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Hope For the Best: Tennessee edition

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Though not a serious threat to challenge Alabama for…well, anything…the rivalry between Alabama and Tennessee has become little more than a sparring match. But can UT make a game of it?

South Carolina v Tennessee
Will this be Butch Jones’ last meeting with the Crimson Tide? (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.)
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Third Saturday in October is one of those rare conventions of Southern gridiron culture that simply cannot be replicated in modern times. People from other locales not steeped in the potency of this rivalry simply don’t understand it. They don’t get the seething hate based solely on a century of happenings between 18 to 22-year-old men on a lime-lined grassy knoll of 100-by-50-yard dimension. It is foreign for those who have not lived it: for those souls who didn’t grow up in either state (or elsewhere, at the knees of members of the Southern diaspora) it is difficult to understand the unadulterated disdain the two teams and their supporters hold for one another.

Alabama has rivalries with other teams, to be sure. There’s the annual battle of contenders between the Tide and LSU, a “rivalry” rooted in perennial excellence over the last decade rather than a long-running historical context. There’s a similar, more latent rivalry with Florida, as the two teams have been frequent combatants in the SEC Championship Game since its inception. And of course, there is the sibling rivalry with little brother across the state, as emotions run high because of familiarity when the Tide and Tigers face off each November.

But ask most fans of the Tide who their greatest rival is, and they’ll answer without pausing so much as to draw a breath: the Tennessee Volunteers. This rivalry has lived through long win droughts on both sides. The series is streaky, though Alabama leads it overall with a 53-38-7 record. Much of the series may be water under the bridge for the current generation, ancient war stories spun by old men who remember the glory days of colorfully-named ghosts like Bear Bryant and General Neyland. But the fervor is still there, the coals still smolder in the newer crops of Tide and Vol fans. As evidence, when asked about rivalries that are important to the Tide players, Coach Nick Saban said that without a doubt, it is the game with Tennessee that his young men care about the most.

The rivalry is not some rigid lava-cast that once burned bright only to harden and gray in the cooling winds of time. No, make no mistake, this feud fought over the banks of the Tennessee River is still molten, and that’s why the Third Saturday in October remains the magmatic eruption upon which the season hinges for both teams.

Alabama is currently on an unprecedented run against the Volunteers, with the Tide winning the last 10 contests. For those keeping score at home, today marks the 4001st day since the last time the Vols have beaten the Tide. Volunteers are on their fourth coach since the era of Alabama’s Saban began in 2007, as the wily West Virginian has been the career executioner of Phillip Fulmer and Derek Dooley in his time at Alabama. The closest Tennessee came to victory was in 2009 under one-year head coach Lane Kiffin, who went on to be Alabama’s last offensive coordinator.

The Volunteers’ current coach, Butch Jones, hasn’t had better luck against an Alabama squad in the midst of a full-blown dynasty, and if recent history has proven anything, it’s that perpetual losses to the Tide will get one a pink slip and a bus ticket out of Knoxville. Certainly, that day is coming, as Jones has seemingly lost his grip on the floundering program. Another crushing loss to Alabama will only further seal his fate.

Can Tennessee break with recent history by upsetting the Crimson Tide in front of a Bryant Denny crowd in Tuscaloosa? Can Tennessee do enough to stay in the game against a vastly superior Alabama team on both sides of the ball? Will Alabama’s road to 17 continue unabated after conquering the invading horde from Knoxville’s Appalachian ridges? Or will this game be another one for the ages, a way-point for either team on which the fortunes of the remainder of the season are forged.

We will know more Saturday night. Until then, let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Tennessee defense

In all honesty, this is the battle that will tell the tale of the game, and in a match-up that pits Alabama’s greatest strength against Tennessee’s greatest weakness, it shouldn’t even be close.

Under first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the Crimson Tide offense has become something of a throwback meshed with many of the trends of the modern game. They are smashmouth, but they do it with a little finesse. They are pro-style, but they incorporate some spread facets that make their style of play even more effective against outmanned opponents. They have a mobile quarterback in Jalen Hurts who has shown that he is more than a runner, as the passing game, though still lagging, has been efficient enough to keep opponents off-kilter, thus allowing the efficient running game to steamroll defenses.

