By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 22, 2017
There are games won by large margins that feel satisfying, and then there are games like this, where the opponent is obviously so soul-crushed that it’s hard for a rival fan to know whether to dance on the grave, or just bring flowers to decorate it.
Alabama proved that ingesting rat poison leads to flat and sloppy play, especially with a first quarter Saturday that ever-so-briefly left in doubt whether the Crimson Tide would win at all. But after an Irv Smith fumble through the end zone was overturned thanks to a timely penalty from Tennessee’s Jonathan Kongbo, Alabama seemed to ignite. More importantly, Tennessee visibly deflated after having to give back its turnover, and a team on the verge of quitting doesn’t need much to push it over the edge. Alabama took full advantage, scored again before the half was out, and never looked back in the second half.
The end result was one of the most one-sided games ever played in this series. For a program like Tennessee that believes it can be Alabama’s equal, this loss had to be especially painful. Tennessee and Alabama were not playing the same game. Just watching the two teams’ quarterbacks go about their work had to be particularly dejecting for Volunteer fans. Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano was 9-of-16 for 44 yards and an interception, for a total QB rating of a whopping 6.5. Meanwhile, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts recorded a QBR of 62.5 and backup Tua Tagovailoa 85.5. Hurts and Tagovailoa combined for 332 yards on 66.7% passing.
Even those who are most familiar with Nick Saban’s work have to be taken aback now by the gap that exists between Alabama and most of the conference. While Alabama arguably has its two toughest conference foes yet to come on the schedule – Auburn and LSU – the thoroughness by which Alabama has picked apart the rest of the league has triggered a cascade panic effect that threatens not to just remove Tennessee’s Butch Jones from office, but most of the rest of his compatriots as well.
For its part Saturday, Tennessee would have been better served just to kneel with the ball every snap rather than trying to make something happen. Because when Tennessee did try to make something happen, Alabama rather forcefully decreed that something would not happen. Tennessee’s attack plan looked like it was put together on the fly by the guys trying to decide who would and wouldn’t get seats on the lifeboats after the Titanic hit the iceberg. Defensive effort typically consisted of one guy trying to strip a football and make a hero play, while everyone else just sort of stood around and judged his technique.
Alabama lived on Tennessee’s side of the 50, while the Volunteers only crossed midfield three times. One of those three times came as a result of a turnover on a punt deep in Alabama’s own territory, but the drive ended with an interception. The second of those midfield crossings ended with Alabama pushing the Volunteer offense back over the midfield stripe before the drive ended. The third drive fizzled at Alabama’s 45. Were it not for the fumbled punt, then, Tennessee never would have found out what the Bama red zone was like.
In short, this was the kind of domination Alabama fans dreamed about when Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, but never truly believed would happen. If Alabama plays up to its own standard the rest of the way in, even more schools will attempt to copy Saban’s success than are already in the process of trying to copy it. Most likely, all will fall short of that goal; no one has been able to replicate it yet.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Tennessee:
1. Both Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa had their best games yet in 2017. There were a lot of best games going around on offense, but two of the best of those came from Alabama’s two quarterbacks. Hurts seemed to struggle a bit with the outside swing passes, but he made up for that by being his at his sharpest going over the middle and up the seams. Hurts again saw his stats suffer a bit from untimely drops, but his ability to open up the middle of the field after Tennessee over-committed to Alabama’s familiar out-route game bodes well for the future against defenses such as LSU’s and Auburn’s.
Alabama didn’t use Hurts much as a runner for this game (5 carries, 14 yards) but Alabama seemed to approach this game as an opportunity to work on its passing attack, and did so. To that end, Tua Tagovailoa looked solid in relief of Hurts in the second half, and would have looked spectacular had it not been for a costly pick-six thrown near the Alabama goal line. But Tagovailoa rebounded nicely, including several sharp throws to Jerry Jeudy, and eventually found Henry Ruggs III for his fifth touchdown on the year in as many catches. Tagovailoa’s best pass of the afternoon was one he didn’t throw; a running back square-out that he passed up for a pass to Jeudy at the second level. Tennessee had no answer for either player.
