By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 15, 2016
For a team to beat a modern Alabama team, that team has to be at full strength and playing with complete efficiency.
Tennessee wasn’t, and couldn’t, and therefore, didn’t.
Alabama smacked Tennessee around 49-10 in Knoxville on Saturday in a game that could have been far worse if Jalen Hurts hadn’t made two poor decisions under pressure that resulted in what was probably either a 10- or 14-point swing. As is, the beatdown was bad enough. A Tennessee program that has clearly held Alabama up as a measuring stick instead got caned by that same stick. The Volunteers’ patented second-half comeback never came, and Alabama used the second half only to pad its own lead – Alabama outscored Tennessee 28-3 after halftime – and turn the last few minutes of the game into a second-team scrimmage.
Alabama magnified every mistake Tennessee made. Punter Trevor Daniel was a weapon for the Volunteers, but hit one bad punt, a 16-yarder that set Alabama up at midfield in the third quarter. The Crimson Tide quickly converted the short field into a touchdown. There were countless other plays like this, plays where 10 of Tennessee’s 11 players did the right thing, but Alabama exploited the 11th matchup to extreme consequence for Butch Jones’ team.
Worse yet, Tennessee came into the game unable to sustain any further losses to the offensive or defensive lines, particularly the tackle positions. Down went Tennessee’s best remaining offensive lineman, LT Brett Kendrick, in the first half. Down went Kendal Vickers, the team’s best interior tackle after the dismissal of Danny O’Brien, in the second half. It seemed as if every player the television cameras focused on as a key contributor suddenly fell to the turf within a few minutes of his moment in the spotlight.
The change in Alabama’s defense from 2015 to 2016 – the Tide’s front seven now aggressively attacks more often, especially with linebackers – seems to unnerve Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs, who was nearly a hero a year ago but was rendered a non-factor today. Dobbs threw for just 92 yards and was picked off once for the first of two non-offensive touchdowns for Alabama on the day. He ended with minus-31 yards rushing on 7 attempts. Dobbs went from dual-threat to dual-throttled.
It became clear early on in the game that Tennessee’s gameplan wasn’t going to hold up. Alabama’s pass rush eliminated any pass plays with more than a two-second trigger time. Alabama completely controlled RB Jalen Hurd. The best weapon Tennessee had, RB Alvin Kamara, ended up with 28 total yards and seemed to wither a bit after LB Keith Holcombe tackled him out of bounds on a punt return.
Tennessee already was dealing with a scenario in which the Volunteers’ talent, while improving under Jones, just came up short at most positions. Add in the injuries, and the simple fact that this game was the fourth of four physically taxing games in a row for Tennessee, and Alabama had too many advantages. Alabama looked fresher, meaner, deeper and more composed.
Alabama will finish off its own tough run next week in Tuscaloosa against a Texas A&M team that had the week off. But Alabama, at the end of this one, didn’t exactly look like it had spent itself, either. It would be cheap to call this game an off-week, because that would insult the effort Tennessee put into it. Still, the facts are what they are: Alabama dominated this game, stayed healthy and mostly spent the last quarter trying to milk the clock. It was as complete a game as the Crimson Tide has played all year.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Tennessee:
1. This wasn’t Jalen Hurts’ finest game by any stretch, but he’ll learn from it. Lost in the numbers here – Hurts passed and ran for more than 100 yards each and was the team’s leading ground-gainer on a day Alabama ran up more than 400 yards on the ground – is the fact that two ill-advised throws led to two Alabama turnovers and in one case, directly to Tennessee points. On both Hurts’ fumble in the second quarter and interception later in the game, he should have taken the sack and lived to fight another day. Instead, he failed to adequately read DE Derek Barnett’s closing speed on one, and attempted a back-foot throwaway in the face of two Tennessee defenders on the second.
Hurts was never all that productive in the passing game all day – he averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt and finished with a QBR of just 100.0 – but in the running game, he was a monster. Alabama fans frequently like to talk about which modern-day quarterback would have been a good QB in Alabama’s wishbone era; here’s your answer. Hurts continues to perfect his mastery of the zone-read offense and as his passing improves, he has the chance to be the most unstoppable quarterback in Alabama history. Today, though, was more about the process of getting to that point rather than demonstration of it.
2. Aggressive defensive posture seemed to catch Tennessee off-guard. It’s not evident, watching how this game played out, whether Tennessee ever watched a game tape from Alabama-Arkansas. The Arkansas game, for Alabama’s defense, was a bit like driving-range practice for someone working solely on his driver: Tee up, hit. Tee up, hit. Repeat. Tennessee must have thought that was a I-formation defense thing, because it seemed to believe it could work longer routes in the passing game and open up the box. Obviously, that never happened. Alabama’s defensive pressure, particularly from Tim Williams off the edge and Reuben Foster from all over the place, shortened STAT (Snap To Affect Time) numbers down to a point where Dobbs, who lacks the arm to hammer in the midrange throws, got taken out of the game for all practical purposes. No one has said whether this is a Jeremy Pruitt philosophy in action, or whether this is simply what Alabama feels is best for its current personnel groupings. All we know is it works.
3. Bo Scarbrough was written off too soon, and now Alabama has tremendous RB depth. Scarbrough finished the day with 109 yards on just 5 carries, but it seemed like a dozen more than that – especially if you happen to cheer for the Big Orange. Scarbrough’s long touchdown scamper of 85 yards recalled Derrick Henry’s glory days, and what it means in the big picture is that Alabama now has three equally legitimate threats at running back and a fourth (B.J. Emmons) who could probably be just as good if not for the logjam ahead of him. Scarbrough operating at peak power makes Alabama very tough to stop in the running game, as Alabama should basically never get tired at the position. Alabama’s ability to salt games away late via the running game is at a level not found at many other places. As long as this wasn’t an anomaly caused by Tennessee’s injury-addled depth problem, Scarbrough’s performance bodes well for future games against Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn.
4. Offensive line continues to improve as a unit. Lester Cotton did a nice job in relief of Alphonse Taylor, who sat out the game with a concussion suffered in the first half of the Arkansas game. Overall, Alabama’s line played well for the second week in a row, particularly (and obviously) in support of Alabama’s running backs. Somewhat surprisingly, Alabama yielded nine tackles for losses on the day, but the number of negative plays was eclipsed by the number of explosive plays Alabama made as well as the sheer, crushing force of its rushing attack, which ran up 438 yards on 49 carries (8.9 avg.) for the day. The one point of criticism to make is that LT Cam Robinson, who yielded a sack and two TFLs working against Derek Barnett, continues to have somewhat of an inconsistent year.
Alabama, like Tennessee, shortened its route tree in response to the early pressure Barnett and Corey Vereen were able to bring down upon Jalen Hurts; by doing so, Alabama made life easier on Robinson, and he did respond with a more effective effort as the game went along. Tennessee had only one other sack, which came from DB Rashaan Gaulden on a blitz, but both turnover plays came over the left side. As expected, Alabama’s guards and center had a distinct advantage as a result of Tennessee’s injuries and the O’Brien dismissal, but it may have been a surprise just how far Alabama was able to push it.
5. What a decade it’s been in this series. Alabama, in ten years under Nick Saban, has beaten Tennessee 10 times, with only two games really being competitive, 2009 and 2015. The Volunteer program, which believed it had positioned itself north of the Alabama program during Phil Fulmer’s run as Tennessee head coach, has since gotten an exceptionally pointed, corrective response from Nick Saban, his staff and his players. Perhaps where this was most evident was in the reactions on the faces of the Tennessee fans: not so much anger, but instead disbelief, despair and even pure, unadulterated grief.
One of Butch Jones’ first acts after being named Tennessee head coach was to talk about how Tennessee needed to challenge Alabama in recruiting, and what this rivalry meant to the status of his program. Tennessee’s failings are not all his fault – let’s be honest, the way Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin departed Tennessee did no one any favors, including Kiffin but especially not the Tennessee program, and the Derek Dooley debacle was still yet to come. But in the end, it doesn’t matter.
This was supposed to be the best Tennessee program Alabama had ever faced under Saban, or at least the best since 2007. If that was the best, Tennessee has a problem, because Alabama was never challenged Saturday. Worse yet for Tennessee, there doesn’t appear to be much evidence this relationship will change in the near future. It will be interesting to see how much patience Tennessee has with Jones going forward, especially if the losses not only continue, but continue to be this ugly.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN