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Hope for the Best: Tennessee edition

With an Alabama son at the helm, can the Volunteers finally beat their most hated rival, the Crimson Tide?

Tennessee v Georgia
Can Jeremy Pruitt knock off his alma mater?
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

4,381 days. That’s how long it’s been since the Tennessee Volunteers have beaten the team they hate the most, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

In that timeframe, the Tide has won five national titles under Nick Saban. Heismanless prior to 2009, Bama has had two Heisman winners in the time since the Vols last beat them (with a third winner potentially on the way in Tua Tagavailoa.) Alabama has built a dynasty in that time while Tennessee…well, Tennessee has failed to win the SEC East and is now on its fifth head coach (not counting interims) since Saban was hired in 2007.

The two teams couldn’t have had more divergent decades, with one building the greatest dynasty in college football’s modern era, and the other struggling to carve out a spot in the halls of mediocrity.

This year may seem different, if only because Alabama is familiar with the man that the Vols have hired to restore greatness to their beloved program. After releasing Butch Davis last year (who, incidentally, is now an offensive analyst for Alabama), the Vols muddled through a brief and confusing coaching search led by athletic director and general bon vivant (sartalics implied) Phillip Fulmer. After their reported top targets rebuffed them, they came calling for one of the Tide’s own in former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt, a former Alabama player and acolyte in Saban’s Grand Temple, accepted the job and immediately set about the task of restoring the Vols’ “honor.”

That task involves no small amount of heavy lifting for a man who is getting his first head coaching job at a major SEC program. However, though the Volunteers have stretched through the growing pains associated with adopting a new coach and regimen, they have looked well ahead of schedule thus far. Pruitt got the signature win of his young head coaching career last week in a victory over an Auburn team that had hung around in the top-10 for the first half of the season. Pruitt is rebuilding his program with the same tools the Tide has used to build a dynasty: aggressive, ferocious defensive play, physicality across the board, and a sledgehammer offense.

What about this Vol team makes anyone think they can compete with the likes of Alabama, though? The only other quality team UT has faced thus far is Georgia, and the Bulldogs scattered and smothered them by a score of 38-12. Alabama has a more explosive offense and at worst, an equivalent defense. Why would this Saturday’s outcome be any different, all rivalries aside?

There are a few reasons that Tennessee should at least give Tide fans a modicum of concern. For one, it’s a rivalry that even when one-sided, burns white hot among fans of both teams. Pruitt is an Alabama guy, and this game surely means something to him. No Saban pupil has ever beaten the master…. statistically, it must happen sometime, right? Alabama is a little dinged up, though Saban said in his Wednesday presser that only Devonta Smith was questionable this Saturday since he hasn’t been able to practice this week with a hamstring injury. Though everyone says Tagovailoa’s knee is fine (including Tua himself), it was clear that it was tweaked enough to affect his accuracy last week.

Then there’s UT. They’re coming off a huge SEC victory over a ranked team, and they believe they can challenge Alabama. Something about the team is reminiscent of the 2010 South Carolina team that knocked off Bama (more on that later.) Their coach knows Alabama’s tendencies, knows how Saban thinks and can predict what he may do in a given situation. The Vols have a decent defense, a decent offense, and they are playing more disciplined football than they did under the previous administration.

While a win for the Vols Saturday is a longshot for sure, it’s not out of the question. In fact, considering all the potential things that could fall in their favor, UT may have a better chance of beating Alabama than any other team the Tide has faced this season (outside of A&M).

Can Tennessee shock the world for the second week in a row and rest the loss counter with its first win over the Tide in more than a decade? Can Pruitt’s salty defense figure out a way to stop Alabama’s seemingly unstoppable offense? Will injuries take their toll on the Tide and prevent Alabama from realizing its full potential? Or will Alabama roll on their rivals the way they’ve trounced every other team on the schedule to date?

The anticipation is palpable. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look…

Alabama offense versus the Tennessee defense

There are few secrets when it comes to how the Volunteer defense will attack Alabama this Saturday afternoon. After all, there is a familiarity between the two program that goes to a molecular level, a shared football DNA within the Saban coaching tree.

Quite frankly, Tennessee will try to do to Alabama what the Tide has done to other teams for more than a decade. They want to play physically, and they want to win every play at all 11 positions. They want to blitz. They want to be relentless. They want the Tide quarterback to hear their footsteps and to fear their collisions. They want a run defense that forces teams to be one-dimensional, and a secondary that can capitalize off their errors when they must desperately attempt to establish the pass.

While the Tennessee defense is not yet up to the standard of the Tide’s greatest units, Pruitt has begun their transformation. They’re ranked in the top-50 in total defense (allowing 358.5 yards per game, 47th nationally). The Volunteer defense is a work in progress, and their next great challenge of the season will come against the mightiest offense in the land.

Alabama has pivoted from its traditional style of offensive play, employing a lightning-quick, laser-accurate passing game while back-shelving its power running game. Always a ground-and-pound running team in the past, Alabama has become more sniper than artillery operator this season, eschewing physical imposition for speed and finesse in a downfield passing attack. It’s not that Alabama doesn’t still run the ball, it’s just that no one has forced them to do it yet.

Tennessee may be the first team to do that. They don’t have a great, lockdown secondary at this point, but the pass defense is the strength of the unit. They are ranked 69th currently in pass efficiency defense, though in terms of raw passing yardage allowed they rank 42nd with 205 yards per game given up. That was to be expected with Pruitt at the helm, as he is a former defensive back and has always used DBs as the centerpiece of his attacking defense. Pruitt and defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer will attempt to smother Alabama’s elite receivers and blitz to throw Tua off his game.

Every defense this year has tried to do the same thing, generally speaking. But what makes Tennessee’s approach more likely to be successful? They are aggressive, and Pruitt is a huge proponent of press man coverage. That will likely get the Vol defensive backs torched a few times against an accurate quick-release passer like Tua, but aggressive play is one way to throw the Bama receivers out of rhythm. The Tide passing offense is heavily reliant on timing and execution. The Vols like to jam receivers coming out of their releases and then play them physically all the way down the field. That affects timing to be certain, and if executed properly, it could lead to a few balls on the ground if Tagovailoa and his receivers fall out of synch as a result.

Another interesting factor that Tennessee brings to the table is the way they rush the passer. Alabama is great at pass protection when its big men can get a body on a body and block D linemen and linebackers into oblivion. However, Pruitt and Sherrer enjoy bringing defensive backs on the blitz, and the Tide can expect to see that four or five times this Saturday. The advantage it gives the defense stems from the delayed rush, as blockers are typically engaged by the time the blitz comes from a defensive back. Also, there’s an athleticism advantage created by rushing a smaller, more nimble defender.

Usually, Tua is mobile enough to evade rushers even when the errant defender slips through the Tide’s front wall. But with an ailing knee, will he be able to juke and evade defensive backs sliding off the edge unblocked? Even when those blitzes don’t result in sacks (and they don’t usually for the Vols…they only have 12 on the season), they can create pressure that forces a QB to rush his decisions or cut off his progressions. So many of the Tide’s explosive plays this season have required Tua to work his magic by looking off safeties or waiting for his receivers to fight through press coverage to the seam. Even if Tua is only slightly gimpy, being flushed from the pocket routinely by blitzing defensive backs could reduce his completion rate and lead to stalled drives in front of the Vols rowdy home crowd.

Where Alabama may make more headway is in the running game. Run defense is where the UT squad is lacking, as they’re allowing 152.7 yards per game, putting them at 62nd in the nation. They give up an average of 4.53 yards per rush, which isn’t optimal. Though the Tide has depended largely on the passing game for offensive explosiveness this season, Alabama still has the 29th best rushing offense in the nation, averaging 217.7 yards per game and 5.23 yards per rush.

UT, like Alabama, depends on its outside linebackers to seal the rush inside by setting hard edges, then clogging the middle with the 0-technique nose and two big 5-tech ends. The linebackers flow to the gaps behind them to clean up the run, and Pruitt has his strong safety remain near the box in run support as well. That means there’ll be an awful lot of bodies in the box, so running between the tackles may not be Bama’s best bet when it comes to yards on the ground. The interior line has also struggled this season to assert itself inside, looking better when the offense runs outside zone or power to the outside edges with Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, and Najee Harris.

That would seem to be a good way to attack the Vol run defense, as they depend on defensive backs to offer run support on the edges. With the UT DBs struggling to match up with the Tide’s WR firepower, they’ll likely be preoccupied and slow to react to running plays outside. Not to mention, the collision in space between a 225-pound back like either Harris and a 190-pound defensive back will undoubtedly favor the Tide. And while the Vol linebackers are decent against the run in the middle of the field, their Jack and Sam penetrate upfield at the snap, effectively taking themselves out of stretch runs to the boundaries in many cases. And there’s no way a 260-pound Jack is going to run down the likes of Jacobs streaming to the edge, no matter how athletic the big man may be.

Another interesting dynamic is the Tide’s red zone offense versus the Volunteers’ red zone defense. Alabama has struggled for whatever reason inside the opponent’s 20, and that issue reared its head last week against Mizzou. In fact, red zone offense is the only offensive measurable (other than the rushing offense at 29th) that ranked outside of the top-10 nationally for the Tide. Alabama’s red zone offense has converted on 33 of 40 tries, or 82.5 percent, which is good for 80th in the country. With such an explosive offense, that is a puzzling stat to be sure, and with the Tide’s luck in the kicking game, Bama must improve its red zone offense or risk losing scoring opportunities against better opponents.

Fortunately for Alabama, the team they’re playing this week has one of the worst red zone defenses in the nation. The Vols have allowed scores by opponents on all 17 trips into the red zone this season. That has earned them a ranking of 125th in the country in red zone defense. In other words, when Bama penetrates the 20, they’ll have no excuses for failing to score this week.

Alabama’s offense should have its way with Tennessee’s defense this weekend. Should. That doesn’t mean they will, however. The Vols do enough things well that they can seriously put a kink in Bama’s game plan. Even if they can’t completely shut down the Tagovailoa-led offense altogether, they can wreak a little havoc in the pass rush, give the young quarterback some things to look at, force him to execute the offense on a shortened timeline, and make the receivers work for every open lane they get.

The Alabama defense versus the Tennessee offense

There’s something about this Tennessee offense that is eerily similar to South Carolina 2010. The Gamecocks managed to dethrone Alabama thanks to stingy defense, a solid if not explosive running game, an average quarterback playing over his head and getting lucky breaks, and a big and athletic receiving corps that won most of the 50-50 ball contests for big plays.

Fast-forward to this Tennessee team. They have a somewhat stingy defense. They don’t have a Marcus Lattimore in the backfield, but they do have a Ty Chandler, a back who is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. They have a Stephen Garcia-esque quarterback in Jared Guarantano. He has a middlin’ skill set but good efficiency who played beyond himself against Auburn last week. They definitely have the big-bodied receivers in Marquez Callaway, John Palmer, Brandon Johnson, and Jauan Jennings. Those receivers have a knack for high-pointing contested balls and coming down with them, as they did on six occasions against Auburn last week in the victory.

Alabama, on the other hand, has a defense quite like the one they fielded in 2010. It’s studded with five-star players whose talent is not in question. They are, however, young. Though many now have half a season under their belts, that still is relatively light experience. Depth is also an issue, as injuries have taken their toll on the Tide’s roster. Even where the first stringers have been excellent, there are unknowns behind them.

While Ty Helton’s offense has been somewhat anemic for most of the year, they came into their own against a top-10 defense last week against Auburn. The Tigers simply couldn’t stop them, and UT did what they wanted with the ball.

Even with last week’s offensive explosion against Auburn, however, the returns for Helton in his first year on Rocky Top have been less than encouraging. The Vols are ranked in the bottom third of the country in most major offensive stats. They’re 97th in total offense (366 yards per game), 93rd in passing offense (207 yards per game), 81st in rushing offense (159 yards per game), and 82nd in scoring offense 26.67 points per game). That’s not the kind of offensive performance that will allow a team to keep pace with the Tide on the scoreboard, to be sure.

