By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 21, 2015
Every season, one or two teams seem to rise above their typical watermarks and give Alabama a tougher game than it would otherwise appear on paper.
Alabama is hoping Ole Miss filled the role in Week 3, but in 2009, that team was Tennessee, then led by a young head coach named Lane Kiffin. It took two blocked field goals by DT Terrence Cody, the second coming as time ran out, for Alabama to hold onto the win and eventually play for a national championship.
While Tennessee would initially seem like an odd choice to play spoiler to Alabama’s 2015 title hopes – hopes that are just now becoming a possibility again after the Ole Miss loss – consider that Tennessee is the last of a string of teams that have off-weeks prior to Alabama (LSU is also off the week before its game against Alabama, but Alabama shares the off-week with the Tigers.). Tennessee is a spread offense team with a mobile quarterback who has enjoyed some level of success against Alabama. And the Volunteers, who consider Alabama their chief rival, would like nothing better than end Bama’s national title hopes and end a string of losses that date back before the Nick Saban era in Tuscaloosa.
It is a significant surprise that Tennessee’s offense has been so ineffective in 2015. The Volunteers are 43rd in total offense and 80th in passing offense, although Tennessee does rank 19th in rushing offense. The Vols operate from a spread set and are a tempo team, rarely huddling. The combination of a mobile quarterback, bigger-than-average tailback and talented receiving corps can put pressure on opposing defenses. A near-win over Oklahoma and a stunning, 38-point output against Georgia in an upset win have some concerned. Alabama will counter with its multiple, pro-style attack that lost a little of its balance against Texas A&M – Alabama now ranks 33rd in rushing and 68th in passing, thanks to Derrick Henry’s output in College Station – but is still one of the most dangerous offenses in the land. Quarterback play and the right side of the Tide offensive line will determine Bama’s output here.
Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs has failed to live up to expectations, but he isn’t a stiff. Dobbs has thrown for 1,101 yards on 98-of-169 (58.0%) passing, a bit under projections but still good enough to lead UT to wins. Dobbs has thrown 8 touchdowns against only 2 interceptions, and is also a legitimate threat on the ground, carrying 73 times for 368 yards (5.0 avg.), which is inclusive of yards lost to sacks, and 5 touchdowns. He’s the team’s second-leading rusher. Dobbs is prone to long bouts of wildness, and he has struggled to find open receivers at times. His backup, Quinten Dormady, is a freshman who has seen minimal action.
Alabama will use Jake Coker, who is quietly putting up a strong statistical season: 122-for-197, 61.9%, 1,376 yards, 11 TD, 6 INT. In addition, Coker has proven his toughness in recent weeks by delivering licks to defenders while scrambling; he has carried 35 times for 103 yards (2.9 avg.) and 2 touchdowns, inclusive of sacks. Backup Cooper Bateman is completing 75 percent of his passes. Dobbs has a much higher ceiling than Coker, but at some point, you have to go with production. Advantage: Alabama
This category is much closer than one might initially think, and it’s because of depth. Most knew Tennessee had a top-level SEC starter in Jalen Hurd (126 carries, 572 yards, 4.5 avg., 7 TD), but the arrival of former Alabama scatback Alvin Kamara (45 carries, 255 yards, 5.7 avg., 3 TD) almost tilts this category to the Volunteers. Both Hurd and Kamara are active in the passing game. Like Alabama, Tennessee has a third running back (John Kelly) who rarely plays against top competition. Tennessee uses no fullback.
Alabama counters with Derrick Henry, who has already rushed for 901 yards, and if not for Leonard Fournette at LSU, Henry would probably be getting a lot of Heisman promotion. Backup Kenyan Drake has hit a slump, but he’s still averaging 4.6 yards per carry and has been more involved in the passing game than Kamara has for Tennessee. Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough add depth, while Michael Nysewander has proven to be an effective, situational fullback. Tennessee’s backs have been hampered by a poor offensive line for much of 2015, but Alabama still takes this based on Henry’s consistency. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama is still trying to overcome the loss of Robert Foster to season-ending shoulder surgery. Calvin Ridley (38 catches, 437 yards, 11.5 avg., 3 TD) has emerged as the Tide’s go-to player downfield. He needs to add a bit of weight and improve his run blocking, but the true freshman has shown great moves and lightning-fast top-end speed. Richard Mullaney has emerged as a good second option in the slot, but the other outside receiver position is in need of work. ArDarius Stewart has not developed into a real difference-maker, while backups Cameron Sims (injured), Chris Black (ineffective) and Daylon Charlot (hasn’t picked up the offense yet) aren’t seeing much time. Derek Kief got his first career action against Texas A&M last week in relief of Mullaney. O.J. Howard will start at tight end, and he’s had a decent, if unspectacular season. Hale Hentges, Brandon Greene, Dakota Ball and Ty Flournoy-Smith provide depth there. Tennessee started the season with impressive depth and lofty goals, but that was before Marquez North disappeared and Pig Howard was kicked off the team. Tight end Ethan Wolf has turned into the team’s leading receiver, and he’s only caught 15 balls. Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings are the other two starters next to North, and they’ve combined for only 10 yards per catch and not much downfield production. North has only caught 4 passes on the year. Josh Smith and Preston Williams are both potentially dangerous receivers, particularly Williams, who is averaging 22.6 yards per catch, but they don’t see the ball enough. Blame Joshua Dobbs’ slump for the production issues here. Alex Ellis will back up Wolf at tight end. Neither team is really getting the job done with consistency; Alabama’s Ridley is the closest thing either team has to a star, but Tennessee has better depth. In somewhat of an upset, we give Tennessee the edge based on the tight end position. Advantage: Tennessee
The Vols are 59th nationally and 10th in the SEC is sacks allowed. The offensive line is experienced, but it hasn’t been good. Coleman Thomas starts at center, with Jashon Robertson and Dylan Wiesman flanking him at the guard slots and Brett Kendrick and Kyler Kerbyson at the tackles. Tennessee has already lost two offensive linemen for the season to injury, and can’t afford to lose anyone else. Mack Crowder, who backs up Thomas at center, is the only quality reserve. The rest are freshmen, walk-ons and transfers.
Alabama, though, has an issue of its own: Ryan Kelly, the Tide’s signal-caller in the middle, was injured against Texas A&M in what was first ruled a concussion, then changed to possible heat exhaustion, then changed back to a concussion when the symptoms became clearer. If he’s out for this game, J.C. Hassenauer would start in the middle, with Alphonse Taylor and Ross Pierschbacher at the guards and Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson at the tackles. Bradley Bozeman could also get in the mix at center. Hassenauer struggled against Texas A&M, but looked better after film review than he did when the game was live. Alabama has done much better protecting its quarterback, ranking 17th in sacks allowed. Alabama is not without its issues, but things are better in Tuscaloosa than Knoxville. Advantage: Alabama
Tennessee bases from a 4-3 set, but the Volunteer defense has been offensive in 2014. Tennessee ranks 72nd against the run, 90th in raw pass defense, 54th in pass efficiency defense, 87th in total defense and 61st in scoring defense. Alabama bests the Vols in all categories. The Crimson Tide will use its familiar 3-4 over/under scheme, although Bama will be in its nickel and dime sets for most of the day to combat the Vols’ spread offense.
With Shy Tuttle out for the year, the starters become Kendal Vickers and Owen Williams at the tackles, with Derek Barnett and LaTroy Lewis at the ends. Vickers and Williams haven’t done much up the middle, but Lewis and Barnett have put together a decent season at end. Barnett has become a problem for average offensive tackles; he’s quick, can get to the passer and has good lateral movement. Khalil McKenzie now becomes the primary backup in the middle; he’s a freshman. Corey Vereen, a converted linebacker, and Dimarya Mixon will provide depth at end. The thinness at tackle is troubling. Danny O’Brien will probably take Tuttle’s place in the rotation, but he’s not considered a playmaker.
Alabama counters with the best defensive line in football, hands down. Against UT’s spread, A’Shawn Robinson will likely start in the middle, flanked by Jonathan Allen and Jarran Reed. Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Shawn Hand and D.J. Pettway provide depth outside, while Daron Payne, Darren Lake and Josh Frazier offer depth up the middle. In Barnett, Tennessee has one very good player. Alabama has 9 or 10 of them. Advantage: Alabama
UT weakside backer Jalen Reeves-Maybin could play for just about anyone in the conference, and start for many. He’s the Volunteers’ leading tackler with 56, and also has 3 sacks and 8 tackles for loss to his credit. Darrin Kirkland Jr. starts in the middle, with Austin Smith on the strongside. Kirkland has been decent in the middle, but not a true playmaker. Depth is thin here, with Kenny Bynum effectively backing up all three spots. Colton Jumper is also available.
Alabama counters with Reggie Ragland, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Reuben Foster inside, plus Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans outside. This group, particularly the outside backers, has come on strong in recent weeks. And then there’s Ragland inside, whose pursuit speed and hitting ability have few peers. Alabama will have to account for Reeves-Maybin at all times, but the Crimson Tide has far superior depth and its supporting cast is far more dynamic than Smith and Kirkland. Advantage: Alabama
The Tennessee secondary has arguably been the most disappointing unit on the team in 2015. After a surprisingly solid 2014 season, expectations ran high for this veteran unit, but things haven’t played out according to script. The corner positions have especially backslid; Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley will start, with Darrell Miller and Malik Foreman providing depth. Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil start at the safety positions with Evan Berry and Todd Kelly Jr. coming off the bench.
By contrast, Alabama’s defensive backfield was expected to be average, but has been anything but, thanks largely to safety Eddie Jackson and Star safety/corner Minkah Fitzpatrick, the latter a true freshman. Alabama leads the SEC and is 7th in the nation in turnovers gained, thanks mostly to the secondary’s ability to intercept passes. And once they’ve intercepted a pass, the defensive backs know how to take one to the house. Alabama ranks 9th in pass efficiency defense as a result. Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey will start at corner, with Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith at safety. Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Maurice Smith, Jabriel Washington and Laurence Jones offer depth there, while Bradley Sylve, Anthony Averett and Tony Brown are available at corner. Advantage: Alabama
Despite solid performances last week from placekicker Adam Griffith and punter J.K. Scott, Alabama’s special teams still look like something out of Division-III. Griffth’s kickoffs in particular have been strong, but kick returns have all the effectiveness of wet toilet paper and the punt protection unit has failed to keep kick blockers away from Scott. Snapper Cole Mazza is also battling inconsistency. Tennessee hasn’t been much better, though, at least not in kicking. Kicker Aaron Medley is 9-of-14 (64.3%) on field goals; Alabama’s Griffith is 8-of-14 (57.1%). But the rest are strong edges to the Big Orange. Net punting has been much better behind Trevor Daniel, who ranks 4th in the country among punters. Tennessee leads the nation in kickoff returns and is 16th in punt returns. Big edge to the Vols here. Advantage: Tennessee
Alabama leads in six categories, Tennessee in two. Alabama strongly leads the matchup of its DL against the Tennessee OL – it’s not really that close, for that matter – and probably holds a slim edge going the other way thanks to injuries among the Vol defensive tackle group.
On paper, this looks like a walkover for Alabama. But the timing of this game relative to the schedules of both teams is enough to give pause. Sooner or later, Tennessee is going to finish off a team (the Volunteers have led several times this season late in games, only to give it away late), and the Volunteers run the offense Alabama has the most trouble stopping: a spread offense with a mobile quarterback.
Having said that, Alabama should still win the game. The Crimson Tide has taken up a mantra of every-game-is-a-must-win, thanks to the snafu against Ole Miss. For the Crimson Tide to lose its season here, especially in this game and against this opponent, would be devastating. It would also take weirdness, probably in the form of special teams gaffes, multiple turnovers or a handful of miracle plays in Tennessee’s favor. Maybe a combination of all three.
It’s hard to say how this game will start out, but Tennessee’s late-game failures aren’t all flukes. Head coach Butch Jones has serious questions floating around about his ability to manage big situations. Tennessee’s lack of depth is also showing up late in games. Look for Alabama to maintain a lead throughout, put UT away late and get to a much-needed off-week.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN