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Tennessee preview: Vols’ chances depend on whether more than just the offense has improved

By now, Alabama fans all over the Southeast have gotten into “the last time Tennessee beat Alabama…” memes, and a string of wins that began with Nick Saban’s first Alabama team in 2007 has continued unabated until the present day.

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Whether that streak continues through the end of his tenure, or even another year or two, ultimately will come down to whether Tennessee – the entire Volunteer program, that is – has improved: not just the offense, not just the defense, but the mindset of what Tennessee football is in the modern day.

When Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, Tennessee wasn’t still at the peak of its heyday under former head coach Phil Fulmer, but it was still a respectable program that was considered an annual contender for the SEC East crown, and even the conference and national titles if everything went right. It took Saban about nine months to change the narrative, culminating with a 41-17 victory that saw QB John Parker Wilson throw for what was then an uncommon amount of yards (363), and RB Terry Grant added 100-plus yards on the ground and scored touchdowns both running and receiving.

From that point forward, neither program was the same ever again. Fulmer soon lost the reins to the program, while Alabama went to the top of the college football heap. Most notably, though, Tennessee went from expecting to beat Alabama to expecting to lose this yearly game.

If Tennessee is going to ever get off the deck and get back to actually challenging Alabama, it won’t be just because the nuts and bolts fit tighter. Yes, Tennessee has improved a lot of technical football components under new head coach Josh Heupel. But what the Volunteers need more than anything else is a makeover of expectations, both of the program and of themselves. Until that happens, they’ll be expected to give teams like Alabama a good fight, but ultimately fall in the end.


Heupel brought in a hybrid of the Big 12 offenses he was familiar with during his upbringing, and some of the more physical pro-style characteristics that SEC contenders have to have. The biggest improvement has been in the running game. The Vols boast the 5th-best rushing attack in all of college football, which leads into a total offense ranking of 16th. Everything runs through RPOs with the quarterbacks, and Tennessee uses that forced respect to hit defenses for big gains on play-action. The raw passing numbers rank just 81st, but a lot of that was due to an early quarterback change and the Vols haven’t played like the 81st-best passing attack in the country at any point in recent history. Alabama will use its own multiple, pro-style attack that is currently 12th in total offense, 65th in rushing and 13th in passing.

Joe Milton III began the season as the Vols’ starting quarterback, but yielded to Hendon Hooker after an early injury. Hooker has since gone on to become arguably the third-best QB in the SEC behind Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral. For the year, Hooker has piled up 1,296 yards passing, but it’s the efficiency numbers – 68.8% completion rate, 14 touchdowns, only 1 interception – that made him stand out. Hooker is also the Volunteers’ second-leading rusher, carrying the ball 89 times for 390 yards (4.4 avg.) and 4 touchdowns.

Unfortunately for Tennessee, Hooker sustained what appeared to be a significant leg injury in the last minute of last week’s loss to Ole Miss, and Milton is expected to start this game. Despite playing very little on the year, Milton still is Tennessee’s fourth-leading rusher, carrying the ball 23 times for 156 yards (6.8 avg.) and 2 touchdowns, which includes yardage lost the sacks. It’s the passing numbers that pale in comparison. Never a particularly accurate thrower, Milton is completing less than 50 percent of his attempts on the year, but on the other hand, is also yet to be picked off. Neither quarterback is small, but Milton is thick at 6’4” and around 235 pounds. If Hooker is completely out of the mix, the backup will likely be Harrison Bailey, who has experience in SEC games.

Alabama will start Bryce Young, who broke through the 2,000-yard mark against Mississippi State and has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, thrown 24 touchdowns and has just 3 interceptions. Paul Tyson and Jalen Milroe are the backups. Even without Hooker, Tennessee has better depth than Alabama, but losing Hooker is a big blow to the Vols’ chances. Milton was highly regarded as a recruit by several programs, but has yet to see his potential pay off yet. However,

Alabama has seen enough of that out of players like Stephen Garcia and Zach Calzada to be wary of it happening again. Advantage: Alabama

Tennessee’s running stats are inflated due to the number of quarterback runs, but running backs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small have put together a solid season between them. The two have a combined 810 yards on the season, average around 6 yards per carry and have scored 9 touchdowns. They aren’t used as receivers much – each player has 4 receptions apiece – but they both are in the 5’11”, 210-pound range and are probably the biggest reason Tennessee has been able to do more on offense this year compared to past seasons. Depth is in good shape, with Len’Neth Whitehead and Jaylen Wright also available, although Wright is nursing an injury of some kind that might limit him. Evans is also listed on the Vols’ injury sheet, but if there’s any way for him to play in this important game, he will.

Alabama will start Brian Robinson Jr., who has established himself as one of the conference’s best backs. Robinson’s touchdown production almost equals Evans’ and Small’s put together (8 for Robinson, 9 for the other two combined). What Alabama doesn’t have right now is a running back who can replace Robinson straight-up for all the roles he plays. Roydell Williams is a good outside runner and receiver, but the size differential between him and Robinson makes it harder for him to find success between the tackles. More importantly, pass protection is a hallmark of all Alabama featured backs, and Williams has not yet proven able to take on that work. Trey Sanders may end up playing a larger role going forward, but aside from being a bit more capable of inside work, the same questions about pass blocking revolve around him.

This is a close call made even closer due to Robinson’s recent surge, but Bama’s depth situation tilts it back to the Volunteers. Advantage: Tennessee

When Alabama’s receivers are on, as they were against Mississippi State, they have few peers. Show up in Texas A&M mode, though, and the story is much different. John Metchie III had a strong bounceback game against MSU and he needs to stay on that same track. Jameson Williams has developed into Alabama’s most capable deep threat and homerun hitter, while Slade Bolden and JoJo Earle continue to split the slot position. Traeshon Holden had a coming-out performance against MSU and needs to continue to play at that level. The sudden question for Alabama is the status of tight ends Cameron Latu and Jahleel Billingsley, who looked solid in work earlier this season but have either disappeared or become unreliable as receivers the last couple of weeks. Look for a lot of Kendall Randolph in this game as Alabama makes use of his superior blocking ability.

Tennessee will start Velus Jones Jr., Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt in this game. Of those, Jones has broken away from the pack a bit and is coming off a strong game against Ole Miss. He has a physical build and can work against man coverage effectively. Javonta Payton is the fourth receiver. Besides Jones, only Tillman and Payton have double-digit catch totals on the year, and Tillman might not be 100 percent coming into this game. Walker Merrill, Ramel Keyton and Jimmy Calloway add depth. Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant are the tight ends, but like Alabama’s duo, there are questions about their ability against top teams.

Alabama is just a bit better across the board, at all positions. Advantage: Alabama

Injuries have hit Tennessee hard recently, and this was a unit that already needed all the help it could get coming into the year. Tennessee ranks 61st in tackles for loss allowed but is an atrocious 119th in sacks allowed. Worse yet, two starters and a key backup are all listed as either questionable or doubtful. Both C Cooper Mays and RT Cade Mays have leg injuries, and swing guard Kingston Harris is listed as questionable with an undisclosed ailment. Assuming all are out, that would leave Tennessee with its regular starting left tackle, Darnell Wright, starting guards Jerome Carvin and Javontez Spraggins, and a mess otherwise. Ollie Lane started four games earlier in the season on the line and would probably be the center ahead of Parker Ball, while either Jeremiah Crawford or Dane Davis would start at right tackle.

Alabama’s line played a solid game against a quality Mississippi State defensive line last week, and the line remains intact, with Evan Neal and Chris Owens at the tackles, Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Javion Cohen at the guards, and Darrian Dalcourt at center. Alabama has had its issues this year, particularly on the right side, but given what Tennessee is facing medically, Alabama is in a much stronger position for this game. Advantage: Alabama

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