W2W4 On the Third Saturday in October
While the Alabama – Tennessee rivalry clearly isn’t what it once was, nothing ushers in the fall season like the Hunt for Red, er Crimson, October in Knoxville. However, these days during the week leading up to the Tennessee game, the Alabama team no longer has to endure Rocky Top blaring from the speakers. The Tide’s scout team no longer adorns white helmets adorned with a “power T” look with jerseys colored in that hard-to-find hunting/construction worker/prison jump suit orange. No, these days instead of the game being the vaunted “third Saturday in October,” the game against the Vols is treated as just another game on the schedule.
Thus far, each game on the Crimson Tide’s schedule has simply been a “process” of lining up against some woeful team and beating their brains in. But, this time the Tide would be wise to recognize that Tennessee isn’t just another patsy to stomp on during their walk to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game. The Vols offense is dangerous. The Tennessee O boasts a quarterback with an NFL arm and two top notch wide receivers to go with him. Typically, the way the Tide would negate this kind of passing game is to plant the opposing QB into the ground, as it’s awfully hard to complete a pass when you are lying on your backside. However, the Vols offensive line is very, very good – they have allowed a league low three sacks. So, the Vols offensive line is giving Bray plenty of time to get the ball down the field and they should be able to challenge the Bama secondary in a way they haven’t been tested in a long time. Tennessee has scored on everyone they’ve played this season so this Battle of Wounded Knees should be a high scoring affair.
The good news for Alabama is this season Rocky Top will always mean a defenseless team to me. Thus far this year, the Volunteer defense has looked more like Lane Kiffin’s former “hostess” escort service, repeatedly escorting backs, tight ends and wide receivers into their checkerboard end zones. The Vol linebackers have been equally putrid in stopping the run and stopping the pass, and their safeties line up so deep they oftentimes have to catch a bus just to get to the line of scrimmage. The interior of the Tennessee defensive line has been pretty solid but the edges have collapsed more quickly than a balsa Berlin wall. The linebackers seem to be trained to slow dance with the first opposing jersey they see and, again, the safeties typically are nowhere to be seen, so the opposition’s running game has turned Smokey into road kill. Also, with the linebackers slow to react to the pass and the safeties guarding the stadium exits, the middle of the Vols defense is wide open to the passing game. Additionally, Tennessee’s coverages typically leave either the backs or tight ends looking like they are out to practice early. If it sounds like I’m just being overly optimistic, after watching tape of them I’ve found there’s a reason their defense is ranked 13th in total defense (11th against the run and 12th against the pass) in the SEC. Here are a few specific things that I’ll be watching for during the game….
Bama on Offense
Against Missouri, the only thing that could slow down the Tide’s offensive line from mauling Tigers was a lightning delay. Alabama’s behemoth o-line came out with a mad on and never eased up. Evidently, the bye week was spent working on their assignments because when the rain came down in Columbia, the Tide’s o-line sent the Yellow Tigers to a watery grave. When I sat down for my film review of the Vols defense, the first play I watched was against Georgia and I had a bit of a de ja vu experience. See if this sounds familiar: On the play, Georgia lined up with three wide receivers to the wide side of the field and then pulled guards and ran their back to the opposite (short) side of the field, finding few Volunteers to get in the way. This is the exact same play Alabama used to brutalize the Missouri defense last week and it should allow Bama to outnumber the Vols on the edges. Also, as I watched Georgia and MississippiState attack the Tennessee defense, they each exploited misalignments and missed assignments with the Vol linebackers which kept the Vols at a constant numerical disadvantage on defense. There are plenty of weaknesses to exploit here so I am really looking forward to seeing how Coach Nuss will take advantage of all of these Vol weaknesses.
It Ain’t Broke So…: Georgia and Mississippi State each found the edges of the Vol’s defense to be soft and brittle and their backs and linemen gashed them all day long. Look for the Tide to go back to the play (or variations of it) that they found so much success with in Columbia – the tight end will block down, the tackle and center will pull and create a path of destruction for the Bama backs to run thru. It should be a big day for the ground game.
