Tennessee lives in a 4-2-5 alignment most of the time these days, which may help explain why the Volunteers have been so strong against the pass (2nd in raw pass defense, 47th in pass efficiency defense) but horrid against the run (122nd). Injuries have certainly played a part, but this was a young front six from the outset and Bob Shoop’s preferred scheme has done little to take the pressure off. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under base package that ranks 1st in rushing defense, 2nd in scoring defense, 4th in total defense, 7th in pass efficiency defense and 25th in raw pass defense.
Part of the problem is the highest-ranking defensive lineman on the team’s tackle list is Kendal Vickers only ranks 7th. Vickers, the lone returning starter from a year ago (now that Darrin Kirkland is out for the season with injury), has been the only Vol lineman to get consistent penetration. Kahlil McKenzie and Jonathan Kongbo have largely been non-factors.
When Tennessee utilizes its 4-3 look, which is almost an inverted sub package in this scheme, Kyle Phillips becomes the second end across from Kongbo. The rest of the time, Tennessee utilizes linebacker Quart’e Sapp as sort of a smaller Jack linebacker/hybrid end. Sapp has been one of the few bright spots for Tennessee’ defense, putting up niec production against the run but struggling a bit to apply pressure against passing attacks. The second-team line – ends Matthew Butler and Deandre Johnson and tackles Shy Tuttle and Alexis Johnson – have done very little. Deandre Johnson has shown flashes – he has only 3 tackles, but 2 have gone for loss, he’s recorded a sack, and has also caused 2 fumbles. But he’s also injured and listed as questionable for this game.
Alabama counters with Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis at the ends flanking nosetackle Da’Ron Payne. Alabama will probably still be without Da’Shawn Hand for this game, but Buggs has stepped up his game in Hand’s absence and it hasn’t been a factor. Joshua Frazier, Quinnen Williams, Johnny Dwight, LaBryan Ray and Jamar King provide depth. Barring injury, this is not a close call. Advantage: Alabama
The way Tennessee uses its outside linebackers – not just the aforementioned Quart’e Sapp, but also Daniel Bituli – is somewhat unique in that there is frequently a strongside linebacker on the field even in a nickel alignment. Bituli is the team’s leading tackler, but he has no sacks and just 1.5 tackles for loss. More or less, he’s been there to clean up the trash.
The loss of Kirkland to a knee injury has been staggering, and Cortez McDowell was also lost for the year with a wrist injury. Into the MLB gap stepped junior Colton Jumper, though, and he’s in the running for most improved player in the SEC. Jumper was an outright liability, especially in the passing game, early in his career. In 2017, he has 7 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and a QB hurry. He still isn’t the most skilled coverage linebacker, but like Alabama CB Levi Wallace, he makes up for less overall athleticism by focusing on technique and assignments. Elliott Berry, Dillon Bates and Will Ignont provide depth, but none are likely to play much with the game on the line.
Alabama counters with Shaun Dion Hamilton, Rashaan Evans, Keith Holcombe and Mack Wilson rotating inside, with Jamey Mosley and Anfernee Jennings outside. Dylan Moses is starting to find a bigger role for Alabama, particularly as a late-game pass rusher, and Christopher Allen and Joshua McMillon provide further depth. Jumper and Sapp deserve kudos for their improvement in 2017, but Alabama strongly leads this category. Advantage: Alabama
The secondary was expected to be Tennessee’s team strength, and it is. Despite struggling to a year-end ranking of 72nd in pass defense in 2016, there was just too much athleticism and experience returning for UT to continue to fold up. Even losing safety Todd Kelly Jr. for the season didn’t slow Tennessee down much. What might slow them down this week, though, is that both starting off-corner Justin Martin and reserve safety Evan Berry are listed as questionable. If Martin can’t go, it will force either Shaq Wiggins or Shawn Shamburger, the latter a true freshman, into a starting role against Alabama’s talented receivers. The safety group of Nigel Warrior, Micah Abernathy and Rashaan Gaulden has been stellar, as has primary corner Emmanuel Moseley.
Alabama will use Levi Wallace and Anthony Averett at corner, with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Laurence Jones and Tony Brown forming the safety group. Trevon Diggs returned to action against Arkansas, but was visibly slowed. If Alabama needs an extra cornerback and he can’t go, Shyheim Carter and Jared Mayden will see action. Deionte Thompson and Xavier McKinney provide depth at safety. Despite Tennessee’s solid performance from this group, Alabama has made more dynamic plays, and Fitzpatrick and Wallace are the best players at their respective position groups. Advantage: Alabama
Tennessee has even found a way to have an injury situation affect its kicking game; PK Aaron Medley is listed as questionable for the game, which would force the erratic Brent Cimaglia to handle kicking duties. He’s just 1-of-4 from 40 yards or more out. But despite the woes at kicker, Tennessee is solid everywhere else. The Volunteers quietly have some of the best return units in the country (18th in punt returns, 7th in kickoff returns) and net punting has been a solid 24th.
Alabama is somewhat a photo-negative of Tennessee; net punting has suffered (102nd) mainly due to positive field position, but J.K Scott has whiffed on a couple of kicks. Alabama hasn’t been great in the return game, and if Diggs is less than 100 percent, the impact will certainly be felt Saturday. But at kicker, senior walk-on Andy Pappanastos has been a revelation, hitting 12 of 15 tries, including all 9 attempts under 40 yards. Alabama is probably better than the numbers have shown, but the Volunteers hold a decisive edge in the return game and P Trevor Daniel is a capable foil for Scott at punter. Advantage: Tennessee
Alabama leads in seven categories, Tennessee in one. The closest category to switching would be the special teams category, and even though that’s a fairly comfortable edge to Tennessee at the moment, it shows the degree to which the chasm between these two programs has grown. Alabama strongly controls both OL/DL matchups, almost to the point of them being off the table.
Alabama, though, has been in this position before, where a blowout over a rival was expected but once the ball got in the air, circumstances changed substantially. The difference in those games and this one is that Tennessee doesn’t have much to play for. The championship many Vol fans thought were within their team’s grasp is gone. Too much talent gone from the roster due to injury. A coaching staff that might be gone in a month. And this is on top of a quarterback position group that might rank as the worst in the Southeastern Conference at the moment.
For Tennessee to get within striking distance of Alabama, either the Crimson Tide would have had to completely blow off preparations all week long, or there would have to be a run of injuries in this game the likeness of which no one has ever seen. If Alabama stays healthy and plays even a conservative-but-focused ballgame, Tennessee has very little chance.
Eventually, the fate of all programs comes down to identity. Alabama’s current identity is championships, Saban’s famous “Process,” and playing to a standard. Butch Jones’ Tennessee team plays with one eye on the ambulance, the other eye looking out for a pink slip, and concerns itself with things like being “champions of life.” As long as those two identities remain what they are, in this rivalry, Alabama will remain very, very much in business.
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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN