For SEC games this season, Daniel Lewis will put together a blueprint for how Tennessee can have its best chance to knock off that week’s opponent. It’s written from a Tennessee coach’s mindset and isn’t necessarily representative of how RTI predicts the game to go.
Offense: Tennessee has seen some good defenses this year, but this is a next-level challenge for the Vols on Saturday in Tuscaloosa. Alabama is loaded on the defensive side of the ball. The numbers show it. Alabama is tops in the league in total defense, rushing defense, interceptions, total takeaways, pass-defense efficiency and is second in scoring defense.
Don’t let the narrative that the secondary isn’t that great fool you. The only reason Alabama isn’t at the top of the conference in passing defense is because teams get down on them and have to throw a ton in an effort to catch up.
The only kryptonite to Nick Saban’s defenses over the past few years has been the rise of the spread offense and mobile quarterbacks who have been able to move around and prevent Alabama’s big, physical defensive fronts from dominating the game in the trenches. Few, if any, teams have been able to line up against Alabama, drive their front off the ball consistently and beat the Tide at their own game. The key is to stretch them out as much as possible, getting to the edge, challenging them vertically and then finding some gaps in the middle once that has been accomplished.
There aren’t too many losses to study for Alabama, but going back to their last five defeats, dating back to the 2013-14 season, one consistent theme is that the teams that beat the Tide get dynamic play from their quarterback.
The last five QBs to beat Alabama could all be described as leaders of a spread attack that at least have some degree of mobility. Their combined average stat line in the wins over Alabama was 256 yards of passing, 2.4 passing touchdowns and 40.4 rushing yards. The rushing total would be closer to 60 yards per game if sacks weren’t included.
Tennessee is going to need that dynamic effort from Joshua Dobbs to have a chance to win it in the fourth quarter. He’d shown bits and piece before the Georgia game, but then he put it all together starting late in the second quarter all the way through the end to give UT its biggest win of the season so far. He showed the potential to have that type of game last year when he came on in relief of Nathan Peterman. Even after missing the first few series, he still completed 19-of-32 passes for 192 yards and ran 19 times for 75 yards. The potential is certainly there for him to put up the type of numbers that history says the Vols will need to compete in this one.
Of course he’ll need help. The wide receivers need to play more like they did against Georgia – with good instincts, good hands and the ability to help Dobbs out when he’s on the move. And Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and the offensive line are going to need to help Dobbs out as well. It probably isn’t realistic to say that the Vols should be able to pound the ball with regularity, but getting those guys to the perimeter and then picking some spots to test the heart of the Alabama defense will help open things up offensively as well.
I’ll talk more about turnovers on the defensive side of the ball, but there’s no way you can watch that Texas A&M film and not mention the importance of protecting the football. Few teams have turned the ball over more than once or twice against Alabama in the Nick Saban era and lived to tell about it. The Tide turned what could’ve been a close game into a bit of a rout in College Station with three pick-sixs. The defense looks for the ball and when it gets it, Alabama does a great job in the “oskie” drill, turning around and helping the defender pick up a huge chunk of yardage or leading him all the way to the end zone.
Defense/special teams: In four of those aforementioned losses for Alabama in the past few years, the Tide averaged 3.75 turnovers per game. The fifth game was the infamous “kick-six” game where Auburn caught the missed field goal in the end zone and took it 109 yards for a touchdown. Regardless how it’s done, the defense (and special teams) must create big plays against the Tide to give you a shot in Tuscaloosa.
The Vols haven’t been great at doing that this year, at least defensively, as they rank 11th in the conference in interceptions and are right in the middle of the conference with four fumbles recovered. That needs to change on Saturday. But there’s more than dumb luck involved when forcing turnovers.
Alabama will be happy to hand the ball to Derrick Henry all afternoon, as they did against Texas A&M, and let the huge take a toll on UT’s defense. In arguably Alabama’s three best overall performances this year, Henry had his three highest yard-per-carry averages against Wisconsin (11.3), Georgia (5.7) and Texas A&M (7.4).
He also averaged 29 carries per game in the big SEC wins over Georgia and A&M. When the offense revolves around him, good things generally happen for Alabama. Really the only realistic way to slow Henry is to get him stopped before he gets going. Outside of perhaps Leonard Fournette at LSU, there isn’t a scarier open-field runner in the nation right now than Henry. He’s almost impossible to bring down with one guy once he gets a head of steam.
The Tide gets in trouble when they lean too much on Jake Coker and the passing game. And that generally only happens when Henry can’t get going on first and second downs and Alabama is forced to throw on third and long. Coker can be very loose with the football when he needs to make a play and the defense is able to get after him. He can also be quietly effective if Henry is rolling and he gets favorable matchups in the secondary because teams are over-stacking the box.
That’s going to be a tricky balance for defensive coordinator John Jancek. At the end of that day, you’d rather die at the hands of Coker making plays in the passing game then Henry slowly gashing you five or six yards at a time, however.
So it all needs to work together for Tennessee. Keep Henry from getting his momentum going, make stops, force Coker into situations where he has to throw down the field and then look for those turnover opportunities.
And as the Aggies showed last week with a punt return for a touchdown and a fumble recovery on special teams, there should be opportunities in that phase of the game as well. Alabama is in the middle of the pack in the SEC in opponent kickoff and punt return average. For a team that does most things at an elite level, that is one area Tennessee will have the opportunity to expose them a bit.
All of this is much easier said than done against a team like Alabama. The Tide will make life difficult on UT, especially offensively, but Tennessee should have the confidence to know that it can stick with Alabama. It’s just going to take a great – if not close to perfect – effort from the Vols to actually pull it off.