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Tennessee’s 4-2-5 defense hasn’t necessarily been bad in 2021, but it hasn’t controlled any game the Volunteers have been in against quality competition. Tennessee did shut out FCS Tennessee Tech and held Bowling Green to 6 points in the opener, but the rest of its opponents haven’t exactly struggled to gain yardage or score points. Tennessee ranks 58th in total defense, 52nd in rushing defense and 53rd in scoring defense. Pass defense numbers are slightly better; the Vols are 32nd in pass efficiency defense, although they give up a lot of yardage (76th in raw pass defense). Red zone defense has been a problem (109th) and Tennessee has issues on third down. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under has also tilted back and forth at times, but has put up solid numbers against a couple of solid SEC offenses of late. Alabama is 16th in total defense, 8th in rushing defense, 35th in scoring, 51st in raw pass defense and 55th in pass efficiency defense.
The one thing Tennessee has been able to do is get excellent penetration into opponents’ backfields. Tennessee ranks 28th in sacks and is 2nd in tackles for loss nationally, a figure that leads not only the SEC but all Power 5 conferences. Elijah Simmons and Da’Jon Terry will split the nosetackle spot; like most nosetackles, their raw numbers aren’t the highest on the team but both are effective cloggers of the middle. The outside gap tackle, Matthew Butler, can be a handful, and defensive ends Ja’Quain Blakely and Tyler Baron are quality players. Byron Young has been strong off the bench, and Caleb Tremblay effective backing up the other end. Reserve tackles Omari Thomas and LaTrell Bumphus are a definitive step down from Butler but both can play.
Alabama’s defensive front has been somewhat experimental in 2021, given the use of linebackers as down ends on most plays, but if Alabama goes with a more standard set to stop the run, expect to see Phidarian Mathis and D.J. Dale at tackle, with LaBryan Ray starting at end. Justin Eboigbe will likely be the principal backup, as Byron Young suffered an elbow injury against MSU and is on a pitch count of sorts this week. Tim Smith and Stephon Wynn Jr. add depth inside. Jamil Burroughs might see more work if Young is limited. Young is the ideal DE for defending offenses like Tennessee’s, so his absence – or even limitation – would be significant. Otherwise, Tennessee is in the strange spot of having more big plays but less consistency as a whole. It’s a close call, but Young’s status is the key here. Advantage: Tennessee
Again, Tennessee has played better than expected, and a large part of that is due to WLB Jeremy Banks, who has been a godsend for this team. Banks leads the team with 48 tackles, 9 of them for loss, and 4.5 sacks. He also has an interception and a QB hurry. His counterpart, MLB Aaron Beasley, has been decently effective if not a standout. Where Tennessee is in potential trouble here is depth. Solon Page III is the only other linebacker listed on the team’s depth chart, and will back up both starting slots. Juwan Mitchell was expected to be a key contributor here, but is out for the season. The next option is probably freshman William Mohan, who ranks 18th on the team in tackles and is more of a special teams talent.
Alabama’s outside linebackers, especially Will Anderson Jr., have been tremendous. Dallas Turner is developing nicely at strongside linebacker after the loss of Christopher Allen, and Drew Sanders will miss this game while he continues to rehab after thumb surgery. Chris Braswell and King Mwikuta are the backups. Inside, Henry To’o To’o – a name certainly familiar to Tennessee fans, as he began his career with the Volunteers – is coming off his strongest game at Alabama. He, Christian Harris and Jaylen Moody will handle things inside. Alabama simply has the edge here in numbers, and as good as Banks has been for UT, Anderson is on another level. Advantage: Alabama
To be frank, more was expected from the Tennessee secondary, given it is probably the most veteran of all SEC secondaries. Three seniors and two juniors start – corners Alontae Taylor and Warren Burrell, safeties Jaylen McCullough, Trevon Flowers and Theo Jackson – but the Vols have not been able to sufficiently stop top passing teams. The Vols do, at least, rank 14th nationally in interceptions, and have posted 31 PBUs on the year, a high number. Alabama transfer Brandon Turnage is quickly moving up into a key backup role, and could wind up challenging Burrell soon for a starting job.
For Alabama, it is coming off its best performance of the year. Jalyn Armour-Davis and Josh Jobe have both been lockdown quality outside, while the safety combo from the MSU game – Jordan Battle and Daniel Wright at the high safety spots, with Malachi Moore and Brian Branch underneath – was highly effective. DeMarcco Hellams is nursing a nagging injury as a reserve safety, while Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Marcus Banks provide depth at corner. Alabama ranks 5th in interceptions nationally. Provided Alabama backs up last week’s performance with a similar one this week, Bama might have fixed the issues exposed in the Texas A&M game with the changes in personnel. Close call right now, but mostly due to the fact that both teams still have much to work on.
Alabama has the superior talent. Advantage: Alabama
Neither team is all that special in punting the ball, although Tennessee does hold the edge there. The return game is about equal – Alabama is better on kickoffs, Tennessee on punts – and as far as return defense goes, Alabama’s snafu against A&M ruined what had been a pretty good stat for the Crimson Tide. Overall, Alabama is still better there. In regard to kickers, Tennessee’s Chase McGrath is fairly automatic inside 40 yards, but things get a little squirrelly after that. Alabama’s Will Reichard may be the best kicker in the conference over the past two years, and is certainly a superior kickoff man to Tennessee’s Toby Wilson and Paxton Brooks. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Tennessee in two. In neither category in which Alabama trails is the difference very large, but Tennessee is an improved team and has closed the gap in a lot of places Alabama had big leads in the past, too.
As for OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama’s defensive line ought to have a clear advantage over Tennessee’s battered offensive line. When the situation is reversed, it’s probably a push between Tennessee’s DL and Alabama’s OL. Again, the operative question is how much weight does one give to the Mississippi State game, because if that’s the new normal, Alabama has strong advantages on both sides of this evaluation.
Essentially, Tennessee’s chances in this game will come down to whatever it can get from the quarterback position. If Joe Milton is what Josh Heupel originally believed him to be, he’s Cam Newton. So far in his career, though, Milton has been unable to translate that potential to actual on-field ability.
Of course, neither had Zach Calzada prior to facing Alabama. Or Stephen Garcia. That’s the problem with potential: It shows up, and presents itself, when – or if – it decides to, and not a moment before or after. Alabama would be unwise to dismiss Milton, or an injured Hendon Hooker, as beneath it. This Tennessee team has proven too many times already that it can do damage to defenses and keep them off balance.
Having said that, even with great quarterback play, Tennessee needs help from Alabama. It needs turnovers, and more importantly, a lack of focus again from a team whose focus has, admittedly, already wiggled around more than a beagle puppy. If Tennessee gets the “good” Alabama this Saturday, it has very little chance to even keep the game close. But if it gets the “bad” Alabama, the unfocused Alabama, another long-term victory streak could be endangered.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN