The bye week could not be coming at a better time for this team.
Coming into the season, a brutal October stretch was often cited as the main reason that this Alabama team had little chance at making the College Football Playoff. After three consecutive tough games, one each against the previously unbeaten Georgia Bulldogs and Texas A&M Aggies, both on the road with a home tilt with the big and physical Arkansas Razorbacks sandwiched between them, the Tide came into the Tennessee game with tired legs. The Volunteers were coming off their bye week with a score to settle, sick of hearing about Alabama's eight game winning streak in the rivalry.
It may not have been pretty, but make it nine.
Alabama looked utterly lethargic for most of the afternoon on both sides of the football. A Tennessee Volunteers team that shouldn't be able to match up in the trenches did so just the same. Offensively, Alabama was able to gut out decent numbers in the run game with Derrick Henry, 143 yards on 28 carries, but it was a struggle all day. Veteran linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was seemingly ignoring the Tide passing attack altogether, as he came flying into the backfield on any appearance of a run. Reeves-Maybin and DE Corey Vereen were the two standouts on a front seven that kept Alabama behind the chains for much of the afternoon.
Outside, Tennessee committed to a man-press coverage identity for pretty much the entire game, often times walking up a safety to aid in run support. This led to some critical completions down the stretch, but it is also the perfect strategy against this Alabama offense. If I was coaching against this team, I would try and pressure the run and the passer, taking the chance that I could limit the Alabama WRs enough to keep me in the game. That is essentially what happened on Saturday. Jake Coker was solidly efficient in the passing game, but was sacked five times not counting a couple that he managed to get just back to the line of scrimmage. Truth be told, the offensive line had its worst performance of the season. In addition to poor pass protection and far too many tackles for loss in the run game, there were several pre-snap penalties that put the Tide in a negative position. Needless to say, these types of mistakes will likely get them beat at some point should they continue.
Calvin Ridley continues to mature and had a solid game with seven catches for 88, with ArDarius Stewart adding 5/88 and OJ Howard 7/55. Three of Ridley's "catches" were of the jet sweep variety, and he looked better running that play than anyone else has since Kenyan Drake broke a couple early in the season. Still, that leaves fairly pedestrian numbers for your clear number one receiver. The play of the game came from Stewart, who has been somewhat maligned for seemingly uneven play to date. On the game clinching drive, Stewart went up over the top of the Tennessee defensive back to haul in a 29-yard catch that put the Tide in plus territory. It was the second leaping catch of the day for Stewart. Calvin Ridley had a highlight reel moment in the first quarter as well, going up high to make a catch that harkened back to Kevin Norwood's play over Tyrann Mathieu in the 2011 Sugar Bowl. In all, the receiving corps had a banner day despite only one catch from possession-receiver extraordinaire Richard Mullaney. As ugly as the offense was for most of the day, that final drive was a thing of beauty.
Defensively, this team continued to impress despite the tired legs. Tennessee could get absolutely nothing going between the tackles, and QB Joshua Dobbs was under intense pressure most every time he dropped back to pass. Predictably, he and capable RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara were able to find some yards running on the edges. Speed to the edge isn't the strong suit of ILBs Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster to begin with, but they have been able to limit these types of gains with sheer effort. Both players were simply a step slow on a couple of occasions. Alabama dropped at least three interceptions that would have likely been the difference in covering the spread, causing fans in College Station, Texas to question their lot in life. In general, it's hard to complain about a defense that held the opposition under 180 yards in the last three quarters and finished the game with aplomb, fittingly ending it with a sack of Dobbs that produced a clinching fumble recovery.
The special teams were a legitimate bright spot on Saturday. There were no major gaffes in the return game, and Cyrus Jones in fact almost busted a punt return late in the game. Adam Griffith converted all of his scrimmage kicks and routinely reached the crimson paint on kickoffs. JK Scott was back to his otherworldly ways, kicking the air out of the ball to the tune of a 50 yard average on four punts and routinely flipping the field. It would be a real boon for this Alabama team if the kicking game continues at this level.
Injuries were something of an issue, as Eddie Jackson, Ronnie Harrison, and Dominick Jackson all went down at some point in the game. Eddie Jackson was able to return in the second half. Harrison and Dominick Jackson each suffered an ankle sprain, with neither returning to action though the latter's happened on the final offensive play. I would expect all to be fine with a bye week to heal. Cameron Robinson has reportedly been dealing with some nagging injuries that have likely contributed to his uneven play as he simply doesn't seem to be moving his feet as well as last season. Hopefully he is able to recover as well.
When you play in the SEC, there will be times that you have to gut out an ugly win. This was one of those times, and Saban rightfully praised his team's character afterward. Reality is that the game would have looked much different had the Tide simply eliminated half of the pre-snap penalties and caught one or two of the dropped picks. Still, the fact that the team found itself on the brink of elimination in the fourth quarter has to be concerning. There is plenty for the coaching staff to talk about over the next two weeks. Hopefully the Tide can get healthy and come out firing on all cylinders for an early November game against the Bayou Bengals that once again holds SEC and national implications. That one should be fun.