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By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 17, 2018
Because time marches on no matter how much we would like it to stand still for moments both great and small, there will always be an interest taken in young coaches – especially those with ties to Nick Saban – who look like potential future coaches for The University of Alabama.
Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt is special within that context; not only is he a former Alabama assistant coach under Nick Saban, he’s also an Alabama graduate. Even Clemson’s Dabo Swinney can’t say he’s both those things.
Pruitt’s first head coaching assignment certainly has had the feeling of jumping out of a frying pan and directly into an open flame, because Tennessee was a dumpster fire full of napalm when he took over for Butch Jones this spring. The Volunteers were well on their way to a disastrous 2018 season before upsetting Auburn last week; now, a bowl game actually becomes a possibility if Tennessee plays its cards right the rest of the season.
But no matter how many cards the Volunteers have in their deck, it likely won’t be enough to pull a second consecutive upset. For one thing, Tennessee didn’t come out of the Auburn game unscathed, and the Vols were already a thin team to begin with. More importantly, though, Alabama isn’t Auburn.
Whether Jeremy Pruitt eventually finds himself a candidate at Alabama following Nick Saban’s eventual retirement is yet to be seen. Pruitt is currently having to deal with former Tennessee head coach and current athletic director Phil Fulmer looking over his every move, sometimes from just a few feet away at practice. Something about that arrangement just sounds counterproductive, but Fulmer isn’t going to relent and Pruitt can’t force him to do so. This Saturday, Fulmer will probably get a front-row seat to watch Alabama dismantle his beloved Volunteers.
Pruitt is determined to make Tennessee tougher, and to transition away from Butch Jones’ finesse spread. It’s a process that won’t happen overnight. The Vols are ranked 81st in rushing offense, 93rd in passing offense and 97th in total offense. Scoring offense checks in at 83rd. Tennessee will primarily operate from a one-back, three-wide pro-style rushing format, with two-TE Ace packages used in short-yardage and other situations that call for more power. Alabama, also a multiple-format offense, comes in leading the nation in total offense, scoring offense and passing efficiency. There aren’t many places Tennessee can challenge Alabama just yet.
Jarrett Guarantano has developed into a useful part in Tennessee’s offense, completing 64% of his passes for 1,129 yards, 6 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. In regards to team passing efficiency, Tennessee ranks a respectable 31st nationally. While the rushing stats don’t show it, Guarantano is a very good athlete at the position and is a danger in the open field. His escapability has allowed the Vols to rank 55th in sacks allowed despite having major issues within the offensive line. There is decent depth here, as Keller Chryst, a Stanford graduate, is one of the most experienced backups in the SEC thanks to two years of significant experience in Palo Alto.
Alabama counters with Tua Tagovailoa, who injured a knee against Arkansas and re-aggravated it last week against Missouri. His most eye-popping stat is either his TD-to-INT ratio – that would be 21 to 0, not really a ratio so much as it is a statement of dominance – or his total QB rating of 248.1. Tagovailoa’s contributions to the Tide rushing game were quite muted against Missouri, and don’t expect to see a lot of called QB runs in this game, either.
His backup, Jalen Hurts, figures to play a significant portion of the game, and Hurts actually owns a higher completion percentage at this point, albeit coming mostly against defensive subs late in games. As much as Tyson Helton should be commended for his work with Guarantano, there’s really no comparison here. Advantage: Alabama
Tennessee was high on Ty Chandler’s potential coming into the season and, for the most part, that faith has proven to be well-placed. Chandler has rushed for 297 yards at 5.3 yards a pop, but has scored just 1 touchdown. Backup Tim Jordan has about as many total yards (284) but is averaging just 3.7 yards per run. Madre London would figure to get an increased workload going forward as his natural size and strength makes him more able to open holes on his own. He’s currently averaging 5.5 yards per carry. True freshman Jeremy Banks might also see time in this one.
For Alabama, it’s mostly a three-man rotation of Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs, and all three have shown more potential and recorded more actual production than their Tennessee counterparts. Brian Robinson Jr. actually has more carries than Jacobs, but he will play mostly during trash time. The issue for Tennessee here is really one of size; Chandler and Jordan both struggle to reach the 200-pound mark, making them perfect fits for the previous regime’s rushing strategy but an ill fit for what Pruitt wants to do. That’s why we expect more from the Michigan State transfer London this week. While Tennessee has OK talent here at the moment, Alabama is far and away better. Advantage: Alabama
If there’s one consistency out of the UT program, it’s been the development of wide receivers across multiple coaching regimes throughout the years. This year is no different; Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings, Brandon Johnson and Josh Palmer are a respectable starting core. Callaway and Jennings in particular have proven game-changing ability, and both have above-average height and strength for the position. What they don’t have is a lot of game-changing production in 2018. Callaway has yet to catch a touchdown pass, and Jennings has been steady but not a standout.
Most limited has been Johnson out of the slot, a position Tennessee has struggled to get production from for several years now. Probably the most disappointing position, though, has been tight end; Dominick Wood-Anderson, a JUCO transfer Tennessee stole from Alabama late in the recruiting process, has caught just 7 balls for 55 yards (7.9 avg.) and 1 touchdown so far, and he was hurt in the Auburn game and might not play. That would leave Eli Wolf and Austin Pope as the options in this one, and each player has just 1 catch.
Aside from Ty Chandler, the running back position has been mostly left out of the passing game, and Chandler is averaging just a catch a game. Whether the production issues are the fault of the changing system, the coaching, QB play or issues in the offensive line speeding up the reads, the end result is that UT needs to improve.
Alabama comes into this game with a starting group almost without peer. DeVonta Smith may miss this game with a hamstring injury suffered against Missouri, but even if he’s out, a starting trio of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle are all front-line playmakers who can abuse even veteran secondaries. If Smith is out, look for Derek Kief to become the rotational wide receiver, with Tyrell Shavers and Xavian Marks likely the next two guys off the bench.
Alabama has a big edge at tight end, where Irv Smith Jr. would be Tennessee’s leading receiver in yardage if he switched sides. Hale Hentges and Miller Forristall add depth along with Major Tennison. The edge gets bigger if Wood-Anderson is out for UT. Advantage: Alabama
If the Vol Navy was this offensive line, it would be headed to Davy Jones’ Locker. Alabama transfer Brandon Kennedy was supposed to anchor the line from the center position, but he tore an ACL. Long-time next-big-thing Drew Richmond lost his starting job in the spring and got it back more or less out of necessity. Undersized JUCO transfer Jahmir Johnson, who had been starting at left tackle, was injured against Auburn and is questionable. So, too, is true freshman RG Jerome Carvin.
That basically leaves one fantastic prospect – LT Trey Smith – to hold down the fort with Richmond at right tackle, Ryan Johnson at center, and a bunch of questions at guard. If Johnson and Carvin play, neither will likely be 100 percent. Journeyman Chance Hall would likely get the call at right guard and redshirt freshman K’Rojhn Calvert at left guard if the usual starters can’t go. There’s a reason this unit ranks 120th in tackles for loss allowed.
For Alabama, Ross Pierschbacher will start at center with Lester Cotton and Alex Leatherwood at the guards and Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills at the tackles. Alabama ranks 7th in sacks allowed and 11th in tackles for loss allowed, and Bama quarterbacks typically get to operate from clean pockets. Deonte Brown worked some with the 1s last week at left guard and Matt Womack gives Alabama uncommon experience off the bench at tackle. Not close in any way, shape or form here. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama vs Tennessee Defense Preview