5 Observations: No. 1 Alabama 35, Tennessee 13

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    Much to the surprise of almost everyone in the college football world, Tennessee had a chance to draw within one score of No. 1 Alabama late in the fourth quarter. Then, as it often does for the Vols, disaster struck.

    Tennessee trailed Alabama 28-13 with seven and a half minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The Vols just picked up a couple yards on the ground to push the line of scrimmage to the one-yard line, and it was fourth down. Jarrett Guarantano was filling in for the injured Brian Maurer, and he rushed the offense to the line for their fourth down play.

    According to head coach Jeremy Pruitt after the game, there was a “miscommunication” on the play call on fourth down. And it showed.

    Guarantano tried to sneak it into the end zone, and he attempted to go over the top of the pile. Instead, he was stonewalled, and the ball flew out of his hands. Alabama’s Trevon Diggs was there to pick up the ball once it hit the ground, and he scooped it up and sprinted down the other end of the field for a 100-yard fumble recovery touchdown.

    That play will likely overshadow what was Tennessee’s best effort against Alabama in almost half a decade. The Vols tied the game 7-all in the first quarter on a Brian Maurer rushing touchdown, and Tennessee never trailed by more than two scores till that final nail in the coffin.

    But between Maurer’s injury, Guarantano’s poor play in relief, questionable officiating, and missed opportunities, Tennessee came up short against Alabama once again, dropping their 13th-straight game to the Tide.

    Here are our five biggest takeaways from the Vols’ 35-13 loss.

    Battle of Backup Quarterbacks

    In the first half, both starting quarterbacks went down with injury. Tennessee’s Brian Maurer exited late in the first quarter after taking a late hit (that was initially called a penalty then picked up after review), and as he was falling, his head hit his own lineman’s foot. After that, Maurer never returned, and Jarrett Guarantano took over at quarterback.

    In the second quarter, Alabama’s Heisman hopeful quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was sacked by UT’s Greg Emerson, and he was shaken up on the play. Tagovailoa was limping and seemed to be favoring his ankle, and he never returned to the game. Replacing him was Mac Jones, who played in garbage time for the Tide this season but had never played meaningful snaps.

    The results…were ugly on both sides of the ball.

    Guarantano went 7-of-16 for 55 yards and had the fumble at the goal line in the fourth quarter that was returned for a touchdown by Alabama. Jones, on the other hand, was 6-of-11 for 72 yards. Jones wasn’t asked to do much other than hand the ball off on a lot of occasions.

    Coming into the game, many expected to see Alabama’s offense light it up and ride the arm of Tua to victory. Instead, the Tide had to grind out a win with their defense and rushing attack after Tagovailoa went down.

    As for Tennessee, we’ll get to that quarterback situation in a minute.

    Questionable Officiating 

    If there’s one thing Vol fans will absolutely be talking about for the next week about this game, it’s the officiating.

    Whether it was a highly questionable “unnecessary roughness” penalty on Darrell Taylor after hitting Mac Jones, a missed defensive pass interference in the end zone, a questionable couple calls at the goal line on another UT possession that ended in a field goal, the decision to pick up the flag after Brian Maurer’s injury, or a couple other questionable or blown calls, Vol fans have plenty of reason to be angry at the officiating of Saturday’s game.

    Tennessee made enough mistakes to lose the game themselves, but they certainly were done no favors by the refs. The Vols can’t completely blame this loss on the officiating, but it would be naive to not throw some of the responsibility on their shoulders.

    The refs made some poor calls against Alabama, too. But it certainly looked like the officiating was a lot more one-sided than usual.

    Lots of “What Ifs”

    This game, probably more than any other Tennessee-Alabama game since the 2015 contest or maybe even the 2009 game, had a ton of “what if” moments upon reflection that could’ve completely changed the game.

    What if Brian Maurer doesn’t get hurt late in the first quarter? The freshman was playing well early on, completing five of his seven passes for 62 yards (and an interception that wasn’t his fault). What if that Darrell Taylor penalty wasn’t called, and the Vols forced their second-straight three-and-out on defense? That drive ended up going from a defensive stand to give the Vols the ball back down by one score to Alabama driving down the field and scoring a touchdown to make it 28-13.

    Those are only the two biggest ones that immediately spring to mind. There are several other “what if” plays that did or didn’t go Tennessee’s way that could’ve drastically changed the outcome of Saturday’s game, such as the fumble at the goal line, a few other penalty calls/no-calls, and more.

    Tennessee did a lot to put themselves in a position to win on Saturday. But for one reason or another, they just came up short.

    No QB Question at All

    For most Vol fans, there wasn’t any sort of “quarterback debate” still lingering heading into Saturday’s game. Even with Jarrett Guarantano playing well in relief of Brian Maurer against Mississippi State, the majority of fans still expected Maurer to be UT’s starter moving forward.

    After Saturday’s game against Alabama, any chance of a “quarterback controversy” for the rest of the season can be completely thrown out the window.

    Guarantano made several poor throws and reads yet again on Saturday, missing a wide open receiver for a touchdown in the second half, holding the ball too long on a few occasions, missing a wide open Tim Jordan on a crucial third down, and, of course, the botched quarterback sneak at the goal line that resulted in a fumble and a touchdown return by Alabama.

    After that fumble, Guarantano was replaced by redshirt freshman JT Shrout, though Shrout only played a handful of snaps to run out the rest of the game.

    As long as Brian Maurer is healthy, he’ll be Tennessee’s starting quarterback for the rest of the season. Keeping him healthy seems to be quite the challenge, though.

    Look at the Positives

    There are a lot of reasons to be frustrated and angry if you’re a Vol fan after this game. But most of those reasons have nothing to do with the effort, coaching, and execution of Tennessee’s players (with the obvious exception of a few players).

    Tennessee held Alabama’s offense to season-lows in almost every major statistical category. A lot of that, obviously, had to do with the fact that Tua Tagovailoa left the game in the first half and didn’t return, but even with that, the Vols weren’t gashed by Alabama’s rushing attack too badly and did a decent job of containing a dangerous Tide passing attack.

    Alabama totaled a season-low 28 points on offense, 373 yards of total offense, and 233 passing yards. Their 6.4 yards per play were also the lowest mark of the season.

    Offensively, running back Tim Jordan played the best game of his career, rushing for 94 yards on 17 carries, providing a spark for UT’s ground game. Jordan ripped off a 33-yard run and gained tough yards time and time again. Ty Chandler had a 25-yard run himself, and Eric Gray had a couple good runs, too. All in all, the Vols totaled 114 rushing yards against Alabama, and the running backs totaled 129 yards combined (sacks took away from that total).

    The Vols had a chance to make it a one-score game late in the fourth quarter, and Tennessee’s coaching staff actually seemed to out-coach Alabama’s staff for most of the game. If UT had a little better depth, a little better overall talent, and didn’t have Brian Maurer get hurt in the first quarter, who knows what happens?

    Tennessee has a lot of positivity to build off of from this game. And with the rest of their schedule looking very winnable, Saturday’s game could be a nice springboard.