By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 11, 2016
The Tennessee Volunteers seem determined to prove that putting pressure on oneself to perform doesn’t make one tight, but rather makes one victorious.
There is no question which team is coming into this game more charged up. It’s Tennessee, and had the Volunteers not lost in agonizing fashion to Texas A&M in overtime last week, the Vols might have come into this game so amped-up that you could have plugged the entire eastern seaboard into Neyland Stadium and it would have stayed lit for a month.
Tennessee is overcharged as it is. Tennessee’s hopes of winning the SEC East or the conference title in general barely faded with the loss to Texas A&M. Even with a loss to Alabama in this content, Tennessee would still be the presumptive favorite so long as someone knocks off Florida prior to the end of the year.
Volunteer coach Butch Jones has chosen not to manage pressure, but to ride a wave of it. Whereas Nick Saban is about the process, Jones seems to be about product. In this case, the product is the spoils that come with potentially being the one Tennessee team to beat Saban – ever – which would certainly cement Jones’ hero status among the orange-and-white faithful. Tennessee is 0-9 against Alabama since Saban took over in Tuscaloosa, immediately following a time when the Volunteers ran up a 10-2 record in the 12 seasons prior during some of the Alabama program’s darkest days.
Tennessee comes into this game battered – although how battered Tennessee is remains a mystery, as part of Jones’ anything-for-a-win strategy this week is to not discuss injury news – but there is no questioning the Vols’ desire. Given Alabama had issues getting past this team last year in Tuscaloosa is a point not lost on Saban nor on outside observers.
Tennessee is fully invested in Jones’ no-huddle spread attack, and it is effective despite a slow start to the year that wrecked the Volunteers statistically. As it stands now, Tennessee is 51st in total offense, which reflects a combined rating of 50th in rushing offense and 62nd in passing offense. Similar numbers are posted for scoring offense (48th) and team passing efficiency (46th). It comes across as mediocrity, but the reality is Tennessee’s two worst point-production games came against pushovers Appalachian State and Ohio, while the Vols improved against SEC opponents.
The offense is built on tempo and what Joshua Dobbs can do at quarterback, sometimes to the detriment of other considerations. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that is 24th in total offense, 20th in rushing offense and 47th in passing offense. If the Arkansas performance was the start of a trend, look for Alabama to continue to trend toward rushing the ball with power as the meat of the SEC season approaches.
Joshua Dobbs is not the best pure passer in the league, but in terms of total danger, there aren’t many who don’t come second to him. Dobbs’ numbers – 105-of-180, 58.3%, 1,433 yards, 14 TD, 8 INT, 8.0 ypa – are fairly run-of-the-mill. But Dobbs has also added 324 yards rushing on 82 carries (4.0 avg., which includes yardage lost to sacks) and 5 touchdowns. That’s more rushing touchdowns than featured tailbacks Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara put together. Dobbs is somewhat of an enigma on the field; he’s one of the most intelligent players in the SEC and he gets stronger as the game goes along, but he’s also prone to misreads under pressure.
Most troubling for Alabama is simply that Dobbs has plenty of big-game experience and is a dual-threat talent, the combination of which has not been kind to the Crimson Tide. Alabama has also seen this act from Dobbs before, where struggles leading up to the Alabama game didn’t show up once kickoff took place. As for depth, Quinten Dormady hasn’t thrown a pass this year, so it’s unclear of what Tennessee would look like were Dobbs to get knocked out.
Alabama counters with true freshman Jalen Hurts, who by now has displayed so much composure and control that it’s not automatically a problem that he’s starting a game inside cavernous Neyland Stadium. Hurts has done a better job than Dobbs of taking care of the football, although Alabama’s offensive gameplan for Hurts doesn’t include quite the number of chances taken downfield that Tennessee uses for a veteran QB. Hurts narrowly outpaces Dobbs in passing efficiency (149.4 to 142.0). Depth-wise, Alabama has a clear edge in Cooper Bateman, who has played in critical situations in the past. By the numbers, Hurts makes a strong case here but experience is so heavily in Dobbs’ corner that in this game, you go with the known quantity. Advantage: Tennessee
Jalen Hurd was held out last week as part of concussion-related protocol. Butch Jones hasn’t said he’ll return this week, but it’s expected. Oddly enough, that might be a benefit to Alabama, because Alvin Kamara’s shiftiness and versatility looks more dangerous at the moment than Hurd’s inside power-running game. Hurd has plodded more than exploded in 2016 (101 carries, 407 yards, 4.0 avg., 2 TD) and Kamara had a breakout performance against Texas A&M last week once freed from sharing snaps with Hurd.
