But even after a 27-0 start for the Tide, the Vols (3-5, 0-4 SEC) refused to go easily, cutting the lead down as close as 10 points in the second half. That slow start was too much to overcome in the end, however.
“We didn’t let that faze us,” freshman running back Jalen Hurd said of the early deficit. “We pulled it together. We knew what we needed to do, and we went out there and did it. Unfortunately it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to, but we’re going to fix our few mistakes.”
The Tide’s scores came fast and furious early. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, making his first return to Knoxville since bolting for Southern California in 2009, dialed up a nice play to receiver Amari Cooper on Alabama’s first offensive play of the game. Cooper cut across the formation on a route as quarterback Blake Sims ran a bootleg, made the grab and took it 80 yards for a quick touchdown. The extra point failed, making it 6-0.
Cooper struck again on Alabama’s second drive, this time hauling in a 41-yard touchdown from Sims to give the Tide a 13-0 lead.
“[Cooper] played great,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “I mean, the guy’s a great player. When he plays fast, he’s hard to cover. Blake did a really good job in the game throwing the ball. Blake made some huge plays, two scramble third downs to keep drives alive. Blake did a really good job of throwing the ball, and Coop did a great job of getting open.”
Butch Jones wasn’t surprised to see Cooper pile up nine catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
“Cooper’s an elite athlete,” Jones said. “I think he showed it tonight. Everyone’s (had Cooper go off on them). He should be up there in the Heisman Trophy.”
A third touchdown drive in the first quarter – this time capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by T.J. Yeldon – put Alabama up 20-0.
Alabama continued to roll in the second quarter. Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who relieved Nathan Peterman on the third series of the game, coughed up a fumble that Alabama scooped up in Tennessee territory. A few plays later, Sims took a keeper 28 yards to build what seemed to be an untouchable 27-0 edge with 12:03 left in the second quarter.
That’s when Dobbs settled in and the game changed. Listed as the third quarterback all season, the true sophomore got his chance on Saturday when Justin Worley (shoulder) was ruled out and Peterman was ineffective for two drives.
Dobbs burned a potential redshirt season, but made a case that he could be this team’s quarterback of the future – and the present.
“I thought Josh Dobbs provided a spark for us,” Jones said. “It adds a whole other element and dimension offensively. You have Jalen Hurd in the backfield and Josh Malone. Our tight ends, now, (opponents) just can’t pin their ears back and come after you because being able to run the quarterback, move the pocket and do some different things.”
A 44-yard run by senior running back Marlin Lane set Dobbs up for his first touchdown pass, a 9-yard strike to Malone at the 7:03 mark of the second quarter to pull UT within 20. Dobbs engineered a drive at the end of the first half that stalled in the red zone, but gave the Vols a field goal – and perhaps most importantly, hope – going into the second half trailing 27-10.
Dobbs wasn’t done, leading Vols on an 84-yard drive midway through the third quarter capped by a 9-yard pass to Von Pearson on third and goal that cut Alabama’s lead to 10. Dobbs finished the game 19-of-32 for 192 yards with two pass touchdowns and added 75 yards on the ground to go along with one INT and the one fumble.
“I feel like I played well, of course there is always room for improvement,” Dobbs said. “I know we had two turnovers tonight. So we’ve got to eliminate that. The first maxim is ‘the team that makes the fewer mistakes will win.’ So we have to do a good job of eliminating those turnovers in practice, but there is a lot of positives we can take out of the game.”
The Tide was just too much from that point on though. Alabama (7-1, 4-1) responded with an impressive touchdown drive late in the third quarter to rebuild a 34-17 lead.
They would fumble twice in the fourth quarter, but UT mustered only a field goal off of those two opportunities and never seriously threatened to complete the comeback.
But for a Tennessee team that had been scuffling coming into Saturday night, a closer-than-expected loss to a national championship contender can give some confidence to a squad that now needs to win three of its final four games to become bowl eligible. The schedule lightens up a touch for the Vols and perhaps UT is on the verge of breaking through for some wins.
“You can talk about confidence all you want but how do you really develop confidence – through your week of preparation and by having success,” Jones said. “Again, we have to spring board the success that we had and continue to grow from it. We talk about red zone opportunities. We still needed to score touchdowns as opposed to kick field goals. It’s a game of inches. I felt the field goal kick at the end of the first half was needed for positive momentum for going into the locker room and Aaron Medley continuing to kick well in some pressure situations for us. I do believe some confidence was born tonight.”
• Jones said they ruled Worley (shoulder) out on Friday and that there’s no timetable going forward for his return.
• Twenty points are the most the Vols have scored against Alabama since 2003.
• Defensive tackles Trevarris Saulsberry and Owen Williams were among the players who left the game with injuries.
• Right tackle Coleman Thomas and left guard Marcus Jackson were both unable to play due to injury. The starting offensive line from left to right was Brett Kendrick, Kyler Kerbyson, Mack Crowder, Jashon Robertson and Jacob Gilliam.