It was far from perfect, but Alabama managed to earn a relatively comfortable win in Knoxville, sending themselves into the bye week firmly entrenched in the top five with a strong 7-1 mark. Results were somewhat mixed in this one as several positives can be noted along with some familiar flaws that have been exposed at various times this season. The team is certainly capable of winning the rest of its games but will need to execute on a more consistent basis in order to do so, which will be the requirement if the goal is a realistic chance at a playoff berth.
Offensively it was the Amari Cooper show again, the junior All-American catching nine balls for a school record 224 yards and two first quarter TDs. At this point there is little doubt that Cooper is the best WR to play at the Capstone. Enjoy his last few games in Crimson, folks. Blake Sims played very well in his own right, racking up 286 yards through the air for an astounding Coop-aided 11.9 YPA and rushing for another 42 critical yards. There has to be some concern with distribution as TJ Yeldon and DeAndrew White were the only other players to catch the ball, combining for about one-third of Cooper's yardage. Saban was asked about this after the game and basically said that you can't ask the QB not to throw to his superstar WR when he's wide open, and Cooper was virtually every time Sims dropped back to pass. A word of warning, however: the LSU secondary is the strength of that team. I'm willing to bet that someone besides Cooper will have to step up if the Tide is to score enough points in that one.
Blake made some huge plays with his legs, converting two third downs with the scramble while adding a beautiful 28-yard TD run on a basic inside zone read, blowing past Tennessee star linebacker AJ Johnson among others before bulling his way into the end zone. This has been discussed ad nauseum, but I really hope to see Blake run the ball more down the stretch. Some have expressed concern over the inherent health risks involved with running the QB, but reality is that we have reached the part of the season that you stay healthy for and the team will need to emphasize every strength from here on out. Blake is good enough as a passer, but the man is exceptional as a runner from the QB position. His dual threat ability is the chief reason the team was able to convert an absurd 11/15 on third down.
Unfortunately, the running game ran hot and cold in this one, the net result a pedestrian 4.3 YPC between TJ Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Yeldon did slip on a couple of occasions and Saban mentioned in the post-game press conference that he was battling a minor foot injury, so that may explain part of it. To be sure, there were several nice gains inside, but open holes were generally in limited supply and there were a few negative plays as Tennessee appeared to be committed to stuffing the run and forcing Sims to win the game throwing the football. This will continue to be a common theme, which means that consistency in the passing game will be critical. The Tide also managed to fumble the ball thrice, losing two - one on a botched mesh between Sims and Henry, the other when Jalston Fowler had the ball stripped from him just before crossing the goal line. Losing LT Cam Robinson is obviously a major concern since he had already established himself as perhaps the best in the conference at his position, but for one night there wasn't any discernable drop-off when he left the game with a high ankle sprain. This will be something to watch against LSU, as I highly doubt that Robinson will be available and certainly won't be near 100% in any case. Four weeks is a typical recovery time for athletes with access to the treatment that Alabama players have, more like six weeks for us average joes. Brian Vogler went down with a sprained knee and Christion Jones tweaked a hamstring, but neither is considered to be serious.
Defensively, Alabama started out like gangbusters but seemed to lose intensity as the game went on. Young Volunteers QB Josh Dobbs entered the game midway through the first quarter and provided an immediate spark, particularly on the ground as he carried the ball 19 times for 75 yards, with a good portion of that production coming on scrambles. My first impression of Dobbs is that he has a chance to be a good player who can give defenses fits making plays out of nothing. While the YPC isn't anything special, Dobbs was able to convert several third downs on his own. All told the Vols converted 58% on third down in this one, simply unacceptable for a defense of this caliber, as mobile QBs continue to pose a problem. The pass rush was solid again, flushing Dobbs from the pocket repeatedly, but was unable finish the sack on too many occasions. Backup RB Marlin Lane managed to get loose for a big gain to advance the ball inside the Alabama ten yard line, setting up the first Tennessee score, and freshman RB Jalen Hurd gained a workmanlike 3.7 YPC. Reggie Ragland continues to be a bright spot providing two highlight reel hits, the first resulting in a turnover as Dobbs was forcibly separated from the football.
Interestingly, Saban suggested after the game that the offense scoring as quickly as it did early in the game may have caused the defense to tire a bit, which probably has some merit, but it is evident that the team simply wasn't able to maintain its intensity after building a 27 point lead. The pass defense was good enough in this one, holding Tennessee to a decidedly mediocre 6.0 YPA. Cyrus Jones was called for pass interference on what I thought was a terrible call, and Tony Brown failed to find the football on a fade route for Tennessee's first TD. Jones did have a beautiful interception to close the game on an ill-advised pass from Dobbs. Landon Collins left the game with cramps but will apparently be fine.
Nothing terribly new to report on the special teams front from this one. JK Scott continues to be among the best punters in the nation, downing three of his four punts inside the 20 with a long of 60. What a weapon. Adam Griffith performed well on kickoffs but managed to hit the first PAT of the evening fat, shanking it badly to the left. He did convert the other four opportunities, however. Return teams were adequate enough and avoided any major gaffes. Ditto for the coverage units, though the 33-yard return on the opening kick was a bit too much.
It was clear after the game that Saban was pleased with the way the team started the game but concerned by the lack of consistency, which has certainly been an issue. He went so far as to talk about the difference from week to week, about how well the team played in the last game vs.Texas A&M and to start this one, and saying that the team has been too "up and down." Consistency is never an easy standard to achieve, but this team needs to improve in that area if it is to beat the best teams on the schedule down the stretch. The bye week definitely comes at a great time, hopefully allowing some guys to get as close to 100% health as possible going into a brutal November starting in Red Stick on the 8th of the month. As always, the Bayou Bengal crowd will show up in full throat, creating as hostile an environment as you'll find in college football. Here's hoping the team has a great couple of weeks of preparation and comes out firing on all cylinders.