The gulf between the teams in the Third Saturday rivalry has likely never been wider, and that was on full display Saturday.
Alabama started sluggishly on offense, managing only a single score in the first 25 minutes of game action, and it never felt like it mattered much. I was pondering during the game just how long these two teams would have to play before the Vols would put together a touchdown drive of their own. It certainly never happened in this one.
Jeremy Pruitt’s defense put on an absolute clinic against an overmatched Tennessee offense with a freshman QB. Poor Jarrett Guarantano was under assault all afternoon. You have to give the kid credit for finishing the game after hitting the turf time after time. His afternoon was summed up by the play at the end of the first half, when he rolled out to throw a Hail Mary only to find Rashaan Evans waiting. Evans hit Guarantano in the chest so hard that his helmet flew off, leaving Jarrett’s face exposed to catch Rashaan’s hind parts briefly as momentum carried him through the hit.
There was no offense to be gained for the Vols. Pruitt and Saban may not love the fact that RB John Kelly gained over five a carry, but 33 of his 63 yards came on two carries with the Tide playing soft coverage, the first with under a minute in the half and Tennessee in their own territory, and the other on third-and-forever. Both plays came after the Tide were up 21, however, so there may be another teaching moment on letting up. Everyone on the Tennessee offense not named Kelly combined for 45 total yards.
Evans was the star of the show. He has played like a man possessed since getting back on the field, probably far too soon, with his groin injury. Mack Wilson added his third pick of the season and is growing quickly into the next great Alabama linebacker. Da’Ron Payne was in the backfield all afternoon and continues to show off his work with Cochran, as he looks far more nimble than years past. Payne did draw a well-deserved, and foolish, roughing the passer penalty, however, that kept a Tennessee drive alive and nearly led to a touchdown.
Of course, the Vols never would have been near the red zone had Xavian Marks not fumbled the football on a punt return after an earlier muff. This is a chronic sore spot for this Alabama team, and one has to wonder about the answer. At this point it would probably be best to just put Ridley or Fitzpatrick back there and have them fair catch everything to keep them from harm. Thus far it hasn’t hurt, but you don’t need those types of mistakes in the postseason.
Offensively, the Tide overcame the aforementioned rough start to find the end zone twice in the last five minutes of the first half and put the game away. Jalen Hurts was uneven in the passing game again, but his final stat line looks solid after a strong finish to his afternoon. The first drive of the second half was probably Jalen’s best of the season from a passing perspective, as he completed four balls to three different receivers for 54 yards. The last two, including a perfect TD pass on a seam route, went to TE Irv Smith, Jr.
It was a productive day for the tight ends, as Smith and Hale Hentges combined for 94 yards on five catches. Smith was spared a fumble thanks to a Tennessee penalty, but he looked quite fast roaming the middle of the field. Hentges had a Gronk moment when he caught a short pass near the sideline and dragged a defender for several yards.
Following that last touchdown drive was a perfect time to get Jalen out of the game on a high note to allow Tua Tagovailoa some meaningful time, and Saban did just that. Tagovailoa put together another highlight reel, marred only by a freshman moment that resulted in a pick six where he failed to see Mike in the red zone. He will undoubtedly learn from that and was virtually flawless otherwise. The young man just has instincts in spades. He makes quick decisions, delivers almost every ball perfectly and on time, and seems to know when to take off. He’s also a much better runner than given credit for, as shown when he put a safety on skates during his touchdown run.
The offensive highlight of the day had to be Tua hooking up with Henry Ruggs III for the final score. It was a 3rd-and-15, and the protection was excellent against a four man rush. Tagovailoa stood tall in the pocket before stepping up and firing a strike on a crossing route, fitting the ball between two defenders and hitting Ruggs in stride. Henry then showed off his track speed as he ran away from everyone on the sideline. Ruggs has an improbable stat line of five catches and five TD receptions on the season. Tua finished the afternoon 12/15 for 134 yards with the TD and the INT, and added 36 yards on four carries with another score. The young man is a budding superstar.
The running game was strong again, though Tennessee did a pretty nice job selling out to limit it. Of course, the offense was somewhat hamstrung during Jalen’s time as the staff clearly looked to work on some things. The devastating midline read that destroyed Arkansas wasn’t seen at all on Saturday. In fact, the zone read didn’t appear to be a part of the game plan in any form. If anything stands out in the RB corps, it’s that Bo Scarbrough just looks to be missing something. Perhaps the leg injury cost him some burst, but for whatever reason he just isn’t hitting holes like the other backs on the roster this season. Perhaps there is something nagging that can heal up during the bye week.
Damien Harris looked like a monster again, though his stat line wasn’t his best thanks to Tennessee crashing the backfield. Damien’s power has improved substantially this season, and he refused to go down on several occasions. Josh Jacobs had a couple of explosive runs as well, and also looked great as a lead blocker. The two back sets were quite interesting. Najee Harris and Brian Robinson both performed well in mop-up duty.
Other than the punt return gaffes, the special teams were fine. Andy Pappanastos should be considered a strength of the team at this point, hitting his only field goal attempt to move to 81% on the season. JK Scott hit both of his punts well, netting 42 yards per.
The Tide will now head into the bye week on top of the college football world. LSU is not the same team they have been, but they have certainly improved over the last few weeks and will undoubtedly come into Tuscaloosa intent on ruining Alabama’s season. The team can ill-afford to take them lightly or start as sluggishly as they did on Saturday. Hopefully the team can rest up and come in hungry.