By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 19, 2017
Somewhere this week, there’s a Tennessee fan wondering how Alabama is still in business – and also wondering why his own team barely is.
One of the perhaps-apocryphal stories of Alabama’s long walk through the woods circa 1993-2007 was that then-Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer told former Alabama RB Santonio Beard that Alabama “would be out of business in two years.” Whether Fulmer actually said it is up for debate (he’s never admitted to it), but the story did lead to Fulmer walking off the Bryant-Denny Stadium field in 2005 following a 6-3 Alabama win and having to pass directly under a fan’s banner that read, “Hey Fulmer … We’re still in business.”
Two years later, Alabama hired Nick Saban, and if there were any lingering questions about whether Alabama was in business or not, they were quickly answered. Despite losing a handful of starters over a textbook resale scandal, Alabama whipped Fulmer’s Vols 41-17 in that 2007 game. In the nine other games played under Nick Saban’s watch, Alabama has won by 14 or more points seven times, and won the two games decided by closer margins as well. Fulmer resigned following the 2008 season and Tennessee hasn’t sniffed national relevance since.
This week, Tennessee comes to Tuscaloosa for what will likely be Butch Jones’ last game coaching the Vols against Alabama. Tennessee is 3-3 on the season, could very well have lost to Georgia Tech in the opener, and hasn’t scored a touchdown since Sept. 23, a game the Volunteers barely won over perennial power Massachusetts, 17-13. The Volunteers haven’t scored three touchdowns in a game since beating FCS Indiana State in Week 2.
For fans who had to put up with the all-too-cozy relationship between Fulmer, the SEC office and NCAA investigators during the late 90s and early 2000s, there is little sympathy to go around. The fans will be clamoring for a 60-point win, but the likelihood is that Tennessee has sort of a dead-cat-bounce effort here to keep things reasonable. Still, expecting Tennessee to actually threaten an upset is probably not on the table.
Butch Jones wanted Tennessee to become a feared, speed-freak attack that would force defenses into uncomfortable situations. Instead, he’s softened up what has traditionally been a pro-style school blessed with great receivers. UT is 116th in total offense in 2017, and is “balanced” in the regard that the Volunteers are 96th in rushing offense and 98th through the air. Tennessee is at least starting to recognize that any success it’s going to have down the stretch will come on the ground, but the newfound commitment to the running game means little when there’s no quarterback on the roster capable of hurting the defense. Alabama will counter with its multiple, pro-style attack that has been chewing up defenses all year long. Alabama is just 101st in passing offense, but boasts the 7th-ranked rushing offense and 15th-ranked total offense in the country.
It’s unclear whether Tennessee will use Jarrett Guarantano, Quinten Dormady, or some combination of the two. Both have struggled. Dormady, a junior who once held an Alabama scholarship offer in recruiting, has been dismal, throwing as many interceptions (6) as touchdowns and posting an efficiency rating of just 117.9.
Jones went with Guarantano against South Carolina last week, mainly because of the added threat of the run. But for the season, Guarantano has just 4 yards on 27 carries, and his 0.1-yard average per run is actually lower than Dormady’s average of 1.2 yards per carry. As a passer, Guarantano was even less effective, averaging 4.5 yards per attempt. At least he stayed pick-free. Accuracy on all throws is an issue with each, and TideFans.com can say it was warning everyone of the Vols’ potential QB issues in the preseason, a time when many prognosticators were losing their collective minds and picking this team to be a title contender.
Alabama will start Jalen Hurts, who has accounted for nearly 1,100 total yards and is a strategic nightmare for defensive coordinators given his ability to make plays on the run. Tua Tagovailoa should see action in this game as well. There’s no comparison between these two units, and Alabama holds a bigger edge here than it has all season so far. Advantage: Alabama
Giving credit where it is clearly due, John Kelly went from being simply a good running back in 2016 to being a potential game-changer in 2017. Although listed at just 5’9”, 215 pounds, he looks bigger and clearly runs bigger. Despite having no threat of a passing attack to take attention off him, Kelly has rushed 113 times for 552 yards (4.9 avg.) and 6 touchdowns. There have been times that he has looked almost impossible to tackle, and he has great balance. What he doesn’t have is much of a bench to give him a breather. Carlin Fils-Aime, the only reserve back with real breakaway ability, is listed as questionable for this game.
