Tennessee preview: Vols improving, but they’ll need help to beat Alabama

 

Oct 19, 2013; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers kicker Michael Palardy (1) kicks a field goal with 3 seconds left to win the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee won 23 to 21. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 19, 2013; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers kicker Michael Palardy (1) kicks a field goal with 3 seconds left to win the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee won 23 to 21. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

 

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Oct. 22, 2013

 

For those trying to make sense of Upset Spectacular 2013 that was Week 8 in the SEC, consider the following: The statistical outlier in the SEC season to this point has been the Alabama Crimson Tide.

 

Alabama’s 49-42 win over Texas A&M in Week 2 is the only game that doesn’t make sense. Aside from that game, Alabama has steamrolled the rest of its opponents, including three SEC teams and a top-25 Virginia Tech team. And by “steamroll,” we’re not just talking about the final score – we’re talking about the way the games were won.

 

Ole Miss played Alabama close for one half of . The second half was all Alabama. But Ole Miss beat LSU, beat Texas, narrowly beat Vanderbilt and could easily have beaten either Auburn or Texas A&M. Texas A&M, meanwhile, fell by a field goal to an Auburn team that beat Ole Miss by 8 – twice the margin of the Tigers’ win over the Rebels’ arch rivals, Mississippi State.

 

Throw in games like Tennessee-South Carolina, Vanderbilt-Georgia and Georgia-Tennessee, and the pattern that starts to emerge is this: The SEC has one very good team (Alabama), a handful of teams that can be good for short bursts (LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn, Ole Miss, Georgia, South Carolina), a few mediocre teams (Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Florida, Tennessee), a couple of stinkers (Arkansas, Kentucky) and an all-offense, no-defense Missouri team that defies description. Missouri’s season will ultimately be defined by three games – South Carolina this week, Texas A&M to close the regular season and, if the Tigers get that far, the SEC West representative in Atlanta.

 

But it’s that Alabama-Texas A&M game that doesn’t fit. If Alabama doesn’t fumble late in the game on the A&M goal line, the discussion would be much different. Alabama probably would have won the game by two or three touchdowns and no one would be dignifying Oregon’s or Florida State’s candidacy for the No. 1 ranking.

 

If you allow yourself to think of the Alabama-Texas A&M game as an anomaly – whether tied to the late fumble that caused a 14-point swing, or to a defense that began changing personnel afterward and finally found the right mix – then the rest of this season begins to make sense. Tennessee, coming off a late upset of South Carolina, becomes just another middle-of-the-road SEC team that upset a slightly-more-than-middle-of-the-road opponent. The LSU game isn’t such a shocker – TideFans.com saw the Tigers as a 9-3 team in the preseason – and Alabama starts to look like the juggernaut people were expecting back in August. But the small margin of victory in College Station clouds the view.

 

As 4-3 Tennessee comes to town, given that the Volunteers are no less than Alabama’s second-biggest rival, there will always be the tendency to see the Vols for more than they might be at that particular point in time. But if you consider Alabama’s resume to this point and take a 5-minute span of the Texas A&M game for what it could have been, it gets easier to see another solid Bama victory.

 

OFFENSE

 

Tennessee coach Butch Jones has twice followed Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly as a head coach (Central Michigan, Cincinnati), and the offense Alabama will see in this game is not unlike the offense Notre Dame tried to run against the Crimson Tide in January. While based in a pro-style attack, it is a tempo offense that often operates without a huddle. Kelly’s current version is more controlled than the version he employed at Cincy and CMU; Jones is still using the older style. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked very well in 2013. Tennessee would like to have a balanced attack and a strong passing game, but Jones has gotten neither: Tennessee is ranked 39th in rushing offense, which is better than what was expected, but is 109th in passing offense and 89th in total offense. Scoring offense ranks 60th. Whereas Tennessee used plenty of I-formation and Ace packages under its previous three head coaches, the base offense now includes three wideouts. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style offense that has achieved an extraordinary level of balance and productivity despite starting the year with a couple of sputters. Alabama is 35th in total offense, 25th in rushing offense, 53rd in passing offense, 16th in scoring and 9th in passing efficiency.

 

QUARTERBACKS

After a rough start and nearly losing his job, Justin Worley has bounced back to put up decent numbers in 2013. Worley is 101-for-181 (55.8%) for 1,119 yards, 10 touchdowns and 6 interceptions at the moment. While not a dual-threat quarterback, he has managed to average 3.0 yards per rush when having to move out of the pocket. Worley has always had the physical tools – arm strength, footspeed, good size – but has lacked vision and confidence. He is still prone to overthrows, underthrows and the occasional bad decision, but perhaps the best thing that happened to him this year was when Nathan Peterman (10-for-23, 43.5%, 45 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT) started the Florida game and got knocked out of it with a hand injury. That forced the Tennessee coaches to back Worley for the job, and he responded. The problem for Tennessee will be what to do in the event a backup quarterback is needed. Peterman still isn’t 100 percent and wasn’t effective when he did play. That leaves Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson, both freshmen who have yet to see the field, as the possible depth chart. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who is putting together a solid season. McCarron has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and carries a QB rating of 164.6. Backup wasn’t as impressive against Arkansas as he had been in previous outings, but Alabama’s depth situation far outpaces Tennessee’s at the moment. Worley is improving, but McCarron is one of the best in the nation. Advantage: Alabama

 

RUNNING BACKS

Tennessee has done a good job getting production out of a group that, frankly, wasn’t expected to do much. Raijon Neal (132 carries, 693 yards, 5.3 avg., 8 TD) and Marlin Lane (57 carries, 335 yards, 5.9 avg., 4 TD) don’t possess elite size, speed or moves, but they’re both better than they’ve ever been. Both are in the 5’11”, 215-pound range and can run inside. Deanthonie Summerhill (20 carries, 115 yards, 5.8 avg., 0 TD) fills the scatback role popular in spread offenses these days, while Tom Smith rounds out the depth chart. Alabama will use a combination of (100 carries, 657 yards, 6.6 avg., 7 TD) and Kenyan Drake (49 carries, 402 yards, 8.2 avg., 7 TD). Both are explosive playmakers, both in the running game and as receivers. With freshman Altee Tenpenny likely out for this game, Dee Hart and Derrick Henry will fill out the depth chart along with H-back Jalston Fowler. Neither team uses a fullback, although Fowler can slide into that position when needed. Neal and Lane should be commended for their improvement, but neither is in the class of Alabama’s top two backs. Advantage: Alabama

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

Many observers were expecting big things from Tennessee true freshman Marquez North, and North didn’t disappoint. He’s caught 21 passes for 281 yards (13.4 avg.) and 1 touchdown, which leads the team. Pig Howard (23 catches, 251 yards, 10.9 avg., 3 TD) has become a reliable second option, and will also take the ball on handoffs often. Jason Croom (9 catches, 133 yards, 14.8 avg., 1 TD) is basically a small tight end playing wideout; he’s 6’5” and close to 230 pounds. Josh Smith (10 catches, 164 yards, 16.4 avg.) has been a good fourth option, but he has a hamstring injury and isn’t expected to be at full strength for this game. Devrin Young, who the Vols expected to be a key contributor in the slot, is also hurting and likely won’t play. Brendan Downs gets the call at tight end, but with just 10 catches for 62 yards (6.2 avg.) and 2 touchdowns, he hasn’t been a big part of the offense yet. Alabama counters with its top group of Christion Jones, , Kevin Norwood, and DeAndrew White at wideout, and Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard at tight end. Chris Black, Parker Barrineau and Raheem Falkins offer depth at receiver, while Jalston Fowler, Brandon Greene, Malcolm Faciane, Harrison Jones and Kurt Freitag provide depth at H-back and tight end. The overall production strongly favors Alabama, as does the experience and health. Marquez Smith will be very good some day, but he’s still learning. Advantage: Alabama

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

The reason Tennessee can be dangerous on offense despite the change in offensive style and on-the-job training at quarterback and receiver is because of this offensive line unit. It’s the best in the conference in terms of pure talent, and all five starters may very well end up drafted next April. James Stone starts at center flanked by guards Zach Fulton and Alex Bullard and tackles Ja’Wuan James and Antonio Richardson. Richardson is a junior; the rest are seniors. Despite Worley’s inexperience at quarterback, the Vols rank 23rd in the country in sacks allowed. While Alabama does outrank the Vols (15th in the country; 3rd in the SEC, with Tennessee ranked 4th in the conference), the Volunteers have, overall, faced a better quality of defensive line thus far. Alabama will start Anthony Steen and Arie Kouandjio at the guard positions and Cyrus Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd at the tackle slots. Chad Lindsay will probably start again at center, although Ryan Kelly is back from injury. But the line has been more effective with Lindsay calling the shots. Grant Hill and Leon Brown will back up the tackles, while Isaac Luatua, Kellen Williams and Alphonse Taylor provide depth at guard. In regard to depth alone, Alabama has a better situation than Tennessee. But because of the uncertainty at center and the NFL expectations of the five starters, Tennessee gets the nod. Advantage: Tennessee

 

DEFENSE

 

In addition to changing the offensive scheme upon arrival in Knoxville, Butch Jones got rid of the 3-4 and moved the Vols to a hybrid 4-2-5/4-3 alignment. For the linebackers, it was a relief, but Tennessee’s current DL personnel were not recruited for this scheme. A couple of key injuries have left this side of the ball in a precarious position. Tennessee has been respectable in pass efficiency defense (27th), which was a problem spot for nearly the entire last decade, but rush defense (83rd), raw pass defense (63rd), scoring defense (65th) and total defense (75th) continue to lag behind. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that is up to its old tricks – 5th in total defense, 1st in scoring defense, 8th in rushing defense, 9th in raw pass defense and 13th in pass efficiency defense.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

The switch to the 4-3 will pay off in time, as it will be easier to recruit the athletes needed to play it, but Tennessee isn’t doing the current group any favors. Daniel McCullers, who needs to be playing nose in a 3-4 and nothing else, has been the lone bright spot, with 4.5 tackles for loss and a half-sack. McCullers will Terrence Cody-esque at 6’5” and 360 pounds, but he’s out of position in the Vol base front. Daniel Hood is at the other end of the spectrum, small (270 pounds) for an interior slot and it’s showed in his lack of penetration up front. At end, Corey Miller will start on one side, with either Jordan Williams or Jacques Smith on the other. The Vols rank 75th in sacks, largely due to a lack of consistent push up front. The only consistently productive lineman has been end Marlon Walls, who has more than half the team’s sack total by himself (4.5). Even with McCullers present, the Vols are ripe for matchup manipulation by savvy offensive coordinators. Alabama will start Brandon Ivory in the middle flanked by Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson, with A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen contributing at end and Darren Lake backup up Ivory in the middle. Korren Kirven, LaMichael Fanning and Anthony Orr provide further depth. Like Tennessee, Alabama has struggled notching sacks (85th), but the Tide’s presence against the run has been much better than Tennessee’s. Depth favors Alabama, not to mention having several years in the current system versus the changeover that is happening in Knoxville. Advantage: Alabama

 