I Will Find the Center In You: The group Tool tells us that “I will find the center in you, I will chew it up and leave,” and that’s exactly what I’m expecting the Tide passing game to do the Vol defense. The Vol defense loves to keep their linebackers within a few yards of the line of scrimmage while they line up their safeties in another zip code. This alignment allowed the two Dawg offenses to find wide open receivers in the middle of the field. Look for deep square ins to be wide open – this is one of AJ’s favorite throws to make. Also, look for the Bama slot receivers to wear out the safeties and linebackers who attempt to cover them. If Christion Jones’ ankle is close to a 100% he could have a big day but the word is Jones’ ankle is hurting pretty badly. Cyrus Jones may have to step up once again in the slot.
If You’re Not the One: The Vol linebackers consistently fail to pick up either the backs out of the backfield or the tight ends off the line of scrimmage. Frequently, the middle ‘backers would both pick up tight end or both pick up the back out of the backfield but rarely did they cover both options on the same play. This may be a big game for Michael Williams, Kelly Johnson and the Tide tailbacks in the passing game because the Vol linebackers oftentimes seem to be confused on who’s covering who…
More Cushion for the Pushin: While the Tennessee corners will usually come up within five yards of the outside wide receivers, the guys covering the slot receivers consistently stay back about 8-10 yards. In long yardage situations, Sal Sunseri employs a 4-1 look where he leaves one single linebacker in the middle. The backer typically doesn’t do much so the slot receivers run unencumbered thru the middle of the Vol secondary, leading to big plays in the passing game.
Swami Sez: Lacy and Yeldon will combine to rush for over 150 yards and, as a team, they will rush for over 200 yards. Most of this will be gained outside of the tackles. Speaking of tackles, the Vol safeties don’t tackle much. Look for a couple of jock drops from the Vol secondary as they whiff their way to a Sportscenter Top 10 play (the equivalent of being “posterized”). Norwood and Cooper will each snag passes over 20 yards downfield and Michael Williams will have a season high in catches. By the way, the Big Orange sucks at rushing the passer, so if AJ is sacked more than once I’ll be shocked.
Alabama on Defense
This is the matchup that I’m really looking forward to seeing. How does the Tide defense disrupt the Vol passing game when it can’t get to the passer? How does the Tide secondary contain three very talented wide receivers and keep them out of the end zone? I watched time and time again as Georgia and MississippiState tried linebacker blitzes and safety blitzes with no effect whatsoever. Tennessee’s line picked them up nearly every single time which put a strain on the Dawgs’ coverage. The times that someone did break thru their protection, Bray was able to drift backwards and sling the ball out of the pocket out of harm’s way, so it’s no wonder they have only given up three sacks this season. Additionally, the supremely talented Vol offensive line has finally been able to open up some lanes for their running backs this season, so that makes the Tennessee offense that much more difficult to stop. Want proof? The Vol’s big O is ranked third in the SEC in total offense and fourth in scoring offense so it’s going to be a different kind of Saturday for Bama’s D.
Love Lockdown: I’m salivating over the Milliner matchup against Patterson – we’ll see what a first round lockdown corner looks like against a future first round NFL receiver. The battles between this two should be epic and, dare I say, it will be, wait for it, legen…………..dary!
Shut ‘er Down: One of the reasons Tennessee is doing so well offensively is because they are finally utilizing their running game. But, with Rajon Neal out for this game, the Vol’s running game should be stymied and they won’t gain close to their average of 183 yards. Once you stuff the running game, it should make Bray’s day that much more difficult. As a team, I think the Vols will get roughly half of their rushing average, though, as they’ll have to keep trying to run the ball in order to keep Bray’s jersey clean. Remember, the Vol OL is very, very good so don’t be surprised if the Tide d-line gets pushed around from time to time.
Three’s Company: The Vol wide receivers are outstanding. Of course, you start the wide receiver discussion with the 6’3, 205 lb Cordarrelle Patterson, who is about as good of a receiver as you’ll find in the country. He came into the SEC as a five star junior college wide receiver and he’ll leave the SEC as the first wide receiver taken in the NFL draft. Simply put, Patterson is a stud. On the other side, Justin Hunter may be coming off of ACL surgery but at 6’4, 185 he’s not chopped liver. Hunter’s size is imposing and, while he doesn’t have the speed that he had two years ago, the kid can still make plays. But, the guy no one ever talks about though is Zack Rogers. Rogers has excellent hands and underestimated speed and, if I were constructing the game plan, I would wear out the Bama defender who lines up in front of Rogers. If Sunseri or Perry ends up locked up man to man on Rogers, it won’t be pretty.
To B or Not to B: The “B” in this case is “blitz” and it will be fascinating to me to see how often Nick and Kirby dial up the extra pass rushers. Neither Georgia nor MississippiState was overly successful with their blitz packages against Tennessee. The Vol OL is seasoned, disciplined and, is easily one of the top two OL’s in the league. My guess is that Bama will employ zone blitz packages and a lot of the three man fronts that mix up the fourth and fifth pass rushers in an attempt to free up a blitzer.
Sexy Back: Lately Tennessee has been trying to get the ball into the hands of Cordarrelle Patterson any way they can. He returns kicks. He catches the ball as a wide receiver. And, last week, he actually lined up as a tailback and he took a toss sweep around the end (and looked good doing so). Of note, Patterson has 214 yards rushing on the season on ONLY 11 carries. For those of you who are like me and are mathematically challenged, that’s an average of 19.5 yards per rush! And, against Georgia, Patterson took one reverse and pulled up like he was going to pass but, with the receivers covered, instead he tucked the ball and zig zagged 46 yards for a touchdown. Kid is electric.
Mr Ed: If I told you that Adrian Hubbard led the team in sacks, you likely would not be surprised. But, if I told you that Ed Stinson was second on the team with 3 sacks, I think you would be shocked. Stinson, Square and Williams are going to have to win their one on one matchups on Saturday for the defense to be successful.
Change Up: Look for both teams to try and run the ball on third and 7 or longer. Both teams employ a 4-1 look in long yardage situations and Tennessee, in particular, exploited this last season. Also, when pressured, Bray gets the ball out quickly. Many times on third and 10 he’ll check it down for a 6 yard completion and a punt – maddening if you are a Tennessee fan.
Battle of Wounded Knee: Like McCarron, Bray hurt his knee last week and is not going to be 100% this week. Bray hurt his left knee and ankle when he was tackled and landed awkwardly so I look for Bray to throw off his back foot much more often Saturday. He should have difficulty stepping into his throws and planting on his left leg.
Swami Sez: While Alabama should be able to pressure Bray, sacks will be hard to come by. The Tide won’t get more than two sacks on Saturday and my gut feeling is that they just get one sack on the day. I do think the back foot throwing will catch up with Bray and he’ll throw one really, really bad pick. He may throw more than that but I think he’ll sail one that will make everyone wonder who the intended target was. Tennessee will rush for less than 100 yards as a team but it will be really close to that number. Patterson will have trouble separating from Milliner but should haul in 5 catches for 60+ yards and a touchdown. I’m not predicting anything here but I do think Zack Rogers should have a decided advantage against the Bama secondary. I’ll predict that he catches one over the middle for 20+ yards.
Here are some quick hitters for special teams that you should be aware of as you watch this game.
- Tennessee is 11th in net punting so Alabama should win the field position battle
- Patterson is the #1 kick returner in the conference – I would not kick it to him, particularly given our struggles on kick coverage
- Christion Jones is ranked 4th in punt returns and 4th in kick returns but he will not be playing at 100% on Saturday
- Cyrus Jones may be called upon to return punts and this will scare the Lighthouse staff quite a bit. He’s given us no reason to doubt him but we’ll call it a hunch that he muffs a punt.
- Tennessee has struggled to simply kick extra points so their kicking game as a whole is woeful
For Derrick Dooley, his time at Tennessee has been spent living in Hard Knocks-ville and you could very well be seeing Alabama line up against him for the last time as the Vol’s coach. For this season not to be his farewell tour, Dooley must win this type of game, something he’s never done. He’s 0-13 against ranked teams so Saturday’s tilt against #1 Alabama doesn’t bode well for this game. Dooley has never beaten Georgia, Florida or Alabama and doesn’t bode well for his career. As for this season, as good as Dooley’s team has been on offense, they appear to be that bad on defense. You often see them outnumbered on the edges and their linebackers and linemen appear to be coached to slow dance with the wrong colored jerseys at all times. Tennessee is last in the conference in sacks and they are really bad in pass coverage so that makes for some pretty long afternoons for defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. But, Tennessee can score and score in bunches. The key to the game will be Bama’s ability to generate pressure on Bray with their front four pass rushers because bringing the blitz could open up some big plays. As Lee Corso says, I expect this one to be closer than the experts think….
Final Score: Alabama 37 Tennessee 24