Pruitt took Saban’s 3-4 over/under to Tennessee with him and has done well with the system. While Tennessee is more or less stuck in the middle when it comes to making plays behind the line of scrimmage, the Volunteers rank 24th nationally and 5th in the SEC in total defense; Alabama is 61st and 11th in those same figures. It mostly comes down to superior play at linebacker for Tennessee, as the two teams are virtually tied in run defense numbers, and while Tennessee has been better against the pass, it hasn’t been substantially so. With both head coaches knowing the other’s tendencies so well, the chess match on defense will be sort of a game within a game.
The big edge here to Tennessee is in experience. The Volunteers will start three seniors (NT Aubrey Solomon, DEs Matthew Butler and LaTrell Bumphus) with another senior, Darel Middleton, coming off the bench. Alabama, on the other hand, won’t have an upperclassman on the field outside of reserve Phidarian Mathis, assuming LaBryan Ray remains out with an elbow injury. Tennessee will also play Kurott Garland and Elijah Simmons inside and Greg Emerson outside.
Alabama will have D.J. Dale in the middle, with Justin Eboigbe and probably Christian Barmore at the defensive end spots. Mathis and Byron Young are the primary depth players, but Mathis was nicked up against Georgia and Alabama used two true freshmen in that game in their first career action, Tim Smith and Jamil Burroughs. Both could factor in again this week, along with Stephon Wynn Jr. Alabama has more explosive potential with Barmore than anybody on the Tennessee roster, but Tennessee has gotten modestly better production across the board and is healthier right now. Advantage: Tennessee
The name here to watch for Tennessee is Henry To’o To’o, who will start at weakside linebacker. Alabama recruited To’o To’o heavily, but in the end, opinions vary as to whether he simply picked Tennessee over Alabama (due mainly to Pruitt’s recruiting of him) or whether Alabama didn’t prioritize a spot for him.
Regardless, Alabama wishes it had him now. He’s Tennessee’s leading tackler and is effective as both a run stopper and a pass rusher. He is fast, physical and smart, and would be starting over Christian Harris at this point if he were to switch jerseys. Outside linebackers Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson are both quality athletes, and Johnson is the Vols’ best pass rusher, recording 3.5 out of the team’s 8 total sacks. Johnson is a senior and Bennett a redshirt junior.
If there’s a weakness, it’s up the middle with Quavaris Crouch, who has not made a tackle behind the line this year and often needs help completing plays. Jeremy Banks, listed as the backup at the spot, is injured and might not play. There isn’t much depth inside in general, but outside is a different story, with true freshman Tyler Baron showing out a bit in the early portion of the season.
Alabama played two different games against Georgia; there was the first-half disaster where Bama linebackers could be observed lining up in the wrong place, filling the wrong holes and generally not being disciplined. Then there was the second half, where Alabama shut out Georgia and the linebackers put the kibosh on the Bulldog running game. So which unit shows up this Saturday? Outside, Christopher Allen has developed into a dependable Jack linebacker, but Will Anderson Jr. is still learning on the job at the other outside spot. The main concern is Dylan Moses at middle linebacker. Despite Nick Saban’s insistence that Moses played a good Georgia game, the tape tells a different story in the first half. It’s understandable that the coaches would try to pump him up, because there’s really no alternative.
Alabama is unlikely to bench Moses in favor of either Jalen Moody, Shane Lee or Brandon Ale Kaho, and Josh McMillon seems to have migrated to fullback while still feeling the aftereffects of a serious knee injury a year ago. Christian Harris continues to make progress at weakside linebacker, although the play everyone will remember from the Georgia game from him involved him losing track of a running back running a pass pattern and giving up an 84-yard touchdown reception. Point-blank, Alabama’s linebackers are not playing championship football at the moment, but the season has many more weeks to go. As for Tennessee, Crouch may be a pressure point Alabama can manipulate, but the Vols are more consistent here on the whole. Advantage: Tennessee
Alabama may have found something in the safety combination of Jordan Battle at strong safety, DeMarcco Hellams at free safety and Daniel Wright at dime. Hellams is more assignment-oriented than Wright, although slower and not as fluid. He’s a big hitter with a big body, though, and at the moment is channeling the memory of former Tide safety Marcus Spencer during Spencer’s sophomore and junior years. Recall that as a senior, Spencer had developed into one of the most feared safeties in the league because of his tackling ability, although his speed never quite caught up to his power.
