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Tennessee preview: Basket-case Vols have few weapons, less direction

A 34-7 loss last week to Kentucky was more or less the post-Lane Kiffin era of Tennessee football wrapped up into a single, 60-minute nightmare. Two pick-sixes started the fun, a Tennessee quarterback got benched, and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh was fired – in the middle of the game itself, according to a Kentucky news site.

Tennessee has become a sad sack of a program ever since Nick Saban arrived at Alabama. Saban had upset Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game while at LSU, and he has continued his dominance of the Volunteers ever since touching down on a Tuscaloosa tarmac. He has yet to lose to Tennessee during his time here, and while Saban has been a constant on the Alabama sideline since 2007, the Volunteers have employed five permanent head coaches and two interims during those years.

Tennessee got off to a decent start in 2020, scraping by a decent South Carolina team in the opener and then pummeling an equally decent Missouri team in Week 2. But then the wheels came off from about halftime of the loss to Georgia on, and few teams have played football as poorly as Tennessee has over its past six quarters. With the Brumbaugh firing now having occurred, and the team’s quarterback situation once again in limbo, this is not the right time for Tennessee to be facing an Alabama team with so many weapons.

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Jim Chaney coordinates the Tennessee offense, and while his reputation as an offensive coordinator is the subject of much debate, he has done some of his best work in the past against Alabama defenses, especially while at Georgia. But Tennessee doesn’t have Georgia’s talent level. This is a pro-style offense to the core, but it hasn’t been particularly effective, ranking 67th out of 77 teams in total offense, 57th in rushing offense and 57th in passing offense. At least it has balance. Alabama’s more multiple, dynamic pro-style, spread-infused offense currently leads the nation in passing efficiency, is ranked 2nd in scoring offense and passing offense, 39th in rushing offense and is 5th in total offense.

Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano will eventually go down in Volunteer history as one of the most star-crossed, loathed-by-fans QBs in school history, but no one can seem to unseat him. He has been the victim of an abrupt benching from head coach Jeremy Pruitt before, and got the treatment again against Kentucky after two early pick-sixes. He’s back atop the depth chart the school released this week, with three other players – Brian Maurer, J.T. Shrout and Harrison Bailey – bracketed as his backup.

Guarantano’s stats aren’t the worst we’ve seen: 70-of-111 (63.1%) for 752 yards, 4 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. But compare his yards-per-attempt stat (6.8 yards) against that of Alabama’s Mac Jones (13.2 yards). Jones has double the production on almost the exact same number of attempts (115 vs. 111). Guarantano also has trouble reading pressure, and contributes to his own poor sack numbers.

Otherwise, he’s actually fairly nimble on the run, and can hurt a defense with his legs even though he’s not a textbook dual-threat player. Bailey and Shrout have combined for just 2 completions in 5 attempts and Maurer hasn’t thrown the ball yet. Jones, meanwhile, is the reason Alabama leads the nation in passing efficiency and has been lethal as a deep passer. Bryce Young hasn’t played in a couple of games but his pedigree is substantially better than any of Tennessee’s reserves. This is a mismatch of Godzilla-esque proportions. Advantage: Alabama

Tennessee has gotten solid production out of a 1-2 punch of Ty Chandler and Eric Gray. Both are 5’11”, 205 pounds and can run the ball inside or outside. Gray is the slightly better of the two runners and has better overall physicality. While neither are superstars, they’re both solid, second-quartile SEC backs. Jabari Small, the third-team back, has logged only 6 carries on the year, so this will be a two-man show.

Same, really, for Alabama, which will use Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. Harris and Robinson average about a half-yard more per carry, cumulatively, than Tennessee’s duo, but the real difference is in touchdown production. Gray and Chandler have rushed for 2 touchdowns each; Harris has 11 by himself.

Alabama’s run-game production in the red zone has been probably the hidden strength of its offense. Alabama also continues to use Josh McMillon as a fullback in some short-yardage situations and he continues to be effective. Gray and Chandler have shown value as receivers, as has Harris for Alabama. It’s just a matter of overall talent and Harris has more of it, with a surging Robinson serving as a capable backup. Advantage: Alabama

Josh Palmer is the most dangerous receiver Tennessee has, catching 15 passes for 238 yards (15.9 avg.) and 3 touchdowns. He is a strong, physical receiver with good height. Brandon Johnson and Ramel Keyton are the other two starters, but neither has been a major factor in the offense. Velus Jones Jr., Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt are the backups, but only Jones plays a significant role, and he’s been mostly cooped up. The tight ends are nondescript and have been mostly blockers. Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren have a pair of catches each, and Sean Brown has yet to participate in the passing game. They’re all bracketed as co-starters for the game.

At tight end, Alabama will start Miller Forristall, who has become a key cog in the offense. With Carl Tucker likely still out this week, expect again to see a lot Kendall Randolph as a blocking tight end, with Cameron Latu, Major Tennison and Jahleel Billingsley providing depth. The real pull-away, of course, is in the comparison of wideouts. Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III are all superior to anyone Tennessee has, Smith and Waddle vastly so.

The only edge Tennessee has may be in depth, as Alabama has used only one reserve receiver (Slade Bolden) and hasn’t targeted him often. The rest isn’t close. Advantage: Alabama

Expected to be the strength of the Tennessee offense, it’s been the biggest disappointment relative to talent. Tennessee ranks 54th nationally and 10th among SEC teams in sacks allowed, and 17th nationally (but 6th in the SEC) in tackles for loss allowed. The Vols are also 44th in red zone offense out of 77 teams and 59th in scoring offense.

Alabama transfer Brandon Kennedy starts at center with Trey Smith and Jerome Carvin at the guards and Cade Mays at right tackle. Left tackle is unsettled, with Wanya Morris and Jahmir Johnson both nursing injuries. Johnson is further along the road to return than is Morris. If neither can go, Tennessee will have to get creative, probably shifting Mays across the formation and starting Darnell Wright at right tackle. Riley Locklear gives Tennessee one experienced upperclassman off the bench at guard.

Alabama is playing fantastically on the offensive line right now. Landon Dickerson will start at center with Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Deonte Brown at the guards and Alex Leatherwood and Evan Neal at the tackles. The second unit is a bit of a question mark, having not played much since the opener. Kendall Randolph fits in the tackle mix somewhere, with Darrian Dalcourt the backup center and Chris Owens, Tommy Brown and Pierce Quick the rest of the group. Tennessee has plenty of raw talent here, and if it can ever get on track, could be hard to handle. But injuries and disappointing play have cost the Vols, and Alabama is firing on all cylinders at the moment. Advantage: Alabama

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