But the Vols may be turning the corner. Though the rushing offense was pathetic against Auburn’s stout run defense (they only netted 70 yards on the ground), Guarantano put on a show through the air with the help of his receivers. Tennessee lit of the Auburn defense to the tune of 328 yards passing on a 21-of-32 performance with two TDs and no interceptions. He distributed the ball to 10 different receivers and looked sharp overall.

Was last week’s game against Auburn Guarantano’s Garcia moment? Or does he have more in store for Alabama this week?

Alabama’s defense has not yet played up to the lofty standard overall it has set in past campaigns, though last week’s win over Missouri demonstrated marked progress. The Mizzou offense was one of the top 20 offensive units in the nation, and Alabama’s defense managed to shut them down for the most part. NFL prospect Drew Lock was held to 142 yards through the air while going 13-of-26 with a single touchdown and two interceptions. And Bama did that without its injured lockdown corner Trevon Diggs. Against the run, the Tide returned to ferocious form, holding Mizzou to a mere 70 yards on the ground. That’s the defensive standard Alabama typically upholds, and they did it last week against one of the best offenses in the nation.

So with both teams potentially emerging, what outcome can be expected? Helton’s offense is a bit of a throwback. It’s the yin to the yang of hurry-up spread offenses. It’s a plodding, pro-style siege engine sort of offense that may lack in explosiveness but makes up for it in efficiency. It’s a type of offense upon which Saban cut his teeth as a younger coach, and there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t relish the opportunity to match his defense against an old-school offense in a bout of ManBall.

The biggest concern for Alabama will be the pass rush, as that’s the key to defeating the Tennessee offense. If Guarantano doesn’t have the time to throw the deep balls that his receivers caught past week, there’s no reason to believe the Vols will have more direct path to the end zone through Bama’s defense. If he’s allowed to wait for his big receivers to run themselves semi-open and leap after jump balls, they can threaten to win the field position battle, burn up the clock, and keep Alabama’s potent offense off the field. Through much of the season, the only surefire way to keep Alabama from scoring has been to keep Tua on the sideline.

Tennessee actually has the offensive manpower to execute a gnashing, muddied style of offense. They tried to execute it against Georgia to keep the Bulldogs offense off the field, but it didn’t work as planned. The same result will problem occur this week, but one can be sure that Helton will try to manage the clock, stretch drives, let Guarantano make short high-percentage throws, and keep the chains moving. If UT can run 60-65 offensive plays and string together long 12-play drives that end in scores, they’ll have a chance of at least partially neutralizing Bama’s offensive strength.

Circling back to Bama’s keys, none of those potential UT successes will be possible if Alabama forces Guarantano out of the pocket, rattles his cage, and makes him get the ball out quickly. He doesn’t have a particularly quick release, and Bama’s corners are good enough to manage the big receivers (as they’ve done against countless tall WR corps this season) for short spurts while the front seven wreaks havoc on the QB. The Tennessee line is the weak spot of the offense, and there’s little reason to believe that the Tide’s trio of Quinnen Williams, Raekwon Davis, and Isaiah Buggs won’t cave in the pocket more often than not. Though Guarantano was recruited as a dual-threat quarterback, he’s not fleet of foot and hasn’t displayed that skill set to date. Therefore, Bama’s D linemen and OLBs will pin their ears back and pursue, and with only flagging resistance from an outmanned offensive line, they’ll be disruptive throughout the game.

If Alabama can’t create some kind of consistent pressure though, Tennessee will have a puncher’s chance of keeping pace with Alabama. The Vol receivers will have a height advantage on Bama’s DBs, and they’ve demonstrated their ability to come down with the ball. If Guarantano gets time to throw, they could parlay those seconds into huge plays in which they take advantage of the physical mismatch against Tide DBs.

Tennessee’s running game hasn’t been dynamic, and the Vols won’t be able to count on it to take the pressure off the passing game. The passing game, however, can open up the running game. If Alabama stonewalls the running game as expected, Tennessee would be wise to exploit Bama’s inside linebackers in coverage against tight ends like Eli Wolf and Dominick Wood-Anderson. The Tide’s linebackers played better in coverage last week, but there were still multiple blown assignments that resulted in incomplete passes because of Lock’s inability to connect. If Guarantano can connect on those underneath belly routes, then UT may get exactly what they want with long, time-consuming drives built on short gains, even if those short gains don’t come via the ground.

