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Tennessee preview: Bama wonders whether it will have enough fireworks to top Vols

Even prior to Bryce Young’s shoulder injury against Arkansas, a lot of fans and analysts had this game circled as a potential problem spot for Alabama in 2022.

Coming off consecutive physical games against the Razorbacks and then Texas A&M, going to Knoxville to face a Tennessee team that has not beaten Alabama since Nick Saban was hired looked like the very definition of a trap game. Add in Young’s unfortunate shoulder injury, then throw on the game tape from Texas A&M of backup QB Jalen Milroe struggling to trigger the football, and suddenly this game doesn’t just look like a potential upset, but almost an assured defeat.

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Young is set to return this week in some capacity, but whether he’ll be 100 percent is another story. Meanwhile, Tennessee comes into this game with one of its most high-powered offenses in recent years, and a defense that has probably surprised some people along the way.

OFFENSE

Tennessee is a pure spread team that pressures the tempo relentlessly. Head coach Josh Heupel has shown little concern for defense, or the effects that quick possessions might have on it. His goal is to score, score and score again. To that end, Tennessee leads the nation in total offense, is ranked 23rd in rushing, 7th in passing, 2nd in passing efficiency and 7th in scoring. Alabama, presuming Young is under center, will utilize a multiple, pro-style attack that has become one of the most effective rushing offenses in the country. If Young can’t go, Bama will double down on that aspect. Bama is 7th in total offense and 3rd in rushing offense, so it’s not like Tennessee runs away with the offensive categories here.

QUARTERBACKS

Hendon Hooker is one of the biggest surprise stories of college football the last couple of years. A transfer from Virginia Tech, he was signed originally to back up Michigan transfer Joe Milton III, but after a few games the plan switched. Both QBs are still with the Vols, which gives them the best quarterback situation in the SEC and it’s not really that close. Hooker has completed 70 percent of his passes this year for 1,432 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.

His yards per attempt is a bit lower than Tennessee would like (10.2 avg.) but that’s a small nit to pick. He’s a dual-threat QB who is also the team’s third-leading rusher, accounting for 231 yards, a 5.1 average per carry and 3 touchdowns. If he has a weakness, it’s that consistent pressure and big moments both sometimes get to him. Having Milton available as a backup is a luxury; he has completed 85.7 percent of his attempts and has thrown 3 touchdowns in just 14 tosses.

For Alabama, the big question is what condition Bryce Young’s shoulder is in. Alabama held him out of the Texas A&M game, and if that was a precautionary measure, it nearly came back to bite Alabama in the butt. The word out of Tuscaloosa is that the final decision may not be made until after this analysis is written, and even if Young does play, he won’t be full song.

Alabama fans know what Young brings, but the question as to what Jalen Milroe brings has a far less certain answer. Milroe threw for 3 touchdowns against Texas A&M and had a long interception that more or less worked out to be a punt, but he fumbled twice in critical situations and was too hesitant to throw late in the game. What Milroe does bring to the table that Young does not, is a legitimate run-first threat that could be effective – if Alabama’s offensive staff can design plays around it.

There is some question whether Alabama would go to third-stringer Ty Simpson this week if it needed to throw the ball to win. Until we know more about both Young and Milroe, this is clearly a Tennessee edge. Advantage: Tennessee

RUNNING BACKS

Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small have identical statistics, almost literally. They’ve rushed for 315 and 311 yards, respectively, they both average 5.1 yards per carry and they’ve combined for 10 touchdowns, split 4 for Wright and 6 for Small. They’re the same height, and about five pounds apart. The only significant difference in their games is that Small has caught 6 passes out of the backfield, while Tennessee has yet to throw to Wright. They’re both good backs, effective as counterpunches to the Tennessee passing attack, but neither is special.

Special, however, completely defines Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs, who has exploded over the last two weeks after being simply solid through the first month of the season. Gibbs is deadly both as a runner and as a receiver, especially his cutback skills. Despite splitting carries with four other backs, Gibbs has almost as many yards as Tennessee’s co-starters combined. He goes over that number when receiving yards are added.

Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams provide nice depth off the bench, while Trey Sanders and Jamarion Miller are also available. Tennessee adds freshman Dylan Sampson to its list, but look for Wright and Small to get most of the work. They’re not bad, but they’re not Alabama. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS

It always seems like the Volunteers have great wide receivers no matter what else is going on. Things could have been even better for Tennessee this time out had injuries not hit. Bru McCoy and slot receiver Jalin Hyatt are a formidable one-two punch, and if Cedric Tillman was going to be healthy for this game, it would give Tennessee three superior wideouts and cause a ton of matchup issues for Alabama’s secondary.

As it is, Tennessee will still be hard to stop. Tillman is listed as out with an ankle injury, but there have been some rumors that he might try to come back before his expected recovery timetable is up. Starting in his place will probably be Ramel Keyton, who himself is averaging about 20 yards per reception, so it’s not like Tennessee will be dealing with a dead spot.

Tennessee adds two good tight ends to the mix, Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren. Fant is more on an H-back, but he’s effective. They’ve combined for 13 receptions from the spot. Tennessee also has good depth behind the starters at wide receiver.

For Alabama, we’ve been waiting to get a look at Louisville transfer Tyler Harrell, and this might finally be the week it happens. Alabama’s receivers struggled to get separation against Texas A&M, although the offensive design around Milroe, together with Milroe’s lack of comfort, didn’t help. We still expect Jermaine Burton, Traeshon Holden and Kobe Prentice to start, with JoJo Earle, Kendrick Law, Isaiah Bond and Ja’Corey Brooks rotating in.

It will be interesting to see whose snaps Harrell takes, if he plays. Cameron Latu and Amari Niblack seem to be settling in as the main players at tight end, along with blocker-only Kendall Randolph. Burton, Brooks and Latu all found the end zone last week, which was a bit unexpected giving the struggles of the passing game overall, but Alabama’s receivers need Young at quarterback to help throw them open a bit. Improvement here has been steady, but modest. Tennessee controls this category easily. Advantage: Tennessee

OFFENSIVE LINE

The additions of Tyler Booker as a rotational guard and Seth McLaughlin as the starting center have transformed Alabama’s offensive line from being on the good side of OK, to being one of the most effective in the country right now. Jalen Milroe’s sacks last week were almost completely due to his not getting the ball out when planned, and taking too much time to decide to scramble.

Alabama leads the nation in rushing yards per carry, and a large part of that stat is attributable to this unit. Tyler Steen and J.C. Latham will start at tackle, with McLaughlin presumably sticking at center over Darrian Dalcourt, while Emil Ekiyor Jr., Javion Cohen and Booker rotate at the guard spots.

For Tennessee, the Vols are slightly worse than Alabama in sacks allowed (47th vs. 39th) and while the Volunteers have a statistical edge in fewest tackles for loss allowed, part of that is due to Alabama getting in more rushing attempts and focusing more on the ground game. Cooper Mays will start at center with Jerome Carvin and Javontez Spraggins the guards. Darnell Wright will start at right tackle.

Left tackle will be either Florida transfer Gerald Mincey, who started the first four games of the season there, or senior Jeremiah Crawford, who started against LSU. Tennessee has a quality unit, one that has probably overachieved a bit in 2022, but it’s not quite as good as Alabama’s line – especially not lately. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

Alabama has put on a clinic this year on defense, especially in stopping the run, but both aspects of the defense are strong. Out of its 3-4 over/under scheme, Alabama ranks 5th in pass efficiency defense, 6th in both scoring defense and total defense, 8th in rushing defense and 12th in raw pass defense. Tennessee has been good against the run (11th), but is 87th in total defense, largely because of terrible numbers against the pass (52nd in pass efficiency defense, 128th in raw pass defense). Scoring defense, though, is a very respectable 22nd, in part because the Vols force turnovers. The Volunteers will utilize a 3-3-5 defense, which includes a stand-up end.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Tennessee gets good numbers in sacks and tackles for loss (ranking 22nd in both), and a good bit of that is due to a fairly no-name defensive line that has good depth and can mix up the pieces. Omari Thomas is listed as the starter at nose, with Kurott Garland at off-tackle and Tyler Baron the dedicated end. LaTrell Bumphus, Elijah Simmons, Bryson Eason, Dominic Bailey and Da’Jon Terry will all play in relief. There aren’t any statistical standouts, but everyone has about the same stat line, and there aren’t any obvious weaknesses.

Alabama will start Jaheim Oatis in the middle, with Byron Young and Tim Smith playing the ends. D.J. Dale is the primary backup, while Jamil Burroughs and Jah-Marien Latham have been assigned the task of replacing Justin Eboigbe, whose neck injury may be significant. Young is the playmaker of the bunch, but especially against the run, this group has been good at clogging holes and shutting things down. It’s a more explosive group overall than is Tennessee’s. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS

Tennessee has its own Byron Young, and the orange-and-white version is basically the Volunteers’ version of a Jack linebacker. Young has 3.5 sacks so far on a team that doesn’t really have a specific sack artist, but rather a collection of guys with 1 or 2 sacks. The phrase for the day here is “senior leadership;” all three starters are seniors, as are all three of the backups.

Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell starts in the middle with Jeremy Banks at weakside linebacker; Aaron Beasley and Solon Page back them up, with Roman Harrison backing up Young outside. Beasley is actually the team’s leading tackler and has been highly effective at hurrying the quarterback; Mitchell missed the first two games of the year and hasn’t been as impactful since returning to the lineup. Tennessee believes Banks is a special talent.

Alabama counters with Will Anderson Jr., Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell at outside linebacker, and Henry To’o To’o, Jaylen Moody and Deontae Lawson at inside linebacker. While Tennessee has a solid unit, each position marks an edge for Alabama individually, and taken as a whole unit, Alabama really makes it not very close in the end. That says something about the generational collection of talent Alabama has at linebacker at the moment. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Tennessee has continued to struggle in pass defense in 2022, which continues what seems like a decades-long trend. The big issue this week is that safety Jaylen McCullough is looking at a possible suspension after an arrest for assault. The facts of the arrest, based on what has been reported, paint McCullough in a sympathetic light, but it’s still highly irregular to see someone play the week after an arrest on such a charge. We expect Tennessee to do it, though. McCullough would be joined by Trevon Flowers and Tamarion McDonald in the safety group, with Kamal Hadden and Christian Charles the starters at cornerback.

If McCullough does happen to sit out, freshman Andre Turrentine would be next in line. Tennessee is already down one starter, as CB Warren Burrell was lost for the year with an injury in Week 2.

Alabama will start Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Terrion Arnold at cornerback, with Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams, Brian Branch and Malachi Moore as the safeties. There have been some rumblings this week that LSU transfer Eli Ricks might be unhappy with how things have gone at corner; if he’s out or demoted, Khyree Jackson would become the third corner if necessary.

Despite some hiccups from Arnold last week against Texas A&M, Alabama has to be thrilled at how the secondary has developed in 2022. McCullough or no McCullough for Tennessee, Alabama is better across the board, especially at cornerback, and has more depth. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

These two teams have a similar look. Alabama’s Will Reichard is in a bit of a mini-slump after Arkansas and Texas A&M, while punter James Burnip has been improved in 2022, but still isn’t a true weapon. For Tennessee, Chase McGrath has been solid at placekicker, and while Paxton Brooks has a good gross average at punter, Tennessee’s net punting numbers have been poor.

Both teams rank in the top 10 in punt returns, while Alabama holds a modest lead in kickoff returns. Both coverage teams are very good; Tennessee is slightly better overall. There’s no real edge here, so we’re going to go with the hot hand at kicker to decide it. Advantage: Tennessee

OVERALL

Alabama leads in five categories, Tennessee in three, although special teams is a tossup. Otherwise, there’s decent separation between the two teams at most every position, albeit the separation at quarterback is due solely to Bryce Young’s injury. In the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama holds moderate edges in both.

On paper, this would tend to lead us to a 14- to 17-point Alabama win. But Young’s injury makes it hard to justify. The problem Alabama is going to have is if Tennessee gets two or three quick scores up before Alabama can answer. In such a scenario, there would be very little chance to come back if Alabama has to insert Milroe at quarterback and begin pounding the ball.

Because of the format of the playoffs, and because there is quite clearly a three-team breakaway right now at the front (Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State), Alabama can almost certainly make it to the playoffs with one mulligan. It would be a shame to have to use it here, because Alabama would likely be put in a position of having to beat Georgia in Atlanta, no questions asked, or miss the playoffs with a team that has one of the best defenses of the Nick Saban era.

The game will come down to the performance at quarterback, but the way Alabama wins that particular competition is to make sure the defense is fully engaged from the start and focusing on stopping Hooker from going off. If Alabama can do that, it will get out of Knoxville with a win.

Alabama 33
Tennessee 27

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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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