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Tennessee wrap-up: When it goes bad, blame the usual suspects

For years, visitors to Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa would be greeted with a single pregame video on the stadium Jumbotrons. It was narrated at first only by the voice of the late and much-beloved Paul “Bear” Bryant.

The opening line of the video, obscured by Bryant’s basso profundo growl and 1980s loudspeaker technology, began (we think) this way: “The same things win now that have always won.”

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After watching Alabama’s 15-year winning streak over Tennessee come to a screeching halt Saturday in Knoxville, that video could use an update: the same things lose now that have always lost.

When you end up with 17 penalties in a game, that’s a problem. When you muff a punt when you have good field position incoming, that’s also a problem. When you miss a field goal near the end of regulation that had the chance to ultimately win the game, that’s a problem still.

College football is an offensive game now – just take a look at the yardage totals from this game: Alabama outgained the Volunteers 569-567 – but defense still gets stops. And wow, could Alabama have ever used just one more of those Saturday.

Alabama finally won the turnover battle in a game, two to one, but had the chance to seal the game on a third turnover, an interception and long return from Kool-Aid McKinstry, and … got another penalty.

At the very least, Tennessee fans’ incessant bleating about some perceived notion of favoritism from SEC referees have now evaporated into moonshine vapor. Alabama “won” the penalty category 17 to 6, and for anyone who cares about things like tracking actual penalty statistics, Bama has been anything but the darling of zebras for several seasons now, anyway.

Alabama simply didn’t look well-prepared on Saturday, which is not the hallmark of a vintage Nick Saban team. This game had the unlikely pairing of being lost both during the week leading up to the game, and in the game itself. Unfortunately, this too is becoming a hallmark of recent Alabama football, because there has been at least a game per year (with the exception of the Covid-shortened 2019 season) in which Alabama looked like Hyde and played like Jekyll, rather than the other way around.

In some cases (Florida, 2021) Alabama escaped, but this time, it did not.

Now the pressure is on, because there are things about this team that don’t translate well to a playoff run. The lack of discipline and preparation start the discussion there. Alabama can be forgiven a bit if it was still trying to work through a plan for the quarterback spot if Bryce Young had been unable to play; assuming Young’s specific injury is to the AC joint, he won’t throw much in practice for the balance of the year. He certainly didn’t throw much this week – a source told that he had only worked out sporadically during the week and that the backups got most of the work – and whether that had anything to do or not with the overall discombobulation of the team, we don’t know.

But we do know this: Alabama has a challenging opponent next week in Mississippi State, a team Alabama has defensed well in the past but also a team with a top-shelf quarterback and an offensive mastermind who will be studying game tape of Alabama’s defensive shortcomings, and if Alabama loses that game, it would set up a head-swimming scenario where Alabama would have to hope for either multiple upsets of Ole Miss or some convoluted tiebreaker to get Alabama to Atlanta as a two-loss team. The College Football Playoff, at that point, would likely be long gone.

Tennessee should get credit for doing what it took to win this game with a roster that is barely half as potent as Alabama’s. Vol fans sang Alabama’s trademark “Dixieland Delight” on the field after the game, because rubbing in temporary good feelings is what makes east Tennessee a popular vacation spot. Alabama just needs to get back to business.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Tennessee:

1. Lack of DL pressure on Hooker allowed Jalin Hyatt to score five times and probably was the biggest technical issue leading to the loss. Hooker showed he could be forced into making mistakes – he fumbled once, threw an interception and another called back by a questionable penalty – but Alabama couldn’t get to him. Alabama’s defensive line has been erratic in 2022, and this was a nadir point. Unfortunately, as we’ve alluded to in previews, Alabama isn’t likely to get Justin Eboigbe back anytime soon.

There has been a lack of development in-season within the confines of this unit, a troubling problem since other teams are progressing and Alabama doesn’t seem to be. Whether that affects anyone’s employment at season’s end or not, we don’t know, but there’s a problem here. It also explains a good bit of the reason why Alabama elects for its 2-4-5 sub alignment so often, as it tends to get better performance out of its OLBs in a DE role than from its actual DEs. With Hooker able to sit in the pocket with relative impunity, he was able to find receivers open all day.

2. This may have been one of the worst-called defensive plans in Saban-era Alabama history. Some of it goes back to the basic schematic deficiencies we’ve talked about since Saban arrived in 2007; before anyone fires off an email response to that, understand what that means.

Every defense has pressure points that can be exploited, and Saban’s has typically been down the middle of the field, over the linebackers. In past years, Alabama was able to cover those up when it had inside linebackers with the coverage skills of safeties. C.J. Mosley was the best at this perhaps in Alabama history, and it’s probably no accident that Deontae Lawson was given jersey #32 when he reported, because he has some of those same burgeoning traits. But in most years, there’s a hole there.

The final play was a microcosm of both this issue and the one we talked about in point No. 1: No pressure from the defensive front, a big hole over the middle despite seven players dropped into coverage, and a pass to a wide receiver working against a safety in a hole in the defense. Whether it’s Pete Golding, Nick Saban or a college of coaches making the calls, something has to be done. Most college teams can’t effectively pressure this area, because throwing to the middle of the field is exponentially riskier than throwing to the sidelines, and most college quarterbacks either can’t do it, are scared to do it, or their coaches are scared to see them attempt it and have made it off-limits.

Josh Heupel doesn’t care about the risks, and Tennessee reaped the rewards. We’re sort of beyond hoping Saban will change his stripes on this, so we’re not entirely certain how to offer up a suggested fix.

3. Special teams mistakes again haunt Alabama. A muffed punt and especially a missed field goal with less than a minute left in the game are mistakes Alabama just can’t continue to make. Will Reichard’s late miss against Texas A&M last week didn’t end up losing the game, and this one might not have directly lost it, either, but it’s clear Reichard isn’t the same kicker now he was a month ago and Alabama is back to having to hope for points out of special teams rather than creating them.

Fans wondering about Alabama’s final offensive drive, which didn’t force Tennessee to use timeouts to stop the clock, might consider that Alabama was trying to get to chip-shot range because the coaches feared the situation that eventually played out. As for the muffed punt, it’s not clear why or how Quandarrius Robinson thought the ball was live, and if it was, why he didn’t simply fall on it. Discipline issues extend to special teams as well, and this.

4. The bright spot was Bryce Young, and there’s no debate who is the team’s MVP any longer. Alabama has several key players but Bryce Young ended the discussion of who is most important of them all. Young practically carried Alabama to a position where it had a chance to win the game. No disrespect to Jalen Milroe or Ty Simpson, but without Young today, this is a 20-point loss (or more) and the fallout from the game would have been a lot more damaging to both Alabama’s season and the offseason narrative around the two programs.

If it wasn’t clear before, it’s pretty clear now to all that the rest of the teams on Alabama’s schedule may not exactly target Bryce Young and try to knock him out of the game, but they’re not going to feel sorry for him if it happens, either.

Among several questionable calls or no-calls in this game were a pair of hits on Young in the pocket that have been easy flags in other games, and not just games this year. Tennessee went high twice at least and got away with both. Unfortunately for Young, some opponents will decide 15 yards or even trading a targeting call for his departure from the game might be worth it down the stretch.

5. This was the mulligan. Now let’s see how Alabama uses it. Alabama doesn’t lose often enough for today’s fans to get accustomed to post-loss evaluation. And when they do, the tendency is to over-analyze and overreact. The problem with this loss in particular is that it really ripped the band-aids off some of the wounds that have been purely self-inflicted. It’s not clear whether Alabama has a bag of tricks deep enough to rebound and do what absolutely has to come next – winning out, and if Alabama plays to the very end, the season literally isn’t half over yet.

The problem here is it’s not so much about matchups and talent at the moment, it’s about the design of the defense, the discipline of the players, and above all else, whether Alabama’s coaches are willing to take a hard self-examination of their own role in what’s causing the issues. Alabama isn’t going to develop a pass rush overnight. Alabama isn’t going to see its high safeties, who are both built to be run-stoppers, suddenly develop the ability to stick to slot receivers. But it can play with more focus and discipline. It can commit to not doing stupid things.

If nothing else, this will be the point where Alabama either decides to double down, or fold. We’ll know which direction it’s headed in after next week’s game against Mississippi State.

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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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