Alabama’s defense looked better than it has all year last week, but the same can be said of Tennessee’s offense. Both units played excellent competition and graded out well. Alabama will need great defensive back play, an oppressive pass rush, and a little luck to totally neutralize the UT offense. On the other hand, the Vols will need long drives, downfield completions on jump balls, and a little luck of their own to make hay against Bama.

Special Teams

Joseph Bulovas looked good once again in his placekicking role for Alabama, as he was called on to attempt four FGs, making three of them. While he’s not Van Tiffin yet, his steadiness seems to be increasing. Alabama won’t need him to win a championship, but he must be consistent if nothing else. Skyler DeLong continues to struggle. He hasn’t been used often, but on his first punt in several games, he boomed a 12-yarder. (Not a typo.) Alabama is not as dependent on field position this season as they have been in the past, but if there’s an option to go for it on fourth down rather than punt, the Tide will go with increased frequency until the punting improves.

The return game continues to thrive. Jacobs has looked good on kick returns, as he brought back three for 88 yards last week, the longest one being 50 yards. Waddle didn’t get much return opportunity last week on punts, but everyone knows what he’s capable of doing. Only a matter of time before he breaks another one for a TD.

While Alabama struggles in the punting game, Tennessee has an elite leg in senior Corey Fatoney. Fatoney averages a whopping 45.2 yards per kick, and he has a long of 60 yards. Placekicker Tucker McCann is less solid, as he’s a 72.2 percent kicker while making 13-of-18. He does have a long of 57 yards though, which is impressive.

The kick returners for the Vols are running back Tyler Badie, who has returned six for 133 yards with a long of 35. Jonathan Johnson returns punts, and his average is less stellar, with two returns for -11 yards.

The Third Saturday in October rivalry is one of the more storied ones in southern football, though it hasn’t been much of a contest since Nick Saban came to Tuscaloosa. The Vols have endured more than a decade wandering the wilderness, and they’d trade their first-born for a chance at beating Alabama in Neyland Stadium this weekend.

But Alabama is on a mission this season, and it’s much bigger than even this bitter rivalry can contain. The Tide have a chance to be one of the best offensive teams in college football history. Tagovailoa has an opportunity to bring Bama its third Heisman. Nick Saban has a chance to win his sixth National Championship to tie Paul Bear Bryant for most National Championships won by a coach.

Alabama is hungry to be sure, but the Vols are too. They have a fiery competitor with Alabama ties in the head coaching seat. They have a virulent hatred for all things Alabama stoked by their AD Fulmer. They have a talented team that does a few key things well enough to give the Tide a run for their money. While it’s hard to bet against Alabama and the four-touchdown spread that Vegas is giving, there likely weren’t many people who thought the Vols would take down Auburn, either. Of note is that the spread in favor of Auburn opened at 20 points, and the Vols won by six.

There’s also the fact that this game will be played in Neyland. After last week’s win over the Tigers, the Vols are preening their puke-orange feathers and strutting once again. The last several times Bama visited Knoxville, the outcome seemed a fait accompli, and the fire of the UT nation had withered. Now, however, it’s once again been stoked by Pruitt’s first signature win. As unlikely as a victory over Alabama may seem, Volunteers believe Pruitt gives them their best chance in a decade to finally throw the curse from their shoulders with a win over the Tide.

Can Tennessee break with recent history and upset one of the best football teams of the last decade? Can Pruitt and Sherrer crack the code of stopping Tagovailoa and his multi-headed hydra of an offense? If Tua at 100 percent healthy again, and if not, can Jalen Hurts step into the fray and command his offense to victory? Will Bama’s defense be up to the task of stopping Guarantano and his elite receiving corps? Or will luck favor the Vols and hand them big play after big play in the passing game?

Plenty to think about on the eve of this Third Saturday in October…hope for the best.