling to do in the past: he "let the horse run," to use the parlance of the film Secretariat. Saban relented in his controlling grip over every facet of the team and let the players do what they do best...play.
However, lost in the post-game euphoria is the fact that despite the domination against A&M, this is the same Alabama team that has shown considerable and uncharacteristic problems this season as it has undergone growing pains. While Saban is looked upon as a gridiron Gandalf in many quarters, he has no staff of power (aside from S&C coach Scott Cochran) with which to magically transform the players on his roster from mistake-prone youngsters to battle-grizzled veterans in such a short span of time. It is ridiculous to expect as much, though after the victory over the Aggies, the Gump fountain continues to pump mythical sunshine the way Shell pumps gasoline, the mistakes of the last two weeks washed away in the ebb of bygone memories.
And let's be honest with ourselves (despite the seeming inability for some Bama faithful to admit that Alabama has ever had a problem anywhere, anytime, with anything...ever)...that particular aTm team was a shell of the one the Tide has faced in the last two seasons. Sure, statistically, they presented the image of the offensive juggernaut formerly helmed by Johnny Manziel. But in reality, they were paper Collies. Those stats were built in victories over the likes of Rice and Sam Houston State, not SEC caliber defenses. Their offensive line is not loaded with future NFL'ers, Kenny Hill doesn't have the fleet-footedness of Manziel, and the aTm defense was almost non-existent. At times, it appeared Alabama's offensive players were executing against their own shadows, so poor was the technique and effort of the Aggie defense.
Sure, the Aggies shocked South Carolina in the opener, but South Carolina has proven itself sub-par this season. They beat a stubborn Arky team. Other than that, the Aggies were throttled by the Mississippi schools before being dismantled by Alabama. There is really no reason to believe, other than the effervescent bubbling of the media-driven hype-machine, that Texas A&M was the caliber of team that the Aggies have fielded the last two years.
While the win felt nice, Alabama's domination of aTm shouldn't be a considered a sign that all is well, that the Tide is now the team to beat for this year's inaugural playoff championship. No, quite the contrary. Problems remain. Injuries have taken their toll. Enjoy the glow of victory, but don't read too much into the performance until it becomes the standard rather than the aberration. Alabama's perfection last Saturday does not represent the norm for the season, neither statistically nor in terms of tone. The fact remains, Alabama beat a team it should have beaten (more impressively than expected, of course) on the Tide's own home field, where the Tide has shown that it's at its best. Let that Gump flag fly if you'd like, but remember, the meat of the schedule remains for Alabama, with trips to Death Valley and visits from number one ranked Mississippi State and top-ten rival Auburn on the horizon.
Bama may win out, and they may well plant their flag atop the CFB hill once again. But don't for a minute believe that last Saturday's explosiveness is a guarantee or an infallible forecaster of that result.
The long road forward begins this Saturday, as the Tide travels to the hostile confines of Neyland Stadium for the hallowed "Third Saturday in October" match-up against hated Tennessee Volunteers. The 102-some-odd-thousand hooting Volunteer fans will be stoked for blood, motivated not only by their desire for revenge against an Alabama team that has owned their infamous checkerboard end zones in the current era, but by their jilted-lover's quarrel with former head coach and current Tide OC Lane Kiffin. If ever the Vols were motivated to come-up against their most hated rival, this could be the year.
Is this a trap game for Bama, or just another in the recent line of exhibitions of domination by the Crimson Tide? Can Tennessee string together 60 minutes of giant-killing football in front of the vocal home crowd? Or will Bama prove that last weekend's performance was no fluke, but rather the new standard?
Let's dig deeper, shall we?
Alabama offense versus the Tennessee defense
After last weekend's 59-0 victory over Texas A&M, Alabama fans have reason to celebrate and harbor optimism for the remainder of the year. The Tide was nearly flawless in execution of a genius game plan devised by Kiffin, meant to take advantage of an Aggie defense that does nothing well. Even the Aggies' defensive strength, the pass rush, was impotent, as the patched-up Bama line came through in a big way and QB Blake Sims was able to operate the offense largely unmolested.
Everything went right for the Tide, simply put. Amari Cooper was once again Amari Cooper. The Tide backs got back on track, with T.J. Yeldon scoring his first touchdown in weeks and the Tide fielding a 100 yard rusher once again. Bradley Bozeman's play at center, and the work done by newcomer Grant Hill at right tackle after the injury to Austin Shepherd, was above-middlin'. The Tide exerted its will at the point of attack for the first time in weeks, and all cylinders were hitting on offense.
The performance also seemed to give the Tide a newfound confidence in its ability to dominate the game after its punch-drunk reeling of the previous two weeks. Expect more of that this weekend against a Tennessee defense that simply doesn't excite, workmanlike as it may be. Kiffin will likely leverage the run game early to give Sims a chance to settle into what will easily be the most hostile setting of his starting career, and if Bama's line can have a repeat performance against the Vols, the chances of an Alabama blowout are high.
The Vols are more adequately staffed to defend the Tide's attack than Texas A&M, as few teams have displayed the defensive ineptitude the Tide exploited last week. The Vol defense is ranked 29th in scoring defense, allowing 21.3 points per game, and 19th in yards allowed per game (325.9 yards allowed per game.) This defense is significantly better than the one fielded by Texas A&M. In fact, Tennessee has a strong secondary, fielding the sixth-best pass defense in the nation thus far in 2014, giving up only 166.3 yards per game through the air. Against the run, the stats are more dismal, as the Vols have the 64th ranked rushing defense, giving up 159.6 yards per game on the ground (aTm, for comparison, had the 96th best rushing defense in the nation.)
The Tide may find it tough to pass against the Vols at times, with talented corners Cameron Sutton (23 tackles, three INT, 4 tackles for loss, four passes broken-up, seven passes defended) and Justin Coleman (20 tackles, three tfl, one pbu, one pd) and safeties Brian Randolph (49 tackles, two pbu, two pd) and LaDarrell McNeil (30 tackles, one INT, two pbu, three pd.) It will be important for the Tide to establish the run and force Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek to commit Randolph and McNeil to the run. If Kiffin can force the Vols' hand and make them play man coverage against Bama's talented wide receivers, Sims could once again have a banner day passing despite the prowess of the Vol secondary.
But if the Tide struggles to run the ball early and is forced to move the ball through the air, the Vols may be able to take advantage and drain the octane from Alabama's engine. On a positive note, Bama is expected to see starting center Ryan Kelly return in some capacity or another, though it is unsure how much he will be able to contribute. Bozeman steadied the ship in his stead last week, but getting the two-year starter back at center would give the Tide a boost.
On the downside, starting right tackle Austin Shepherd's participation is still listed as questionable after he sustained an injury against A&M. Hill stepped into his shoes in the heat of battle and looked quite capable, but quite honestly, the Vols have a little more going for them in the front seven than the Aggies had. If Shepherd can't go and Hill gets the start, he will need to be steady if not spectacular.
Finally, Tide blockers will need to account for Vol inside linebacker A.J. Johnson on every play, as he is easily Tennessee's most accomplished defender and a future NFL prospect. Johnson has a build similar to that of former Tide LB C.J. Mosley, and his skill set is similar. He snakes through blocks and delivers blows like few other Vol defenders in recent memory. Johnson has shown struggles in shedding blocks, but can be disruptive if left to roam free. It will be up to the line, TEs and fullback Jalston Fowler to make sure that Johnson remains snared and sealed away from the running game.
The Alabama defense versus the Tennessee offense
Alabama showed what its young defense is capable of doing when it shut down the nation's previously second ranked offense statistically. Alabama gave the Aggies no quarter, clamping down on both the anemic running game and the usually-explosive passing game that is characteristic of Kevin Sumlin-coached teams. Young players looked like veterans, and Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart were able to roll in phalanx after phalanx of fresh defenders without seeing a drop-off in production. Seven weeks into the season, the Alabama defense finally looked like what many thought it would evolve into: a run-stopping, lock-down, brutalizing defense.
Expect more of the same this week, as Tennessee is an offensive unit that is in shambles after replacing five starters along the offensive line from a year ago. Things just haven't gelled for the Vol O line, and Justin Worley has been sacked routinely (the Vols have given up 30 sacks through seven games.) Neither can the Volunteer offensive line make hay in the running game, as Tennessee is currently the 117th ranked rushing offense in the nation. To make matters worse, starting right tackle Coleman Thomas is expected to be out with an injury against Alabama.
Frankly, the Vols have little chance of running against a Bama run defense that is ranked second in the nation. The Tide will simply dominate the point of attack, and Vol backs Jalen Hurd (97 carries for 419 yards, 4.3 yards per carry, two touchdowns) and Marlin Lane (49 carries for 160 yards, 3.3 yards per carry) will have a miserable afternoon as wave after wave of Tide defenders crash down upon them.
Alabama's secondary has been a question mark for much of the season, but last week against A&M, the unit looked as good as it has looked this season. That said, it's not that there weren't breakdowns, it's just that those breakdowns were not exploited by Hill and the Aggie offense. The secondary also benefitted from a greatly improved pass rush that pressured Hill most of the evening, and a defensive scheme that left the young quarterback confused and hesitant.