2. Daboll’s addition to this week’s gameplan: Tight ends running amok. With Tennessee opting to shut down Alabama’s short, out-route game (which, by the way, the Volunteers didn’t do – persistent single coverage on Calvin Ridley plus a 5-yard cushion equals multiple receptions), the middle of the field opened up and Alabama attacked it with its tight ends. Irv Smith Jr. caught three passes, including his first touchdown, and Hale Hentges caught two other passes. That loud groan you just heard were the other 12 SEC defensive coordinators moaning in collective agony.
The one missing piece to the offensive puzzle so far has been the ability of the coaches to get the tight ends free. If this is now happening, there won’t be a safe spot on the field for defenses to hide. Alabama had nearly a 500-yard cushion over Tennessee in regards to total offense (604 to 108) and the ability to get all the weapons involved is a big reason for the domination.
3. Levi Wallace took his game to the next level, led defensive attack. Isaiah Buggs, Raekwon Davis and Rashaan Evans also had strong games, but it was Levi Wallace who really stole the show. In addition to 6 tackles, tied for second on the team on the day, Wallace had 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and a QB hurry. He gave up only one pass to a receiver he covered. Wallace has become the story of the season, rising from the ranks of walk-on practice player to be a starter on the best defense in the nation. But the bigger story against Tennessee was that Wallace was given an expanded role, and was able to execute it.
Alabama had preferred to go with Anthony Averett on most of its CB blitzes this year, probably due to the fact that Wallace has been so good in coverage, he’s managed to mostly lock out half the field. By turning Wallace loose on a few corner blitzes, Alabama gets less predictable for future opponents. It didn’t hurt at all that Wallace executed both blitzes perfectly, which pretty much describes how he’s executed everything else the coaches have given him to do.
Each week, there is a new reason to look at how well Wallace is playing, then shake one’s head in amazement and disbelief. Against Tennessee, his play had Vol fans going to the game program, finding the word “Senior” next to his name, and letting out a protracted sigh of relief.
4. Every team has to have a weakness, and apparently Bama’s is the punt return game. After watching Henry Ruggs III struggle with the assignment last week, and knowing that Trevon Diggs isn’t quite healthy enough to return to the job full-time, Alabama gave Xavian Marks a shot Saturday. Marks had one very nice return called back due to a called block in the back that was probably the worst mistake Marc Curles’ crew made all day (i.e., there should have been no flag). But aside from that one good return, Marks mostly struggled. He fumbled two punts, one on the receipt of the punt itself, the other when he was tackled from behind by a player he’d lost track of. Diggs played on the kickoff return units and played late at cornerback, but he still doesn’t look 100 percent. He needs to be in two weeks, however, because Ruggs and Marks just haven’t gotten the job done regarding ball security.
5. As much as Alabama won this game, Tennessee was in no position to avoid losing it. Let’s take stock of the mistakes Tennessee managed to make in this game: Trying to cover Alabama’s outside receivers one-on-one and giving too much cushion on top of it. Attempting to work against Levi Wallace in the early going despite Wallace’s track record in 2017 of making receivers disappear from stat sheets. Not playing Quentin Dormady at quarterback despite him being the only guy who could possibly hurt Alabama through the air.
DB Rashaan Gaulden more concerned about making obscene gestures to students after a meaningless pick-six rather than actually try to stop Alabama’s receivers and tight ends from running free in the secondary. DE Jonathan Kongbo more or less being Alabama’s first-half MVP, as he got flagged twice for hands to the face in critical situations, once leading directly to Alabama getting the ball back after turning it over. Not running RB John Kelly until the game had already been decided.
The list goes on and on.
These are the reasons Butch Jones’ job is in jeopardy, and it’s more than a bit surprising he wasn’t barred from boarding the team bus after the game. Tennessee’s decay as a perennial power in the SEC East has been a long time coming, but it has come deliberately and in several cases, with the aiding, abetting and complicity of the Volunteer AD’s office.
There was no way Jones and Tennessee were going to beat Alabama Saturday, that’s for certain. But it could have been a much closer game if it had been better-managed by the Volunteer coaching staff. Instead, they played directly into the teeth of the Bama defense on several occasions, and predictably, Alabama made them pay. Tennessee has a lot of work ahead of it heading into the offseason; if the Volunteers want to be competitive in this rivalry again, it will take an evaluation of the program from the top down – followed by an action plan that produces pink slips.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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