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Alabama vs Tennessee Preview: When Alabama has the ball

Will Henry To’o To’o be able to slow down Najee Harris and the Alabama offense?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, this is obligatory:

With that out of the way, we can get into the meat of this. While we talked yesterday about many of the shortcomings of the Tennessee offense, their defense has been average-to-good, with their only truly bad outing being a 44-point showing against Georgia.

They’re averaging 29 points per game, which is decidedly average, nationally, but have held their opponents to less than 230 yards passing per game and kept their opponents to 3.6 yards per carry in the rushing game.

Second year defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley is a familiar name to Alabama fans after a phenomenal two seasons as Alabama’s defensive backs coach in 2016 and 2017. Drawing form his time at Alabama, Ansley runs a base 3-4 defensive scheme that is happy to walk up one or even both outside linebackers to really stack the line of scrimmage. And more often than not, he’s got his defense in a cover 3 zone with a single high safety, even furthering his commitment to stopping the opponent’s run game and short passing game. He will mix in some cover 4 split safeties at times, but overall they tend to stay in zone much more often than man coverage. And they don’t tend to send too many blitzes.

Despite a solid first four games in defending the run, Jeremy Pruitt fired Tennessee’s defensive line coach rather unexpectedly earlier this week and is set to take over those responsibilities himself. The big three up front don’t get a whole lot in the way of sacks and recognition, but nose tackle Aubrey Solomon is a name that many Alabama fans may remember from his days as a recruit. Defensive end LaTrell Bumphus also has a couple of sacks so far this season.

At linebacker, Henry To’o To’o is possibly the best player on the team. He was a freshman All-American last year and is on pretty much every defensive player award watch list for the 2020 season. Through four games, he leads the team in tackles and tackles for loss, as well as taking an interception for a touchdown. Meanwhile, outside linebacker Deandre Johnson is making a case to be one of the better edge rushers in the SEC, racking up 3.5 sacks already in this short season.

Cornerback Bryce Thompson is a 3rd year starter with a lot of production in terms of interceptions over the last couple of seasons and is the best defensive back for the Volunteers. Nickelback Shawn Shamburger is a do-it-all kind of player who’s one of the team’s best blitzers, and safety Jaylen McCollough is the deep safety who will be tasked with helping out the corners in covering deep shots.

I expect To’o To’o and the aggressive front scheme of Tennessee to keep Alabama from really being able to establish a consistent run game or any sort of horizontal screen game. Their linebackers are just too good from side-to-side and the defensive scheme is already built to limit those short plays like that.

On the other hand, if Ansley is determined to stay in a cover 3 zone with a safety walking up in the box all game long, expect Mac Jones to happily let Jaylen Waddle and John Metchie run fly route after fly route down the sidelines to stress the single high safety. Also watch for DeVonta Smith and Miller Forristall on sideline fade and out routs about 10 yards down the field.

Honestly though, the Vols don’t have anywhere near the defensive talent that Georgia had, and Alabama just hung north of 40 points and 600 yards on them. While Pruitt and Ansley will have some schematic ideas to slow the Tide down a bit in the first half (especially if Steve Sarkisian is determined to stick with a short passing game, like he does sometimes), I don’t expect them to be able to hang with Alabama’s offense into the 2nd half. Expect 45 points from Alabama.