In fact, Alabama’s offense has become so effective that the Tide is currently ranked 15th nationally in total offense (489.9 yards per game) …and that’s even after factoring in the 101st ranked passing game sported by the men in crimson. The thing is, Alabama can win games and dominate opponents without a full-blown aerial assault, as the nation’s seventh-ranked running game (302.1 yards per game) is nearly unstoppable when Hurts slings the ball even conservatively. The proof is in the pudding, as Alabama is ranked in the top-ten in scoring offense at ninth (42.7 points per game), making it clear that to this point, Alabama has been able to savage defenses with the combination of a Power running scheme, a stable of five-star backs, and the speedy Hurts.

Take a look at the Volunteer defensive statistics and one will immediately see why this match-up so heavily favors Alabama. While the Vols are not an embarrassingly inadequate defense en toto, their ability to defend the run has proven a gigantic flaw in their usually rigid armor. And that flaw is one that Alabama is uniquely qualified to exploit, which should be the chief determining dynamic of Saturday’s game.

The Vols enter the game ranked just outside of the top-50 (52nd to be exact) in total defense, but that number is largely skewed by a pass defense that ranks second nationally, allowing a mere 129.2 yards per game through the air. That is the good news for the Volunteers. Alabama likely won’t throw the ball much against Tennessee, at least not in the early going. Then again, they won’t need to.

The Vol defense, traditionally gritty and hard-nosed in run defense, is a mere shell of its former self this season. It’s not just that the UT run defense unit has seen a regression from a lofty standard. The run defense has been nothing short of a raging East Tennessee tire fire this season, as they’ve been unable to contain even the most modest of rushing attacks. The Vols ceded 122 yards and 144 yards, respectively, to perennial rushing powerhouses Indiana State and UMass. Against Georgia Tech’s triple-option, Tennessee yielded a stunning 535 yards on the ground. Against SEC East rivals, UT gave up 168 yards rushing to Florida, 294 yards to Georgia, and 194 last week to plodding South Carolina.

Those dubious returns have led to Tennessee’s place as one of the worst rushing defenses in the country. Only 129 teams are ranked, and the Volunteers find themselves ranked squarely in the bottom-10 nationally at 122nd. Tennessee gives up a shocking 242.8 yards per game, and they are routinely bad, even when playing lesser opponents with worse-than-suspect talent.

The reasons are myriad, and could be the subject of a separate piece. The Vols are often out of position, they seem inept in reading offenses, they exhibit poor tackling fundamentals, etc.…. the list could go on. But the takeaway is that the Vols haven’t proven themselves capable of stopping anyone’s ground game this season, and now they’ll face one of the nation’s top rushing attacks. Georgia Tech, the third-ranked rushing team in the country, shredded UT for more than 500 yards. Alabama is ranked seventh in rushing offense, so expect a similar result this Saturday. If Alabama posts 300 yards rushing (as it has in four of its seven games), anything else that happens on the field will be of little consequence to the outcome, as the Tide will roll.

How will Alabama attack the flailing Vol rushing defense? The method should be straight-forward. Alabama has reverted to more of the Power/ Counter blocking schemes that characterized the best offensive lines of the Saban era. While there is still a degree of zone blocking utilized from time to time, the Tide’s chosen schemes this year highlight the raw physicality and technique of the big men up front. They can blow defenders off the line without hesitation. Tight ends can pull to lead block or seal lanes outside the tackles. The backs and receivers are excellent at leading Hurts downfield when he breaks the pocket and uses his feet. Alabama can choose its method of dispatching the Vols, as they really are ill-equipped to handle what Bama is going to throw their way.

Earlier this year former Vol tackle Albert Haynesworth slammed the UT defense for lining up incorrectly off the ball, lining up on the first-down mark on a 3rd-and-1 call and basically ceding the conversion to Georgia Tech. (Coincidentally, Haynesworth also noted, in the first week of the 2017 season, that Tennessee would likely have the league’s worst run defense, a notion that seems more prescient with each passing week.) It’s these routine inconsistencies that seem to doom the Vols, and for whatever reason, when one flaw is corrected, another pops up like a weed just in time to once again ruin the pumpkin-hued party for Tennessee.

It’s those little things that the Vols fail to execute that will allow Alabama to steamroll them. As the game wears on, there will be some passes to Calvin Ridley and the backs just to keep Tennessee honest. But even if the Vols stack the box, there’s no reason to believe they’ll stop Alabama from doing exactly what Alabama wants to do. After all, UT knew the Yellow jackets were going to run the ball all the time (to the tune of 86 rushing attempts), and yet they still gave up 535 on the ground.

This is a battle that Alabama will win without question, and it’s really the only factor that is important in this game. Bama has the advantage, and it’s a huge one. There’s little the Vols can do to stop the maelstrom that will likely subjugate and drown them on Saturday afternoon.

The Alabama defense versus the Tennessee offense

While the game will likely be won by the Tide’s rushing attack, don’t forget about the incredible mismatch that Alabama will enjoy when the Vols have the ball in their possession. Despite admirable performances by Tennessee’s backs, in particular junior John Kelly (5-9, 205 pounds), the Vol defense has been anything but productive this season, dooming the already-struggling defense to extra snaps that sap depth and leave Tennessee spent in the fourth.

Jones’ particular iteration of the spread offense was effective at the mid-major level, and in his first year or two in the SEC, there was at least a little evidence that it could work on a bigger stage, especially with a dual-threat quarterback like (the now departed) Josh Dobbs under center. But this year, the system is a skeleton of its previous potential, as SEC defenses have flayed the flesh from bone and left Jones’ best efforts little more than a wasting corpse with little life left in it.

The post-Dobbs passing game has been almost non-existent, thrusting the bulk of the offensive workload on a trio of stable backs that includes the aforementioned Kelly, true freshman Ty Chandler (5-11, 195 pounds), and junior Carlin Fils-Aime (5-11, 183 pounds). And among those three backs, Kelly has been the workhorse, shouldering the load with 113 carries (to 23 for Chandler and 11 for Fils-Aime) for 552 yards. Kelly deserves better than the performance that has surrounded him this season, but the Vols are a funky, hamstrung offense at best this season.

It begins with the offensive line. They have decent size, with an average weight across the front of 305.6 pounds. But it’s the inexperience that has been most telling this season, as UT is starting three underclassmen amongst the five O linemen. Against a team like Alabama that has a ferocious, attacking style of defense and blitz-heavy pass rush, that is pure poison.

The passing game is almost non-existent, with Jones electing to shuffle the quarterback pecking order last week against South Carolina to moderately-better results. Longtime Dobbs understudy Quinten Dormady (6-4, 222 pounds) was the starter at the beginning of the season, but he never seemed to get traction, suffering from myriad quarterback-killing issues such as poor mechanics, a lack of pocket awareness, an offensive line that doesn’t excel in pass blocking, and an unstable (at best) understanding of his check downs. Freshman Jarrett Guarantano (6-4, 200 pounds) stepped into the fray, and while he could move the ball, neither quarterback has proven adept at getting the ball downfield with any regularity, thus rendering the Vols a one-dimensional offense.

Making matters worse is that the team’s most reliable receiver is also the running back Kelly, who has 24 catches for 250 yards on the season. Only one true WR on the Vol roster has more receiving yards than Kelly, and it’s sophomore Brandon Johnson (6-2, 193 pounds), who has 21 catches for 259 yards in ’17. Tight end Ethan Wolf (6-6, 258 pounds) has done admirably, but even still, his output amounts to 10 catches for 90 yards. The Vols simply can’t pass with any consistency or explosiveness, and against Alabama’s defense, they’d be better off taking a knee on every snap to preserve Kelly for the remainder of the season. With no threat of any downfield action, Alabama will load up, bring safeties into the box, and tee off on the unfortunate back saddled with carrying the ball into the fray.

For the best glimpse of what will likely result from the match-up of the UT offense and Bama defense, one can look back a few weeks to the Vols’ game against Georgia. The Bulldogs, led by former Bama DC Kirby Smart, are being constructed in Alabama’s defensive image. What did the Dogs do to poor Tennessee? They totally shut them down, allowing a mere 62 yards rushing on 29 carries, with 80 yards through the air (44 yards of which came on a single pass play). The Bulldogs totally dominated the Volunteer offense using pressure and tenacious run defense, two tenets of the Crimson Tide defense under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The 41-0 victory Georgia enjoyed over Tennessee was stunningly complete, but it all began with a defense that straight-up wrecked the one-dimensional attack of the Vols.

