Well, it took a school record in a category that no team ever wants to set and a pandemic that allowed Hendon Hooker to become a fourth year starting QB in his sixth season of eligibility at almost 25 years of age, but Tennessee finally managed to field a team that could beat Alabama by the narrowest of margins. With Alabama’s defense playing as well as it had to date and Bryce Young’s shoulder the question of the week, very few predicted a shootout featuring over 1100 yards of offense and 100 points. Alas, that’s what we got, and it didn’t go Alabama’s way.
A few impressions:
Undisciplined play finally cost them
Penalties have been a problem for this team all year, but they have managed to overcome them until last night, as they set the aforementioned school record 17 for a whopping 139 yards, a full 91 yards more than Tennessee. The bonehead play on the muffed punt also goes into thie discipline category and I’m sure you all have your standout examples as well.
It’s not a stretch to say that the difference in penalty yards was the difference in the game, particularly since total offense ended up at 569 to 567. On the drive to tie the game at 49, Alabama was called for two questionable pass interference fouls, one of which negated a long interception return that would have iced the game for all intents and purposes and possibly even covered the spread for the Tide.
You never blame officials for a loss because there are always plays that the team could have made to render calls meaningless, but allowing the Vols to hit Bryce Young in the head with impunity was borderline criminal. Alabama was called for holding three times in the first quarter alone, and Tennessee’s poor secondary that was missing a couple of starters interfered exactly once onYoung’s 52 pass attempts. That’s all I have to say about that.
For the second straight week, short fields killed the Tide
Tennessee was afforded two short fields in the first half and converted both into quick touchdowns. The first came on the muffed punt by Quandarrius Robinson. It’s hard to fault Robinson for trying to recover the ball if he truly believed that Kool Aid had touched it. He needed to simply fall on it though if that were the case. Trying to scoop it as he did was either just a basic error in execution or, more likely I fear, some of the self indulgent behavior Saban spoke about last week where he saw an opportunity to run with the ball and went with it. We will likely never know.
The second one came on a shanked punt that highlights a point I made after the Texas game: the defense, especially at the college level, should always prefer a punt from the end zone with a short drop over a safety. How the Tide got into that position was a microcosm of the game. For the second straight kickoff, they attempted a return rather than a fair catch and a holding call was the result. This moved the ball from the 25 to the 14. Jase McClellan was then called for a hold to move the ball to the 7, then a Gibbs false start moved it to the 4.
On first and 20, a wide open Traeshon Holden dropped a pass that hit him right in the hands and would have been an explosive play if not a 96 yard TD. Seth McLaughlin’s bad snap problems then showed up at about the worst time on second down. The ball nearly touched the end line but didn’t, and Young was able to throw it away. In hindsight would the safety have worked out better in the game? Maybe, but you can’t fault the kid for keeping the possession alive with another down to go. Of course, we then moved the ball to the 2 with a delay of game and ended up shanking a punt from the there.
Speed kills, and Alabama doesn’t have enough of it at safety
In the second half Tennessee’s entire offense was the aforementioned drive that was extended by the two pass interference calls, and two long strikes to Jalen Hyatt who ran by Alabama’s safeties. Hyatt also had a long one in the first half when he ran past Demarcco Hellams. It’s tough to scheme for a guy who can take the top off of your defense, and Heupel did a masterful job getting him in matchups with defenders who had no hope of running with him. Terrion Arnold and Kool Aid McKinstry held up pretty well for the most part outside, but there just isn’t enough speed in the slot positions.
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps this would have been a game to give Eli Ricks or Khyree Jackson some run outside while Kool Aid played in the slot again, assuming Ricks is still on the roster after his social media hissy fit this week. Should Alabama have the opportunity to play the Vols again, and I think they might if the Tide manages to navigate the rest of the schedule, you have to wonder if that adjustment is made. None of Alabama’s safeties can run with Hyatt, nor Cedric Tillman who will be back by then and wasn’t needed in this one.
Bryce’s shoulder was just fine, and he nearly won the game
For a guy who hadn’t been able to take all the reps during the week, Bryce was about as sharp as he could have been. While none of us can know the level of pain he was in, the shoulder didn’t seem to affect his throws. With a little help from the defense, his would have gone down as a legendary performance in this series.
Some credit should also be given to the pass catchers. Cameron Latu had one of his best games, with a couple of tough grabs. Jermaine Burton won a big time 50/50 ball. Jo Jo Earle had an explosive play, and a shot downfield to Isaiah Bond was about as pretty a throw and catch as you will ever see. Bond and Kobe Prentice continue to flash potential that reminds of the Rydeouts as freshmen.
Alabama was able to run the ball
Tennessee came in with one of the nation’s best run defenses, and they definitely held Jahmyr Gibbs below his average, but he still was able to get 103 yards on 24 carries including three scores. He added another 48 yards on 5 receptions. It’s very difficult for defenders to keep him in front of them. Where would this Alabama offense be without Jahmyr?
Alabama’s pass rush was almost nonexistent
The best way to keep a team from taking those downfield shots against the secondary is to get after the passer, but Alabama was also intent on trapping Hooker in the pocket. Take a look at Hyatt’s 4th touchdown of the afternoon. We had a four man rush and single high safety, but they weren’t really trying to rush the passer.
HYATT TO THE HOUSE FOR THE 4TH TIME!— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 15, 2022
NEYLAND STADIUM IS VERY LOUD! pic.twitter.com/hUSsHBbQJq
Hooker ran for 56 yards on the night, which was enough to force this adjustment. It just shows again how dangerous true dual threat QBs are to a defense. Jalen Milroe can be this type of player if he can improve as a passer in the offseason.
The other part of it is that Tennessee kept in seven blockers. They knew that all they needed was time for Hyatt to get behind the safeties, and they got it. Hooker’s pocket was clean and he never even bothered to look in another direction.
Will Reichard has to be a bit of a concern at this point
Will looked like a stone cold killer since he’s been kicking for the Tide until three games ago, but he has now missed 4 of his last 7 tries. The good news is that all of the balls have been well struck, he has simply missed. The one this week was from 50 yards which is always a difficult kick, and for whatever reason his signature draw just didn’t happen as it stayed right. You have to be concerned about his confidence.
No time to sulk
This Tennessee game was supposed to be the end of the toughest three game stretch on the schedule, but it turns out that the slate is more backloaded than we realized. Mississippi State’s Will Rogers can run and stress defenses downfield as well, and if Alabama comes out emotionally drained from this one and looking forward to the bye week, they could very easily see their playoff chances come to an end in October for the first time. Get past Mississippi State and LSU, and you’re likely looking at a raucous winner-take-all affair in Oxford on November 12.
As Saban said after the game, all goals are still in front of this team and previous Alabama teams have managed to recover after purportedly fatal flaws were exposed in losses. He also said recently that some of his teams have needed to lose in order to fully understand why discipline is so important. This Alabama team will be defined by how well they learn that lesson and finish the season. Tennessee is likely going to move up to #3 in the country after this win, and a three point loss on the road to that caliber of team is nothing that the committee will punish.
Hope for the best.