How the Vols Can Show Progress on Saturday vs. Alabama

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    Photo by Allie Suber/RTI

    Let’s face it, Alabama is going to beat Tennessee on Saturday.

    With the understanding that the game has to be played on the field, and not on paper, I’m writing this off as a loss for the Vols. As a competitor, you hate to see it. But the top-ranked Crimson Tide are arguably the best team college football has ever seen. Against Florida last month, Tennessee was as low as it’s ever been, but even a good win over Auburn last weekend won’t propel the Vols enough to victory in this one.

    The two programs are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum, and as a result, Tennessee is 29-point underdogs. I’m not one for moral victories, but against Alabama, it’s all about showing progress.

    Here’s how Tennessee can beat Alabama and display progress, without actually beating Alabama.

    Force Alabama to not score a touchdown on its opening possession.

    In all seven games this season, Alabama has scored a touchdown on its opening possession. A good majority of them have come within the opening minute.

    If Tennessee wins the coin toss, Jeremy Pruitt should put his defense on the field first and attempt to set the tone early. Not allowing the Crimson Tide to score on their opening drive would give Tennessee’s defense some hope early on. After that, try to yuck the game up as much as possible.

    Give Tua a reason to play in the fourth quarter

    This might be the most impressive ‘Tua” stat out there: Tagovailoa hasn’t played in the fourth quarter of any of Alabama’s games this season because of the Crimson Tide’s dominance. The college football world has joked all season long that Tagovailoa has been putting up video game-like numbers, but I would argue that some of his game logs are better than video game numbers.

    Tagovailoa not playing in the fourth quarter is the biggest indicator of Alabama’s dominance in 2018. If Tennessee can force the sophomore phenom to play in the fourth quarter on Saturday, the Vols would have done something no other team has this year.

    Make Tua throw three or more passes in the third quarter

    Similar to the absurd fourth quarter stat above, Tagovailoa is attempting on average just three passes in the third quarter this season. That’s yet another indicator of Alabama’s dominance this season.

    While Tagovailoa has been impressive through the air, it hasn’t exactly come against great secondaries. Statistically, Arkansas State is the best pass defense Alabama has faced, checking in at fourth-best in the country. The best Power Five pass defense the Crimson Tide has faced is Louisville, coming in at 21st-best, and then Texas A&M, who ranks 93rd in the country. Four of the five Power Five opponents Alabama has faced this season rank 93rd or worse in pass defense.

    Tennessee’s pass defense ranks 42nd in the country after facing elite receiver rooms in West Virginia, Florida, and Georgia. The Crimson Tide and star receiver Jerry Jeudy will be the next big test against the talented freshmen duo of Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson.

    Be the first to pick off Tua

    Yet another insane stat for Tagovailoa: 21 touchdowns, zero interceptions. Just a remarkable start to his Heisman campaign.

    Tennessee ranks 10th in the SEC in interceptions, picking off just four passes through six games. Two of those came this past weekend against a struggling Jarrett Stidham in Auburn. If Tennessee wants to hang around in this football game, it’s going to have to get pressure on Tagovailoa and hope that he makes an ill-advised throw. If, and when Tagovailoa makes that ill-advised throw, Tennessee has to capitalize on it by forcing a turnover.

    Turnover free football

    Alabama’s secondary is tied for second in the nation with 12 interceptions, four of which have been returned for touchdowns, which leads the country.

    Heading into the season, there was concern surrounding the Crimson Tide’s young secondary. Though the group has struggled at times (by Alabama standards), they’ve been a pleasant surprise. Patrick Surtain II has burst on to the scene as a true freshman and cemented himself as one of the best corners in the country.

    Even when the injury bug bit the secondary, Saivion Smith stepped up and picked off Drew Lock of Missouri twice despite the loss of Trevon Diggs for the season. With guys stepping up in the secondary and Tua not turning the football over, Alabama has a turnover margin of 1.57 per game, the best in the SEC and fourth best in the country.

    Jarrett Guarantano has only thrown two interceptions on the season. On one, he threw into heavy coverage against Florida. On the other, the Gators blew up a screen and Guarantano floated the ball right to a Florida defender. If Tennessee’s offense can have a turnover-free game for the third straight game, the Vols have a good chance of covering.

    Be the worst win on Alabama’s schedule

    Alabama’s “worst” win is a 22-point victory over Texas A&M, who is now ranked No. 17. Its second-worst win is a 39-10 win over Missouri last weekend. In the other five games this season, Alabama’s opponent has only come within 40 points of the Tide twice.

    As Pruitt mentioned during his Monday press conference, Alabama has had to make a concerted effort not to score 100 points at times this season. That’s not a cliché either. Not only does Alabama win big, but it establishes its lead early in the game. The Tide put up 65 against Arkansas, 56 against Louisiana, 62 against Ole Miss, 57 against Arkansas State, and 51 against Louisville.

    The recipe for being Alabama’s “worst” win is simple: Force Alabama into some turnovers, don’t commit any turnovers, win on special teams, and try to find a way to score touchdowns on either defense or special teams. Easier said than done, though.

    Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Josh Palmer

    Tennessee’s receiver group has to have as big of a game against Alabama as they did against Auburn if the Vols want to keep this game close. The trio mentioned above were phenomenal against the Tigers. Jennings, Callaway, and Palmer combined for 10 catches, 210 yards, and a touchdown.

    The trio was at its best when it mattered most, on 50-50 balls and on third down. Guarantano consistently targeted his favorite receivers on third down, completing 11-of-14 of passes, including going 8-of-8 on third-and-8 or longer. He targeted Jennings five times on third down, connecting with the junior on four of them.

    Guarantano was 5-for-8 on his deep passes as Tennessee’s receivers did a phenomenal job of high-pointing the football and bringing down multiple 50-50 balls. Callaway hauled in three, Jennings caught two, and Palmer caught all three of his deep targets.

    Tennessee’s success through the air came against an Auburn secondary who coming into the game was allowing an SEC-best 158 passing yards per game. The Vols’ wide receivers are talented enough to make plays against a talented Alabama secondary. It’ll be critical to staying within striking distance of Alabama that they do.

    Put a dent into Tua’s Heisman resume 

    Even in an Alabama win, nothing would please Tennessee fans more than for Pruitt’s defense to put a dent in Tagovailoa’s Heisman resume. It’ll take an incredible performance, but hey, who knows what may happen. After all, we love college football for a reason.

    Last week, Tagovailoa passed for 265 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri, but he left the game due to a knee injury. The injury existed before the game, dating back to the previous game, but it was evident the knee was bothering him at least a little. Tagovailoa wasn’t as accurate against the Tigers as he had shown to be during September, completing just over 50 percent of his passes.

    If Tennessee can get pressure on the Heisman candidate, who knows how Tagovailoa may respond knowing his knee is already banged up.

    Ben McKee
    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He grew up an Army brat and lived in Alabama for a bit, but he bleeds orange. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also a co-host on the RTI Live Show and RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.