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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 27, 2013
For a period of time about 15 years ago or so, the SEC football world revolved around Florida and Tennessee.
Phil Fulmer had built the Volunteers into a powerhouse, putting out NFL players left and right and – at least in years he could get by Steve Spurrier’s Florida team – annually threatening the top of the AP and Coaches’ polls. In addition, Tennessee enjoyed a cozy relationship with the SEC office, and there was little hiding the fact that Tennessee wanted to consign Alabama to the SEC’s second tier, or worse.
Funny what a difference a decade makes.
Alabama hasn’t lost to Tennessee since Nick Saban took over the Alabama program. Moreover, Tennessee has barely been competitive. In seven games, Alabama has beaten Tennessee by a collective 249-75, an average of 35.6 to 10.7. And that includes the now-famous Terrence Cody “block game” of 2009 that Alabama won by the margin of 12-10.
But this is about more than a handful of lopsided scores in an otherwise competitive – and ancient – rivalry. This is about what the Tennessee program was, and what the Alabama program is.
The Tennessee teams of the 1990s and early 2000s represented the apex for Tennessee football in the post-Neyland era. But the Alabama teams of Nick Saban have far surpassed anything Fulmer was able to muster for the Volunteer program. And now, Alabama has fully turned the tables on Tennessee, with the Crimson Tide taking the role of overpowering, physical bruisers, while Tennessee is struggling to keep up.
And what did new coach Butch Jones do for Tennessee this year? He decided to label Alabama “the red team” in practices, and word of that decision got back to Alabama. Whether Jones meant it as a slight or not is irrelevant; Alabama took it as motivation, and A.J. McCarron’s postgame remarks to the press were proof that Alabama wanted to make sure Tennessee remembered its name on the way home to Knoxville.
Jones may or may not be the right man for the Tennessee job. The program is in shambles, its athletic department budget has more in common with Enron than the SEC and its national profile has been significantly reduced. Tennessee has fallen to a solid fourth in the SEC East in terms of prestige behind Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. And against Alabama, Tennessee too often played sloppy, and when officials finally flagged a Tennessee defender for a late hit on Alabama RB Kenyan Drake, it simply marked the end of an escalation of behavior that had been borderline at best. Jones will need to more clearly delineate high-spiritedness from a lack of poise in the future.
Alabama, meanwhile, has reached its bye week, with a tough LSU team on the schedule in two weeks. While LSU is certainly capable of winning the game, Alabama has been the only SEC team thus far to look capable of dominating anyone it plays.
Against Tennessee, the domination was evident. There was a clear differentiation between these two teams that went deeper than any comparison of units vs. units. Tennessee never had a chance to threaten Alabama, and Alabama could probably have started most of its backups and still won the game by a couple of scores. Given the history of the rivalry and the storied nature of the Tennessee program, it’s almost unfathomable at the depth and breadth of the gulf that now exists between these two programs.
Maybe Butch Jones can bridge that gap in the coming years. But as long as Nick Saban is coaching Alabama, it surely doesn’t seem likely.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Tennessee.
1. Tennessee unable to capitalize on what few advantages it had. The Tennessee offensive line managed to keep Alabama’s pass rushers at bay for the majority of the game, but it didn’t translate into big plays. Starting QB Justin Worley, who was suffering from a hand injury, was wholly ineffective. He was picked twice in the first half and made several horrific throws on simple routes. Had Jones not pulled him in favor of Joshua Dobbs, Worley would have likely thrown five or more interceptions in this game. Tennessee’s running game averaged a respectable 4.5 yards per attempt, but the game was 21-0 by the time the Vols really started trying to attack the Alabama defense on the ground and plans got scrambled at that point. Given that all five linemen are expected to leave Knoxville at the end of the year, next year’s Tennessee team could be scary, and not for good reasons. Tennessee was also unable to leverage Marquez North’s height advantage at wide receiver, and the defense couldn’t get Alabama into enough punting situations to make Devrin Young a factor in returns.
2. Alabama OL takes over the point of attack. Alabama rendered Daniel McCullers irrelevant and kept a tight seal on the edge throughout the game. A.J. McCarron was barely touched and never sacked, while the Crimson Tide just missed having a pair of 100-yard rushers. A total lack of pass rush allowed McCarron to frequently get down as far as his third or fourth option, and a long pass to WR Kevin Norwood at the 6-yard line was a Johnny Manziel moment. Center Ryan Kelly returned to the lineup, and looked better than he ever had prior to his leg injury. Left guard Arie Kouandjio played perhaps his best game yet, and Tennessee’s front seven ended the game with the distinction of having been less effective than the one Alabama faced from Colorado State. Given that LSU’s defense is somewhat exploitable up front, the performance against Tennessee should be encouraging.
3. Secondary did a good job in its first post-Sunseri game. Landon Collins gives Alabama an upgrade at safety in terms of pure athleticism, but Sunseri’s leadership and ability to sniff out unexpected offensive wrinkles won’t be easily replaced. Still, this was a good first effort. Collins’ pick six of Worley was one of several plays that saw Alabama defenders breaking on the route and taking advantage of inexperienced UT receivers. Cyrus Jones got the start opposite Belue at corner with Bradley Sylve out, and did an admirable job, especially against spread running plays. As soon as John Fulton entered the game in relief of Belue, Tennessee began trying to pick on him, but Fulton broke up two passes and played probably his best game of the year. Jarrick Williams continues to be a solid option for Alabama at Star safety.
4. Tennessee’s improved secondary play in 2013 proves just an illusion. Alabama absolutely abused Justin Coleman and Cameron Sutton, the Volunteer cornerbacks. Coleman graduates in 2014; he might stop having Bama-themed nightmares by the time he’s 40, given his games against Alabama up to this point. Alabama committed early to going downfield against the Tennessee secondary and accomplished its task. It would have been even worse if not for a questionable offensive pass interference call on Amari Cooper that wiped out a touchdown. Kevin Norwood probably made himself some money in next April’s NFL Draft, catching 6 balls for 112 yards and a touchdown. Tennessee’s secondary actually did a reasonable job supporting the run, but the aforementioned LOS control meant the defensive backs had no help.
5. Special teams takes a couple of body blows. PK Cade Foster appeared to get dinged up in this game, which allowed Adam Griffith to get some work. Alabama’s kickoff coverage, which previously led the league, is in danger of slipping a bit (new rankings were not available at press time) thanks to Devrin Young, who reached the back level of coverage twice. Vinnie Sunseri’s absence was actually felt here more than in the secondary, basing solely off results. Cody Mandell had a just-so-so day punting the football. Were it not for Christion Jones’ continued brilliance returning punts and kicks, Saturday would have been a disappointing afternoon for this unit. Still, Tennessee won the day here, and Alabama will need to refocus for LSU.
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