Vol QB Justin Worley (157/ 252, 62.3% percent passing, 1579 yards, 12 TDs and 8 INTs) is a notch up from Hill in both experience and execution, and he can sling the ball with abandon when wide receivers Pig Howard (26 receptions for 243 yards, one TD) and Marquez North (26 receptions for 264 yards, four TDs) can shake defenders. The trouble for Worley has been that by the time his receivers can work their routes, the porous offensive line has typically allowed defenders into the back field and the QB is forced to throw under duress. Though Worley can be prolific as a passer, he also can be a liability when it comes to making decisions under pressure, as evidenced by his eight Interceptions in 2014 (for a 12:8 TD-to-INT ratio.)
There's no guarantee that Worley will play at all, as Jones indicated his status for Saturday has not yet been decided. The QB suffered a shoulder injury against Ole Miss. If Worley cannot go, Jones said both backups Josh Dobbs and Nathan Peterson will be utilized if Worley is unable to play. While Dobbs does have a few starts under his belt, neither player will thrive behind the UT offensive line.
The Vols will need some kind of miracle to execute at a high level offensively against an Alabama defense that appears to have come into its own. Home field or not, the Vols will have a tough row to hoe.
The biggest factor working in the Vols' favor this weekend will be their home crowd. Neyland Stadium can be one of the most raucous locales in the SEC when the Vols are hitting on all cylinders, or when the fan base is properly motivated. This weekend, they will be highly motivated, despite the relative struggles of the team. Not only is Alabama Tennessee's most hated longtime rival, but to amplify the noise, Bama will be bringing UT Public Enemy Number 1 back to the field upon which he once gave the Vols new hope. Since he bolted for his failed tenure at USC, Lane Kiffin has been hated with a puke-orange passion by residents of Alabama's neighbor to the north. In Vol territory, the term "Lane Kiffin" is a derogatory one at best, used to describe the worst of the worst.
Though the players on the current Vol roster have little connection to Kiffin's short time in Knoxville, the fans have long memories and will do their best to get in the offensive coordinator's head. It will be ugly...bless Kiffin's heart.
Expect the crowd to be loud, at least until Bama begins to assert control of the game and the stadium begins to empty out as it did in the Tide's last visit to Rocky Top.
Special teams have been a concern for Alabama through much of the first half of the season, but the Tide special teamers were vastly improved against aTm. Gone were the fundamental mistakes of the previous weeks. While confidence in the place kicking game is still less-than-optimal, punter J.K. Scott is making a case for an All-American season (despite his infrequent utilization against the Aggies.) The return game looked better, as Christion Jones made good decisions and was relatively sure-handed.
Another promising sign for Bama was the lack of penalties against the Aggies. The Tide was focused and was able to eliminate many of the pre-snap issues that had proven to be drive-killers in previous weeks. It will be imperative that the team continues to keep penalty yardage to a minimum, especially in a place as loud and potentially explosive as Neyland Stadium.
Alabama proved last weekend that the team is at its best when the coaching staff "lets the horse run." Will that be a new trend? Fans of the Tide have become accustomed to seeing an almost robotic, mechanical team in crimson that simply does its job like emotionless automatons. When the Tide played loose and appeared to enjoy playing the game against aTm, there was a new energy buoying them to a higher level of performance. Will Saban revert to the previous iron-fisted approach, or will he continue to let the players just play?
Few, if any, expect the Vols to offer anything but a passing resistance to an Alabama team that is fresh off a muscle-flexing, confidence-building outing against an SEC foe. Sure, predictions of a Tide victory are grounded in reality, and the Tide is a 15-point favorite in most circles. While that same total seemed ludicrously high against the Aggies last week, to many, it seems low against a Tennessee team that hasn't won an SEC game this year.
The Tide will likely win this game, and win big...but one must remember, this week's foe is Tennessee. That still means something, as one team has played spoiler for the other throughout the history of the series. Remember that in 2009, a Kiffin-coached Tennessee squad that no one gave a chance of beating Alabama took the Tide to the line at Bryant Denny Stadium. Alabama was outplayed, despite being the better team. Save for an inspired performance by Tide legend Terrence Cody, the Tide was looking down the barrel of a gun, and a loss to a lesser UT team was imminent.
And keep in mind, this game will be played far from the comforts of home, not only on the road (where Bama has struggled) but in Neyland Stadium, one of the nastiest places for SEC opponents to play regardless of the quality of the UT squad.
On paper, Alabama should win in a romp. But will the ghost of General Neyland himself haunt the Tide as it looks to build momentum for a brutal stretch run in the SEC? Is Bama looking ahead to what could be, rather than focusing on what is? Or will a win over Tennessee be the next step in the Tide's journey back to the mountaintop?
Time will tell...hope for the best.