The corner combo of Patrick Surtain Jr. and Josh Jobe is legitimately one of the best in the conference, giving up very little on the outside the last two weeks despite the secondary at large giving up substantial yardage. Malachi Moore is having the kind of up-and-down season you’d expect from a true freshman, and he was up again last week at Star safety. Brian Branch adds depth at safety and Jalyn Armour-Davis at corner.
Tennessee has a substantial advantage in experience – four of its five main contributors are upperclassmen and the fifth, safety Jaylen McCullough, may be its best raw talent. Having said all of that, statistically, Tennessee’s secondary has been nothing to write home about in 2020. While 2nd in the conference in passing yards allowed, efficiency defense is off and yards-per-completion allowed is too high. Plus, Tennessee doesn’t intercept many passes. Add it all up, and shockingly, these two units are basically tied. In addition to McCullough, Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor will start at the corners and Trevon Flowers and Shawn Shamburger at the other two safety spots. There is good, veteran depth available in Kenneth George at corner and Theo Jackson at safety. George in particular has shown a knack for breaking up passes.
We’re going to pick against type here, basing a hunch on Alabama getting the safety rotation settled down, and Jobe and Surtain continuing to lock down receivers – not to mention Jobe’s prowess as a corner against the run. Advantage: Alabama
Will Reichard’s performance against Georgia elevated the profile of this group substantially, but there are still problems at punter. Sam Johnson is OK on short punts but continues to struggle kicking from deep in his own territory, to the point where Saban addressed the topic during one of his weekly news conferences. Charlie Scott and Ty Perine continue to compete at that position with Johnson. Jaylen Waddle has been bottled up on punt returns but that can’t last forever.
Alabama’s other problem has been misfires on kickoffs. Reichard replaced true freshman Chase Allen in the middle of the Georgia game, but Alabama would like to keep Reichard’s exposure to contact at a minimum, so Allen may be back on the job this week. Tennessee has been stellar in the return game, ranking 3rd in punt returns and 13th in kickoff returns, but the sample size has been fairly low on both. Paxton Brooks is a reliable punter whose per-kick average (42.4) is quite respectable.
Placekicker Brent Cimaglia has attempted 3 kicks and hit on just 1, a short attempt of 27 yards. He was on the preseason Groza Award watch list, however, and has three years of solid results on his resume, so we’re going to assume his 2020 results so far are a small-batch anomaly at this point.
Until Alabama gets the punting situation straightened out, it’s going to be hard to win this category, especially given Tennessee’s consistency and track record. Advantage: Tennessee
Alabama leads in five categories, Tennessee in three, but the secondary category is really a toss-up and Tennessee also could come close on the OL category if it gets its collective head screwed on straight. In regards to the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama controls the matchup of its OL against the Tennessee DL by a wide margin. On the flip side, Tennessee’s OL is better than Alabama’s DL but not by as much.
The frustrating part for Tennessee is that the Volunteers have continued to rebuild the talent level and this is not a bad team on paper. So why the struggles on the actual field? Pruitt’s dust-up with Brumbaugh is evidence of a maturity shortfall, while Guarantano’s confidence is probably shot and there are still some malcontents on the roster left over from the previous staff. Tennessee still has not shown the ability to bounce back from mistakes, and Alabama’s offense can put a tremendous amount of pressure on a team to keep its composure.
As such, this is a bad matchup for Tennessee in general, but at the same time, Alabama is coming off an emotional win over Georgia that was clearly a priority game, and may be due for a letdown. It’s a classic trap situation for Alabama, and a slow start in Knoxville wouldn’t be much of a surprise at all. The question is, how long will it take Alabama’s offense to ignite, and what kind of damage can it do when it’s at full burn.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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