Expect the same this weekend. Regardless of which stuffed shirt starts at quarterback, Alabama will savage the Tennessee offense. Of course, UT has no choice but to attempt to run, and Alabama will punish them for it. The Tide has the top-ranked run defense in the nation, allowing only 66.1 yards per game. It would be surprising if the Tide even cedes that amount against an absolutely inept Vol attack. After all, as much as the Big Orange leans on its ground game as its only offensive weapon, it is still heinous at best. The Vols are ranked 96th nationally in rushing offense, gaining only 134.7 yards per game. This status, as well as the 98th ranked passing offense and 107th ranked scoring offense, are the reasons the Vols have plummeted to depths rivaled only by the dark darkness of the Derek Dooley era. The Vols, coached by a supposed offensive guru, are currently ranked 116th in total offense, gaining only 320 yards per game. Dark days for the Big Orange, indeed.

There will be no light for them on Saturday, either. Alabama will shut them down at every turn in front of the homefield crowd at Bryant-Denny Saturday. The final score could possibly represent the most lop-sided victory in the long-running history of the series. The talent disparity is that large, and the two programs are rapidly going in opposite directions when it comes to the success of the program. Alabama has a chance to build upon its dynasty, while Tennessee will likely conduct yet another coaching search at season’s end as it seeks to find someone, anyone, who can hold the rope and help Tennessee rebuild some semblance of consistent competitiveness.

It won’t happen this week, as Alabama’s defense will relentlessly grind the Vol offense into creamsicle-colored dust.

Special Teams

While the picture for the Vols is quite dark in the shadow of its once and future conqueror, there is an interesting dynamic that will come into play on special teams this Saturday.

While both teams have great punters (Bama has J.K. Scott, while the Vols count on senior Trevor Daniel, who is averaging 48.17 yards per punt) and workable place kickers (Bama’s Andy Pappanastos is coming on, while Vols senior Aaron Medley is 2-for-3 in limited action), it is the match-up of Alabama’s return defense versus Tennessee’s return game that could impact the final score.

The Vols count on receiver Marquez Callaway (6-2, 199 pounds) on punt returns, and he has performed admirably with nine returns for 119 yards, or an average of 12.22 per return with a long of 36 yards. The kick return rotation is an explosive mix of athletic talent featuring Callaway’s 11.50 per return average, back Ty Chandler’s five returns for 160 yards with a 91-yard touchdown, and safety Evan Berry’s 43 yards per return average. As a result, the Vols are ranked 18th in punt return yardage, and seventh in kickoff return production so far in 2017.

Conversely, Alabama will match that strength with a strong performance of its own. Alabama has been excellent in kick coverage this season, ranked 20th nationally in allowing a mere three yards per return with no touchdowns given up. The Tide is ranked 22nd in kickoff return defense, allowing only 17.48 yards per return with no touchdowns ceded.

This match-up is intriguing because it leverages what would normally be one of the few Vol strengths against one of Alabama’s own underappreciated assets. There’s potential for big plays on returns for the Vols, but Alabama is well-suited to squelch them and rob Tennessee of any positive momentum.

This edition of the TSIO game could provide the most one-sided outcome in the history of the series. Alabama can best Tennessee at every turn, and it shouldn’t even be close. The Tide is better coached, better equipped with talent, and is better suited to the schemes that will be at play in the game. Tennessee is by far the worst SEC squad the Tide has faced today, and that’s quite a statement considering the likes of Bama’s competition thus far. Alabama has already dominated two SEC opponents en route to 60+ point victories, and Tennessee will likely represent the third such victim on the Tide’s path back to the playoffs.

The Vols are a dejected, undermanned, demoralized football team right now. Even when they believed they could challenge the Tide, as in the previous two meetings, they learned the hard way that Alabama is operating on a different level from almost everyone else. If that lesson hasn’t taken hold yet, it most certainly will this Saturday as the Tide can simply drum the Vols with their reserves on the way to an easy victory.

Can Alabama pitch yet another shutout? Will the Tide top 60 points for the third time in eight games on the way to pummeling its once-bitter rival to the north? Will Tennessee even threaten to score? Can they cross the 50 with an inept offense against the Tide’s flamethrower D?

Those questions are the only ones that seem reasonable at this point, given the level of competition the Vols can offer. Hope for the best…