Tennessee preview: Vols are desperate, but it probably won’t mean much

 

For those Alabama fans who vividly remember the time between the end of Gene Stallings’ tenure as Alabama coach and before the ascension of Nick Saban to the post, the bitter memories of multiple defeats to Tennessee are still fairly easy to recall.

What is easier to recall, for most, was the involvement, both alleged and actual, of then-Tennessee head coach (and current athletic director) Phil Fulmer in an NCAA investigation that, looking back 20 years on it, should have been a John Kennedy Toole novel had Toole survived to witness the source material. How deeply involved Fulmer really was in the investigation is a matter of still great debate, but what is not debatable is how Alabama fans centered their hatred upon him. A traditional rivalry that was barely friendly to begin with now had been ignited like the Hindenburg, and Fulmer’s continued presence on the Tennessee sideline was a big orange coating of thermite.

Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa immediately changed the dynamic. Despite a depleted roster in 2007, depleted even further the morning of the game by what would almost become another NCAA scandal – the “textbookgate” case – Alabama smoked the Volunteers 41-17. Saban has never lost to Tennessee as Alabama’s head coach, and Fulmer’s inability to make the Volunteers competitive in the series was probably a significant factor in his decision to retire following the 2008 season.

So imagine Alabama fans’ reaction when Fulmer was hired as Tennessee’s athletic director in 2017. The fact the Volunteers are now coached by a former popular Alabama assistant coach, Jeremy Pruitt, has been more than offset by the lingering hatred for Fulmer. Pruitt’s own struggles in his two years in Knoxville have been eclipsed by the lingering distaste for Fulmer on one side, and Tennessee fans’ distaste for losing on the other. Fulmer, whose original ascension to Volunteer head coach ran through – literally, many say – his predecessor Johnny Majors, has been accused of being too hands-on since bringing the inexperienced Pruitt on as the current head man.

Pruitt is embattled, the Volunteer program a shabby 2-4 including an embarrassing loss to Georgia State, Fulmer is hovering overhead, and Alabama is coming into this game with an offense that is as hot as 20 years of anti-Fulmer hatred. Tennessee would love to build on last week’s 20-10 upset of Mississippi State, but that’s not likely to happen.

OFFENSE

Everything about the Tennessee program is designed to mimic Pruitt’s time at Alabama, including the design of both the offensive and defensive systems. Both schools use a multiple, pro-style offense, but Alabama’s is more dynamic in every way. Pruitt brought in Georgia’s Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator for 2019, which means Alabama should expect a well-prepared gameplan from the outset, but with few adjustments as the game goes along. Tennessee has struggled to a ranking of 104th in total offense, “balanced” between rankings of 86th in rushing and 93rd in passing. Alabama, meanwhile, is 6th overall, 58th in rushing and 3rd in scoring.

QUARTERBACKS
Alabama won’t know who they’re facing until kickoff. Freshman Brian Maurer has guts but junior Jarrett Guarantano has far superior stats. Maurer, though, has the kind of energy a young team seems to thrive upon, but he suffered a concussion against Mississippi State and may be limited for (or even miss outright) this game. Maurer has completed just 45.8% of his passes, thrown 4 interceptions against only 2 touchdowns, and has a QB rating of just 106.6. Guarantano has completed 63.8% of his passes, thrown 4 interceptions too but has 8 touchdowns against them, and carries a QB rating of 149.8. Both are good athletes and can move in and out of the pocket, but neither is going to make Alabama recall Ole Miss’ John Rhys Plumlee anytime soon. Alabama will start Tua Tagovailoa, of course, and he’s thrown for almost twice the combined yardage of Guarantano and Maurer. It’s not even legitimately a contest, and Alabama’s backup, Mac Jones, is probably better than both of Tennessee’s quarterbacks as well. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
Continuing a theme from 2018, Tennessee has a lot of depth but not much production. Ty Chandler has been by far the best of the Vol running backs. He’ll get about 15 carries if averages hold up, and he has been good for about 5 yards a tote. But he’s scored just twice, and hasn’t been a game-changer. Reserves Eric Gray and Tim Jordan have been significantly less effective. Walk-on freshman Fred Orr might see action as well. Alabama counters with Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr., both of whom have turned up their games significantly in recent weeks. Harris needs to improve his effectiveness in the red zone, but both are threats as runners and receivers, whereas only Gray has proven to be an asset in the passing game for UT. Neither team uses a fullback. Expect to see Keilan Robinson and/or Jerome Ford for Alabama in this game as well. Not a close contest here. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
Tennessee has long held a reputation for being one of the premier SEC schools in regards to developing wide receivers. Despite the struggles of the offense as a whole and the quarterbacks specifically, that tradition continues in the form of Jauan Jennings, who has hauled in 29 catches for 412 yards (14.2 avg.) and 5 touchdowns. Those numbers would put Jennings solidly in the middle of Alabama’s receiver rotation were he to switch jerseys. What hasn’t been evident, so far, is someone else stepping up to help take the heat off Jennings. Marquez Callaway has proven he has big-play ability, but he doesn’t get open enough. Josh Palmer hasn’t been a factor. Alabama will most need to watch out for tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson. Alabama has struggled to stop even average tight ends over Saban’s tenure, and legitimately good tight ends can be a nightmare. Wood-Anderson is the latter, a player Alabama tried to sign, and he’s averaging close to 19 yards a reception on the year. Tennessee will play four other receivers in its A-group; they’ve combined for 9 catches and 2 scores. Depth is better at tight end, however. Alabama will counter with Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Jaylen Waddle and, for the second half at least, DeVonta Smith, who is sitting out the first half after being ejected late against Texas A&M. While Smith is out, look for John Metchie, Tyrell Shavers or Slade Bolden to work into the rotation. Like Tennessee, Alabama’s production falls off sharply behind the starters. Unlike Tennessee, all of Alabama’s starting group are proven all-stars. Alabama has decent receivers at tight end in Miller Forristall and Major Tennison, but blocking has been an issue there. Kendall Randolph, Cameron Latu, Jahleel Billingsley and Giles Amos have gotten long looks in practice recently. With Smith out and the tight end group solidly pointing in Tennessee’s favor, this category narrows up a good bit, but Alabama still holds a lead. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
Tennessee has been good up the middle, with Alabama transfer Brandon Kennedy at center and blue-chip Trey Smith playing guard. But the other guard, Riley Locklear, is highly questionable for this game as he recovers from a concussion. If Locklear is out, an already thin Tennessee OL unit becomes one injury short of catastrophe. Ryan Johnson and K’Rojhn Calbert both have starting experience; the one who loses out on the starting assignment would be the top backup at all three inside positions. Tennessee ranks 73rd in sacks allowed and 69th in tackles for loss allowed as it is, and problems at tackle (Wanya Morris, Darnell Wright) have been the main culprits in those low rankings. The starters at tackle are both freshmen, with a pair of juniors backing them up – and one of those, Jahmir Johnson, is listed as questionable for this game. Nine different Vols have started games on the offense line so far this season and the right mix is still eluding the coaches. Alabama may have found its ideal alignment last week, as Deonte Brown returned from suspension to start at right guard. Landon Dickerson moved to center, and that seemed to settle down the issues inside. Evan Neal will start at left guard, with Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills at the tackles. This isn’t a particularly close call. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

If you think the offensive systems resemble each other, just wait until you see Pruitt’s defense. Both teams employ a 3-4 over/under scheme, but like the offenses, Tennessee is trailing Alabama in most aspects. The Volunteers rank 48th in total defense, 69th against the run, 33rd in raw pass defense and 57th in pass efficiency defense, despite facing offenses not nearly as dynamic as what Alabama has faced. Alabama is 36th in total defense, 47th in rushing defense, 44th in raw pass defense and 22nd in pass efficiency defense. Most critically, Alabama is 14th in scoring defense, while Tennessee is 59th.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Tennessee ranks a respectable 43rd in sacks, but is just 95th in tackles for loss, which is mostly a DL problem. Greg Emerson has been steady in the middle, but isn’t particularly dynamic. The most dynamic lineman, quite surprisingly, has been a junior named LaTrell Bumphus, who wasn’t on anyone’s radar in the preseason. Aubrey Solomon has been OK as Bumphus’ counterpart at end. Darel Middleton has been reasonably effective as the main rotation player at end, but the other two top reserves – end Savion Williams, tackle Kurott Garland – have yet to flash. Alabama will start D.J. Dale at nosetackle with Raekwon Davis at one end and either Byron Young or Justin Eboigbe at the other. The big story coming out of Texas A&M was the emergence of Christian Barmore as a legitimate option at nosetackle in passing situations; he can play inside or outside. The Young-Eboigbe position – which is a thing only because LaBryan Ray continues to be out with a foot injury – is the only position lagging at the moment due to the youth involved. Tevita Musika has become a nice option at nose, and he allows Barmore to occasionally slide outside. Stephon Wynn Jr. and Braylen Ingraham are depth options along with Phidarian Mathis, who plays all three spots. Alabama has its issues at times, but has been stronger up front by far against the run and has more potential against the pass. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
While Alabama’s receiver corps will be without DeVonta Smith for a half, Tennessee’s linebacker group will miss Henry To’o To’o for the same reason: a fourth-quarter ejection in the last game. Alabama will be able to cover up Smith’s temporary loss far easier than Tennessee will be able to deal with To’o To’o’s absence, as he has been the stalwart of the middle of the defense from his weakside spot. Freshman Quavaris Crouch is his likely replacement, but that’s not an optimal solution, as Crouch has been working almost exclusively at outside linebacker and was recently pushing for the starting Jack linebacker spot. Crouch going to the middle will reshuffle things, with Darrell Taylor perhaps moving from strongside over to Jack, Deandre Johnson or Roman Harrison stepping into the SLB role and freshman J.J. Peterson getting an expanded role. All this is taking place around Daniel Bituli at middle linebacker, and Bituli isn’t 100 percent after dealing with a knee injury earlier in the year. The loss of Will Ignont earlier in the year complicates the depth situation significantly. Alabama is still having its own issues inside, where Christian Harris and Shane Lee continue to learn on the job. Alabama is developing some depth at inside linebacker, as Brandon Ale Kaho and Markail Benton have both received playing time in certain packages lately, but the results have been mixed at best. What isn’t mixed is the havoc caused by outside linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis, who both turned up the heat against A&M and ought to be able to feast on Tennessee’s young offensive line. Christopher Allen offers a nice third option outside; Ben Davis has also begun to crack the rotation a bit. Tennessee is stronger inside, Alabama stronger outside – but To’o To’o missing for a half is enough to tip the scales Alabama’s way. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Safeties Nigel Warrior and Theo Jackson are both solid tacklers, and Warrior is an underrated cover safety. They help solidify Tennessee’s middle defense, although neither has been very active in run support at the line of scrimmage. Tennessee’s issues mostly seem to come outside, where true freshman Warren Burrell was pressed into a starting role at one cornerback slot opposite sophomore Bryce Thompson. Burrell has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, though, and is listed as questionable for the Bama game. If he can’t make it, sophomore Alonte Taylor will start for the third consecutive week, and there will be only one other pure cornerback listed as a possibility to play – JUCO transfer Kenneth George Jr., who was lightly regarded when he came to UT. George did, however, get an interception last week against Mississippi State, and he has shown the knack for breaking up passes. Trevon Flowers will be the extra safety, and Jaylen McCullough and Cheyenne Labruzza will offer depth. Alabama will start Trevon Diggs and Patrick Surtain II at the corners, with Jared Mayden, Xavier McKinney and Shyheim Carter getting the bulk of the work at safety. Jordan Battle and Josh Jobe also provide depth. McKinney is the best player on either team, and either Diggs or Surtain the second-best at the moment, so it should be clear where the bulk of the talent lies here. Tennessee is 6th in the nation in interceptions, but has also given up more big plays and don’t play the run as well as Alabama does. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Placekicker Brent Cimaglia was already solid, but he has been a revelation in 2019, hitting all but one of his field goal attempts, and that one came from long distance. The Vols have been solid in the return game – 9th in punt returns, 37th in kickoff returns – and net punting is 42nd. Given Alabama’s struggles punting the ball, a ranking of 42nd qualifies as sheer dominance of the category. Tennessee even has depth there, as both Paxton Brooks and Joe Doyle have proven themselves. Alabama is still trying to figure out when to redeploy Will Reichard at placekicker after he suffered a hip injury. Joseph Bulovas has kicked the last two games, and has been adequate if a bit shaky. Punting has been disastrous; Skyler DeLong’s terrible 2019 season continues to crumble, and Nick Saban was caught on camera finally reaching the end of his patience after DeLong’s second punt against Texas A&M. Walk-on Ty Perine and 2018 co-starter Mike Bernier are still competing for the job, and it was against Tennessee last year when Alabama went from DeLong to Bernier the first time. Bernier never gave the job back until the spring. While Alabama’s kicking situation has been forgettable, its return game has been explosive. On top of that, Alabama covers kicks better than most. But most doesn’t include Tennessee – the Volunteers lead the nation in kick return defense, and they’re not bad defending punts, either. Given the clear edge at kicker and punter, this category ends up being one of the most lopsided on the board. Advantage: Tennessee

OVERALL

Alabama leads in seven categories, Tennessee in one. Aside from the linebacker comparison, none are particularly close calls, although the Vols are better at receiver than Alabama fans might want to admit. But when the subject of OL-DL cross-matchups comes up, Alabama controls both of those by clear margins. This game shouldn’t be very close at all.

Still, the best thing that could have happened to Tennessee in the run-up to this game, happened. Getting a win over Mississippi State, as beleaguered as that outfit is, has given Tennessee confidence. The big question now is how do the Volunteers respond to the adversity created by the concussions to QB Brian Maurer and OL Riley Locklear and the partial-game suspension of LB Henry To’o To’o.

Tennessee’s best shot is to win on special teams, whether that means long returns on kicks, a blocked punt or creating turnovers. Tennessee has been good enough to get the job done on special teams all year. But with nothing else to hang its hat on, expecting to win solely on special teams when the offense is at such a scoring disadvantage to Alabama’s offense is a tall order, indeed.

Some Alabama fans have postulated that Phil Fulmer is simply waiting for the inevitable blowout in this game to fire Pruitt and reinstall himself as head coach. He would have done it already, many say, except he couldn’t stand to have another Alabama loss on his resume. Perhaps that’s true. Or perhaps, it’s just typical rival-speak. What’s clear, though, is that if Tennessee were to win this game, it would qualify as one of the biggest upsets in the history of the series. So don’t bet on it.

Alabama 52
Tennessee 14

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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