Tennessee has joined the ranks of most college teams in moving toward a 4-2-5 nickel base, and the Vols will be in nickel most of the time against three-wide Alabama. The Volunteers are 66th in total defense, 86th in rush defense, 49th in pass defense, 58th in pass efficiency defense and 64th in scoring defense. It’s been a bumpy ride made worse by injuries and a lack of depth at a handful of critical spots.
Alabama will base from its 3-4 over/under, but like Tennessee, will play nickel and dime almost exclusively. Alabama leads the nation in rushing defense, is 6th in scoring defense and 12th in total defense. The problem comes in pass defense, where the Tide is 61st in raw pass defense and 39th in pass efficiency defense, and most importantly, has struggled against the two best quarterbacks it has faced thus far, yielding 400 or more passing yards to each.
Tennessee DT Danny O’Brien took a nasty shot to the head against Texas A&M, but then on Monday, was released from the team for a violation of team rules. The curious timing does the Vols no favors, as depth inside has been spotty at best. Production-wise, Kendal Vickers has been the Vols’ top tackle, leading interior players with tackles at 19 and recording the only sack from that group.
With O’Brien out of the mix, though, Tennessee will have to get a big improvement in play from either Shy Tuttle or Kahlil McKenzie, the two players who are battling to replace him. Tennessee ranks 106th nationally in sacks, which is because outside of DE Derek Barnett, who has 5 by himself, the rest of the team has combined for just 4. Barnett is an elite pass rusher who is solid against the run as well.
Corey Vereen, a converted linebacker, starts at the other end position. He has 2 sacks but has been limited in effectiveness against the run. Vereen is talented in the art of batting passes, however, and he’s a veteran with plenty of SEC experience under his belt. Kyle Phillips and Jonathan Kongbo are the key reserves at end, but neither has made much of an impact yet. The lack of effective depth has been the killer for Tennessee in stopping the run.
Alabama will start Da’Ron Payne inside, with Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen at end. Da’Shawn Hand and Dakota Ball will provide depth outside, while Joshua Frazier backs up the nose. There aren’t a lot of players getting snaps here – third-teamers O.J. Smith, Raekwon Davis and Jamar King have barely seen the field – but the group up front has been universally impressive. Alabama has to keep Barnett and Vereen from crashing the outside, but with O’Brien out this tilts heavily toward the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
The biggest loss for Tennessee by far has been Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker. With Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee had a game-changing presence at weakside linebacker; without him, Georgia nearly pulled off an upset of the Vols, and the Aggies of Texas A&M did. Colton Jumper will start at middle linebacker, but Alabama can exploit his weaknesses in pass coverage. Jumper struggles against fast motion across the middle and tends to either be late, or overpursue. He’s tied for the team lead in tackles, but has no sacks and only 2.5 tackles for loss against runners. He’s in there for leadership and the ability to position the defense.
Without Reeves-Maybin, Cortez McDowell has become the starter at weakside. He’s a tackle collector, very productive, but not particularly active in pass defense. Darrin Kirkland Jr. provides quality depth at both spots. Kenny Bynum and Gavin Bryant are the reserves, but don’t get much work, and Bryant has yet to record a tackle.
Alabama, though, has its own issues. Reuben Foster left the Arkansas game with a mild concussion and his status hasn’t been assured yet for this week. If Foster is available, he’ll start in the middle alongside Shaun Dion Hamilton, while Tim Williams, Anfernee Jennings, Terrell Hall, Ryan Anderson and Christian Miller play outside, and this group holds a strong edge over Tennessee.
Without Foster, however, the landscape changes. Hamilton would move to MLB, while Rashaan Evans would start at weakside linebacker and Keith Holcombe and Mack Wilson would provide depth. Evans got a lot of quality work against Arkansas; he’s a demon on the pass rush but has work to do supporting the run. Again, with Foster, this one is probably the most one-sided comparison on the sheet. Without Foster, it draws much, much closer. Advantage: Alabama
With CB Cameron Sutton, Tennessee’s best defensive back, sidelined with an ankle injury, the Volunteers could be in trouble against Alabama’s top-level wide receiver corps. True freshman Baylen Buchanan or Justin Martin, a transfer from Northeast Oklahoma A&M, would split the spot, or nickel safety Rashaan Gaulden would be forced to take perimeter duty with dimeback Malik Foreman moving into the nickel position. Safety Todd Kelly Jr. has had a solid year at safety, but Tennessee needs more production from Micah Abernathy. Stephen Griffin and Nigel Warrior provide depth inside.
Alabama played poorly against Arkansas, which unfortunately backed up a poor effort against Chad Kelly and Ole Miss.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett form up the cornerback group, while Eddie Jackson and Ronnie Harrison start at safety, backed up by Laurence Jones. Fitzpatrick was aces against Arkansas in his Star safety role, and Tony Brown’s return gives Alabama some depth there. But Alabama needs more consistency from Harrison and Humphrey, as both will be challenged by Tennessee’s deep WR corps.
We’re going out on a limb here taking Alabama, based on recent work, and it mostly boils down to Fitzpatrick’s innate ability to flip a game at any time. Advantage: Alabama
Aaron Medley is an accurate short kicker, but he struggles at distance. Medley is 0-for-2 from beyond 39 yards out this season, which is the continuation of his career trend. Tennessee is 35th in net punting behind Trevor Daniel, and the Volunteers return kickoffs well (28th). Punt returns (74th) have been an issue, as has punt return defense (69th). Tennessee covers kickoffs well, though. As such, the return game is a matchup of strength-on-strength and weakness-on-weakness, as Alabama is much more likely to cause a big play on punt returns (and Tennessee is much more apt to give one up).
Alabama will use Adam Griffith at placekicker and J.K. Scott at punter. Scott is having another all-American kind of year, while Griffith has developed some consistency inside of 40 yards as well as becoming one of the SEC’s best kickoff men. Neither team is setting the world on fire, but Alabama is incrementally better at the kicking slots and the Tide is dangerous on punt returns. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Tennessee in two, and the OL matchup could easily go to Alabama as well. It’s a bit of a surprise to see Alabama sitting with such a distinct advantage in unit matchups, given the hype surrounding the Vol program in 2016. Also, it bears noting that despite Tennessee getting the narrowest of nods in the OL comparison, Alabama controls both OL-DL matchups.
This would seem to suggest Vegas oddsmakers are on track with their prediction of a double-digit Alabama win, but that might be pushing it. For one, this is a road game at one of the SEC’s most difficult venues. Secondly, Tennessee has proven multiple times already in 2016 that it isn’t scared of a fourth-quarter comeback. Alabama has struggled to maintain focus at times in 2016 and it would be no surprise if that problem reared its head again this week.
The key for Alabama will be not to let Joshua Dobbs have some kind of career day at quarterback. Dobbs may spray the ball at times, but he’s quite capable of heroics given the chance and when Alabama has a breakdown against dual-threat quarterbacks, it tends to be an epic breakdown complete with nuclear bombs falling from the sky. The emergence of Alvin Kamara as an every-down option at running back, to say nothing of the stacked depth chart at wide receiver, gives Tennessee plenty of firepower.
Given Tennessee’s penchant for late-game heroics, it won’t be enough to build a big lead and hold it the way Alabama did last week at Arkansas. Alabama needs to shorten the game and hold Tennessee to empty yardage between the 25s. Do that, and Alabama will win easily. Suffer a loss of composure in pass defense similar to what happened last week, and Tennessee could very well hand Alabama its first loss of the year.