Beyond the rushing numbers, Hurd has caught 7 passes this year and does have a couple of touchdown receptions, but Kamara leads the team in receptions (20) and allows Tennessee to open up its playcalling. Expect Kamara to start with Hurd to be a relief player, if Jones is smart. If Hurd still can’t go, John Kelly and Carlin Fils-Aime will split the backup duties, although Kelly is the only one to get any serious work so far.
Alabama, meanwhile, has a stable full of backs. Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs have racked up 778 total yards in the primary back’s role, while Bo Scarbrough brings the beef as a change of pace and B.J. Emmons adds further depth. For that matter, walk-on Derrick Gore has put up a performance comparable to that of Kelly or Fils-Aime for Tennessee. Jacobs suffered an elbow injury against Arkansas but could have returned to that game and was held out for precautionary reasons.
Fullback Mack Wilson gives Alabama an I-formation presence in goal-line situations. Although Kamara is the most polished back, Alabama would have won this category anyway on depth concerns even before Hurd was hurt. Advantage: Alabama
Tennessee has always seemed to field a solid group of wideouts, and in most years in transcends solid and heads straight to star-filled. This year isn’t much different. Josh Malone (17 catches, 341 yards, 20.1 avg., 5 TD) and Jauan Jennings (17 catches, 281 yards, 16.5 avg., 3 TD) are the two bellcows for the unit, with Josh Smith, Tyler Byrd, Jason Croom and Preston Williams providing a solid supporting cast. Ethan Wolf has been somewhat underutilized as the stating tight end, but Alabama is aware of his prowess at the position. Croom is listed as Wolf’s backup, although he is much more a big wide receiver playing tight end than he is a tight end with receiver skills. There is speed to burn here and aside from Byrd, there is no one on the roster under 6’2”.
Alabama’s group is smaller but no less dynamic, led by the duo of Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, both of whom are true front-line college receivers. There has been some difficulty crafting a rotation around them, however, with only Gehrig Dieter stepping up with any kind of consistency thus far. Cameron Sims, Trayvon Diggs, Robert Foster and Derek Kief provide depth. Alabama holds the clear edge at tight end, where O.J. Howard is having not only a solid year as a receiver, but has also elevated his blocking game as well.
Hale Hentges, Brandon Greene, Miller Forristall and Irv Smith Jr. give Alabama good depth at the position. Ridley and Stewart give up nothing to the Tennessee receivers, but the Volunteers have superior depth and the situation with Wolf at tight end has that eerie feeling of someone ready to bust out. Advantage: Tennessee
This is going to be a difficult call given that Tennessee ought to be winning this category walking away, but isn’t. The Volunteers came into the season with a sizable edge in experience over most SEC teams, but haven’t been unable to leverage that advantage. Then, injuries hit. For this game, C Dylan Wiesman and G Jashon Robertson are both listed as questionable.
The only real known quantity at this point is LT Brett Kendrick, who has started every game and is perhaps the steadiest lineman the Volunteers have. Sophomore Chance Hall has started the last three games at right tackle and should do the same in this game. Jack Jones is slated to start at right guard but didn’t start against Texas A&M. Thomas Coleman would start at center if Wiesman can’t.
If Robertson is out at guard, either Drew Richmond or Venzell Boulware would be called upon to fill in. Richmond, a tackle by trade, had starts against Appalachian State and Virginia Tech but hasn’t played the last three weeks. Boulware has played late in games but hasn’t started yet. Both Richmond and Boulware are redshirt freshmen. With all the shuffling, depth is sort of nonexistent and extends no further than the names already listed above.
The bigger issue is that Tennessee ranks 78th nationally and 9th in the SEC in sacks allowed despite having a mobile quarterback. Still, Tennessee would be considered the more talented unit overall were it not for the strides Alabama made against Arkansas. But like Tennessee, Alabama has an injury to contend with.
Right guard Alphonse Taylor suffered a concussion against Arkansas and might not play. If he can’t go, Lester Cotton will start there. Bradley Bozeman gets the call at center and Ross Pierschbacher at left guard, with Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams at the tackles. If Taylor is out altogether, Bozeman likely becomes the swing guard with J.C. Hassenauer the top backup, and Hassenauer would enter at center. Dallas Warmack and Brandon Kennedy offer depth inside, with Korren Kirven and Matt Womack bolstering the tackles.
This suddenly is a pick-em matchup given who is and isn’t available for each team. Alabama has the best game of either team this year (Arkansas), but Tennessee had put up more consistent results the last three weeks until the injuries hit. Tough, tough call here. If Tennessee’s starters are playing, take the Vols based on the last month. Advantage: Tennessee