That leaves true freshman Ty Chandler as the only viable backup. Chandler has looked promising in his first season, being a capable receiver as well as runner, but at 5’11” and 178 pounds, runs the risk of being beaten up by Alabama’s physical front. Tim Jordan is also available but has barely played. Tennessee doesn’t have a traditional fullback per se, but H-back Jakob Johnson is close enough. He’s a skilled blocker and decent receiver.
Alabama will start Damien Harris, who took a few shots against Arkansas but appeared to be OK this week in practices. Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs are the primary backups and third-down role players, while Najee Harris and Brian Robinson add depth. Harris has 73 more yards than Kelly on 45 fewer carries. That’s more of an indictment of the Tennessee offensive line than it is Kelly, though. If Fils-Aime was healthy for this game, the gap would be a lot closer, but the threat of Kelly wearing down plus the home-run ability of Damien Harris is hard to overlook. Advantage: Alabama
Tennessee seems to grow great receivers, and even with the loss of Jauan Jennings for the season, the Vols are in pretty good shape. Brandon Johnson has been highly effective from the slot, and Marquez Callaway has taken the lead in the fight to replace Jennings as a downfield threat. There is some issue with the third starting spot, though, where Josh Smith has been largely shut out, and neither Josh Palmer nor Jeff George has been much better.
Still, Callaway averages nearly 20 yards per catch and has 3 touchdowns, which on this team makes him Fred Biletnikoff. Tennessee also has as fine a tight end group as Alabama will see, highlighted by Ethan Wolf, with Austin Pope and Jakob Johnson also available. Wolf has 10 catches on the year, but defenses have largely contained him, although 10 catches is about the ceiling when one has to stay in to block the majority of the time.
Alabama leads with Calvin Ridley, but the rest of the rotation may be changing. Robert Foster and Cameron Sims have been the off starters up to now, but Foster may be in danger of slipping behind at least one of the true freshmen – Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith or Henry Ruggs III. Derek Kief and Xavian Marks provide depth. At tight end, Irv Smith Jr. and Hale Hentges continue to rotate, but neither has been a consistent presence in the receiving game yet. Major Tennison and Kedrick James provide depth there.
Alabama can’t totally ignore Johnson, and Callaway can hurt the Tide if he gets loose. But Alabama holds a clear depth advantage here, as well as the overall comparison even if Tennessee does lead the tight end matchups. Advantage: Alabama
This was to be a transition year of sorts for the Tennessee offensive line, but things weren’t supposed to be this bad. Tennessee is 63rd in sacks allowed and 104th in tackles for loss allowed nationally, whereas Alabama is 20th and 7th, respectively. Tennessee was looking at two, maybe three new starters, and that was before Chance Hall was lost for the season with a knee injury, and then center Coleman Thomas lost his starting job.
The ever-changing lineup seems to have settled on the following alignment this week: Jashon Robertson at center flanked by Brett Kendrick at left guard and freshman Trey Smith at right guard, and Drew Richmond and Marcus Tatum getting the call at left and right tackle. Kendrick is probably better suited as a swingman, and Robertson should be playing guard, but Tennessee will have to take what it can get. Jack Jones and Venzell Boulware have both started games for Tennessee this year and are available off the bench, but they’re both inside players.
If a tackle gets hurt, Tennessee would have to shuffle personnel; if two tackles get hurt, don’t ask. Alabama continues to look for consistency in pass protection, but this has developed into one of the finest run-blocking lines in the country. Bradley Bozeman starts at center flanked by guards Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton, while Jonah Williams and Matt Womack start at the tackles.
Alabama continues to shuffle reserves around – Richie Petitbon got his first collegiate action last week as the second-team left guard – but this is a unit that goes 12 or 13 players deep and can afford all the experiments it wants. No contest here. Advantage: Alabama
Bama vs Tennessee DEFENSE Preview
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