Tennessee preview: Vols still struggling, but look to give Alabama a fight

Oct 4, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; General view of Neyland Stadium during the game between the Florida Gators and Tennessee Volunteers. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 4, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; General view of Neyland Stadium during the game between the Florida Gators and Tennessee Volunteers. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas

TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Oct. 19, 2014

During Alabama’s 2009 title run, the Crimson Tide hosted an outmanned, outgunned and thoroughly mediocre Tennessee Volunteer team for what most people expected to be a blowout win.

Four quarters later, Alabama had to rely on two blocked field goals from Terrence Cody in order to advance past Tennessee – a Tennessee team coached by current Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

In the years since, Alabama has usually defeated Tennessee by a wide margin in the end. In very few of those cases, however, did Alabama dominate from start to finish. Establishing large, early leads and putting the game to bed early is a concept not often found in this series.

Under current head coach Butch Jones, Tennessee is recruiting better than it had at any point since Kiffin’s departure. But the jury is still out on Jones’ actual coaching ability, or on Tennessee’s ability to make this game a close contest. Tennessee’s best hope for upsetting Alabama might come from the fact that Alabama has looked unimpressive in its two road games this year, losing to Ole Miss and just slipping by Arkansas.

As such, those wanting to see Alabama replicate the 59-0 smashing of Texas A&M this past weekend should probably pedal back a bit. Simply getting out of Knoxville with a win should be Alabama’s primary goal.

OFFENSE

Tennessee has gone to a hurry-up spread offense not unlike the one employed by Texas A&M. Last year, when the Volunteers had a veteran offensive line and running back group, this offense had some dangerous elements to it. This year, not so much. Tennessee is third from the bottom (123rd) in Division-IA in sacks allowed, is 117th in rushing offense, 113rd in total offense, 94th in scoring offense and 69th in passing offense. Other than a rather inexplicable 32-point outburst against Georgia, the Vols haven’t challenged a good team with their offense yet. Alabama’s multiple, pro-style offense, on the other hand, is 16th in the country and has been explosive in several games. Alabama is 24th in rushing offense, 26th in passing offense and 4th in pass efficiency. Scoring offense checks in at 25th.

QUARTERBACKS

The big question here is which version of Blake Sims shows up for Alabama. If the Bryant-Denny version of Sims shows up, Tennessee doesn’t have much of a chance. But Sims struggled against Arkansas and was just average against Ole Miss. On the year, he’s 117-of-176 (66.5%) for 1,748 yards, 13 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He has also carried the ball 40 times for 208 yards (5.2 avg.) and 4 touchdowns. If Sims plays like he did against the Rebels and Razorbacks, Tennessee could be in this game up to the very end. But if the Texas A&M/Florida Sims shows up, it will be a different story. For Tennessee, Justin Worley (157-of-252, 62.3%, 1,579 yards, 12 TD, 8 INT) has had a solid senior season, but he isn’t the dual-threat player that Sims is. Worley has also been more careless throwing into coverage, and while he has decent mobility – probably on a par with former Tide QB A.J. McCarron – there is no running component to the QB position for the Vols. As for depth, Tennessee has both Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs, the latter who quarterbacked Tennessee in this game last year. Dobbs hasn’t played, however, and Peterman has been subpar as a passer when he has been called upon. Jake Coker has shown much more promise for Alabama. If the Sims of the prior two road games comes along with the team this week, Tennessee would have the edge. But despite Worley’s superior experience, if the Sims of the Texas A&M game shows up, Alabama will have a huge edge that gets even bigger when depth is put into consideration. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS

Tennessee’s running game has been atrocious, mostly due to the offensive line’s struggles. Jalen Hurd (97 carries, 414 yards, 4.3 avg., 2 TD) has at least been able to break the 4.0-ypc mark in spite of the challenges, but he hasn’t been as explosive as hoped, either. Marlin Lane, a senior, is an important part of the team but simply doesn’t have enough talent to be dangerous. He’s carried 49 times for 160 yards (3.3 avg.) and 1 touchdown. No other player has broken the 100-yard mark on the season. Freshman Derrell Scott and junior Justus Pickett have combined for 79 yards on 27 carries (2.9 avg.); they’re what constitutes “depth” here. There is no fullback. Alabama counters with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, who together have already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark. Blake Sims is decidedly a running threat, and reserves Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny have each been productive. Fullbacks Jalston Fowler and Michael Nysewander have both put together solid seasons. This one isn’t even worth talking about. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS

Tennessee will have at least three on the field at all times, but aside from Marquez North and Jason Croom, this bunch has mostly been held in check. Even North is mired in a bit of a sophomore slump, averaging just 10.2 yards per catch, which is low for a downfield receiver. He does have 4 touchdown receptions, however. Croom and slot receiver Johnathon Johnson are averaging more than 14 yards per catch, but they’ve combined for only 3 scores. In Tennessee’s defense, the Volunteers do spread it around, as 8 players have double-digit reception totals, with Johnson probably reaching that mark soon as well. Josh Smith may be out for this game with an ankle injury, as might Devrin Young, who has been rendered mostly irrelevant this year by opposing defenses. The most dangerous receiver of all, though, is potentially Pig Howard, because of the intangibles, blocking ability and running ability he brings to the game. Statistically, it doesn’t show up – 26 catches, 243 yards, 9.3 avg., 1 TD – but Howard always seems to be in the middle of key plays. Tennessee targets their tight ends – Ethan Wolf, Daniel Helm, Alex Ellis – quite a bit, but their receptions have mostly gone for short yardage. Alabama counters with Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones as starters, with Cameron Sims, ArDarius Stewart and Chris Black rotating in. If Cooper has yet another 100-yard game, it will push him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. White is a highly effective second option when he’s healthy – and right now, he’s healthy. Jones’ season continues to be a struggle, but Alabama got more contributions from Sims and Stewart against Texas A&M and looked more open to the idea of increased substitution. As for tight end, Alabama has begun to target the position more, but Brian Vogler is still hurting a bit. O.J. Howard, Brandon Greene, Ty Flournoy-Smith, Dakota Ball and Malcolm Faciane are all options, but Alabama pretty much limits itself to using Vogler, Howard and Ball until the game gets out of hand. Tennessee has more depth than Alabama at this point, but the Cooper-White duo is simply too much for Tennessee to overcome right now. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE

Tennessee has been terrible here. The Vols can’t run, they don’t pass block very well and there’s no depth to be found. Kyler Kerbyson, who could be a serviceable guard, is being asked to start at left tackle. True freshman Coleman Thomas will start at right tackle, with guards Marcus Jackson and Jashon Robertson flanking center Mack Crowder, who is probably the most complete lineman at this point. Robertson, like Thomas, is a true freshman, meaning the right side of the line is as green as a bamboo brier. Dylan Weisman and Brett Kendrick are the only backups of note. Alabama will probably start Bradley Bozeman again at center, although Ryan Kelly was dressed for Texas A&M and could have played if needed. Leon Brown and Arie Kouandjio will start at the guard slots, with Cam Robinson and Austin Shepherd the likely tackles. We say “likely” here because Shepherd sustained an ankle injury against Texas A&M. If he’s limited in any way, Grant Hill will likely get the call at right tackle. Again, little contest here, despite Alabama struggling at times along the OL this year. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

Tennessee got several key players back in 2014 that had missed all or part of the 2013 season with injury, and what a difference it’s made. The Volunteers went from being one of the worst pass defenses in the country to one of the best – although, to be fair, Tennessee hasn’t seen a lot of high-flying passing offenses. Tennessee ranks 6th in raw pass defense, 11th in pass efficiency defense, 19th in total defense and 29th in scoring defense. But the Volunteers have the worst red zone defense in the country, and rank only 64th against the run. They will base from a 4-3 set. Alabama counters with its 3-4, over/under scheme that will again spend most of its time in nickel and dime alignments. Alabama ranks 2nd in rushing defense, 3rd in total defense, 3rd in scoring defense, 21st in raw pass defense and 25th in pass efficiency defense.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Like several SEC teams this year, Tennessee struggles with the middle of its line. Tackles Jordan Williams and Danny O’Brien are barely adequate, combining for 1 sack and 5 tackles for loss and not making many notable plays. But the ends – Corey Vereen and Derek Barnett – have been superb, especially Barnett, who has 9.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and is fourth on the team in tackles despite playing with his hand down. Just a true freshman, he is one of the best young defenders in the country. Depth is poor, though, with LaTroy Lewis the only real option at end and Owen Williams the only potential difference-maker at tackle. Dimarya Mixon will add depth at tackle, while Jalen Miller, Dewayne Hendrix and Jakob Johnson are available outside. Alabama counters with some combination of A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, D.J. Pettway, Brandon Ivory and Jonathan Allen across the front, with Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Shawn Hand, Darren Lake and Josh Frazier backing them up. Barnett gives Tennessee some ability it hasn’t had in recent years, but Alabama has more depth and is more consistent. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS

This is probably the heart of the Tennessee defense, if for no other reason than Curt Maggitt is back. Maggitt, A.J. Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin have helped the Volunteers rank 5th in tackles for loss and 50th in sacks. The tackle-for-loss ranking leads the SEC. This is a veteran group that isn’t fooled often and doesn’t make many mistakes overall. Cortez McDowell and Chris Weatherd provide depth, along with Jakob Johnson, who also plays end. Maggitt will often take a position on the line to act as an edge rusher. Tennessee can do a lot with this group. Alabama counters with Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland inside and some combination of Xzavier Dickson, Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee outside. Denzel Devall will probably miss this game as he recovers from an ankle injury. DePriest has become a steady force in the middle for Alabama, but it’s the emergence of Ragland that has Alabama fans the most excited. Ragland has a rare combination of speed, strength, size and smarts and is improving every week. Dickson’s emergence as a rush end has been a key factor in Alabama’s ability to seal the edge, and Anderson has turned into a superb Jack option. This category is actually very close because of Tennessee’s emergence, but Alabama’s recent improvement during the Arkansas and Texas A&M games, along with a tad better depth, push it over to the Tide’s side of the ledger. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Few people saw this coming, but corners Justin Coleman and Cameron Sutton and safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil have developed into a formidable force for Tennessee. The unlikeliest improvement of all has been that of Coleman and Sutton versus the running game. Randolph makes a lot of stops, but hasn’t been as active behind the line as the corners, a function of instincts more than anything else. McNeil has been a bit better than Randolph in that regard, but the two have combined for just 1 interception. Depth is in good shape, with Michael Williams, Todd Kelly Jr., Devaun Swofford and Emmanuel Mosley leading a long list of players to have seen action. Alabama counters with Eddie Jackson, Cyrus Jones and Tony Brown at corner and Landon Collins, Geno Smith, Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry at the safety positions. Over the past two weeks, Alabama has done its best work of the year, a lot of that due to stabilization at the cornerback position manned by Jackson and Brown and the return of Williams at the Star position. Still, Tennessee has been a little more consistent, and the Vols are both healthier and deeper for now. Advantage: Tennessee

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Aaron Medley is 10-of-13 (76.9%) for Tennessee, with a long kick of 46 yards. This is a huge win for the Tennessee program, which was in complete flux at placekicker at the beginning of the year. Tennessee has put up good net punting numbers (31st) thanks to Matt Darr having a solid senior year. Tennessee is strong on kickoff returns, but has struggled on punt returns and is just so-so on covering kicks. Alabama has a major weapon in punter J.K. Scott, but the kick and punt return games remain questionable and kicker Adam Griffith needs to show a bit more consistency. Were it not for Alabama’s recurrent bouts of complete unpredictability, these two teams would actually be fairly identical, and Alabama would get the nod because of Scott. But until Alabama shows a couple of weeks of steady improvement, it’s impossible to give the Crimson Tide an edge in this category over nearly anyone else. Advantage: Tennessee

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Tennessee in two, but the linebacker, secondary and special teams categories are all fairly close, and quarterback could also be depending on the circumstances. As for the OL-DL matchups, Alabama is in full control of the matchup of its defensive line versus Tennessee’s offensive line. Going the other way, it’s a much closer battle, but Alabama still holds the edge.

Given this is a rivalry game, margins of victory typically get reduced. But Alabama hasn’t really treated this as a true rivalry for several years. The Crimson Tide has dominated Tennessee for so long that this has become just another step in the ladder, compared to games against Auburn and LSU.

Tennessee, on the other hand, will be treating this game as the opportunity to make a statement. While the Volunteers are unlikely to win, keeping this game close for longer than it should be close is something well within Tennessee’s ability to do.

Alabama’s key to winning is to simply play loose and replicate the attitude it carried with it into the Texas A&M game. If neither team holds a significant emotional advantage in this game, Alabama wins it easily.

If Butch Jones continues to recruit at his current pace, Tennessee will be respectable again, either under Jones or his successor. For now, though, Alabama shouldn’t have much trouble in this game.

Alabama 27

Tennessee 7

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