LINEBACKERS

When Tennessee lost Curt Maggitt for the year to a knee injury, the Volunteers’ ability to make plays at the second level was heavily damaged. The Vols coped with Maggitt’s loss primarily by taking a linebacker off the field. A.J. Johnson and Dontavis Sapp will start at the two traditional linebacker spots, while hybrid safety/linebacker Brent Brewer will float between the second and third levels. Johnson has always been productive for Tennessee and his 55 tackles give him a solid lead in the team’s statistics, but neither he nor Sapp have recorded a sack yet. In fact, only reserve linebacker Corey Vereen, who is still trying to come back fully from an injury, has recorded a sack. Brewer’s plays have come primarily in pass coverage. John Propst and Jalen Reeves-Maybin provide depth, but like Alabama, Tennessee doesn’t go far down the depth chart unless injury demands it or the game gets out of hand. The Tide will counter with Trey DePriest and C.J. Mosley in the middle and Xzavier Dickson, Denzel Devall and Adrian Hubbard rotating outside. Tana Patrick, Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster provide depth inside while Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Dillon Lee back up the outside positions. Johnson is a quality player for Tennessee, but he’s overshadowed by Mosley for Alabama and the rest of the group is no contest. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The secondary was atrocious under former coach Derek Dooley; under Jones, it’s been better, but there’s still a long way to go. Cameron Sutton and Justin Coleman will start at the corner positions. Sutton is a freshman. Coleman is a junior with experience, but he’s frequently been the weak link in some games in the past. LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph start at the safety positions. The Vols rank 6th in the country in passes intercepted, but just as Alabama’s defensive statistics took a hit at the hands of Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Tennessee’s stats were bolstered in Week 2 against Western Kentucky, when Brandon Doughty threw 5 interceptions as the Hilltoppers began to transition to Bob Petrino’s new offense there. However, Tennessee is breaking up its fair share of passes, and Randolph has been arguably the defensive surprise of the year for his ability to cause trouble in the offensive backfield. Making things more difficult to project is the fact that Alabama has as many as three starters out or banged up. Safety Vinnie Sunseri is out for the year with an ACL injury sustained on kickoff coverage against Arkansas, while cornerback Bradley Sylve suffered a high ankle sprain against the Razorbacks and might be out for this game as well. Deion Belue will start at one cornerback position provided his turf toe allows it, while the other position is up for grabs thanks to injury. Sylve, Eddie Jackson, Cyrus Jones and Maurice Smith are all in the mix – and Jackson has been nursing a sore ankle of his own – but senior John Fulton is likely to get the initial call if Sylve is out. Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins will start at safety, with Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith providing depth and playing the nickel and dime safety spots. Jabriel Washington and Jai Miller could find more playing time depending on the starters’ health, especially Washington, who can play corner or safety. Despite the fact that Tennessee is healthier and has more picks on the year, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Alabama has done a better job of limiting both big plays and overall passing yardage. This one is a close call thanks to the injuries to Sylve and Sunseri, but we’ll give Alabama’s overall resume the benefit of the doubt. Advantage: Alabama

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Both teams’ kickers have been pleasant surprises. Tennessee Michael Palardy is 8-for-10 on the year, with both misses coming from long range. Alabama’s Cade Foster is 8-for-9. Foster has the stronger leg of the two, while Palardy has more game experience. Palardy doubles as Tennessee’s punter and has done a good job there, averaging 44.5 yards per punt, but Tennessee ranks just 35th in net punting despite this. Alabama ranks 10th in net punting even though Cody Mandell’s individual gross average isn’t much longer than Palardy’s. Both teams have similar numbers in kickoff and punt returns, but where Alabama holds its greatest edge is in kickoff coverage. The Tide leads the SEC in the category, while Tennessee lags in 10th place among 14 schools. The Vols have punted the second-most times among SEC schools, so Palardy has gotten good as a result of practice, but Alabama holds enough of an edge all over to push this category the Tide’s way. Advantage: Alabama

 

OVERALL

 

Alabama leads in seven categories, Tennessee in one, although we’re going on faith with the DB comparison until we see how Alabama replaces Sunseri and possibly Sylve. In terms of OL-DL matchups, both teams’ offensive lines control their respective matchups with the opposing defensive lines.

 

Tennessee’s erratic talent dispersion across the various units is odd, and also the Vols’ biggest problem. The offensive line could probably move up as a group to the NFL level, start alongside one another as rookies and not be the worst line in the league – which is saying something for any college position group. The problem is, there’s nothing around them. Justin Worley is good enough one-third of the time and a work in progress the other two-thirds. The running backs won’t embarrass Tennessee, but they’re not game-changers. This is the weakest WR corps we’ve seen from a Tennessee program.

 

Defensively, the backfield is much improved, but it’s still mediocre and some of its results might be an illusion. The defensive line, which has talent, is essentially being sacrificed in the name of future schematic progress and helping out a linebacker group that is lacking.

 

It’s a good thing for Tennessee that Jones got off to a good start in recruiting, because he’ll need it. More troubling for Tennessee is the fact that next year, things will likely be worse, as the offensive line moves on, as does the team’s biggest defensive anchor.

 

Alabama should win this game by a wide margin. Then again, few people expected Tennessee to knock off South Carolina. The win over the Gamecocks is a sign of a program getting more confident. Is that enough to beat Alabama on the road? Doubtful. If Alabama gets up early on the Volunteers and forces them to play from behind, this could easily be another in a series of Bama blowouts.

 

Alabama 41

Tennessee 14

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