Ahhh, the Third Saturday in October. It’s a reverent day in the lore of the Southeastern Conference football. The Alabama Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers have historically battled on this day just as the crimson and orange colored foliage of fall have battled for visual supremacy in the tree lines of the two states.
Lately at Alabama, the victory cigars have been more of an expectation than a satisfaction with the Tide winning the last nine meetings between the two teams. And while Nick Saban’s teams have been a mainstay atop the Top 25, the Volunteers have fallen completely off the college football relevancy map, turning the Third Saturday of October into just another Saturday beat down by the Tide.
This year is different, however. For the first time since 1999, both teams will enter this contest ranked in the Top 10 in the country. Alabama enters the game holding down their customary #1 position atop the Top 25 poll while Tennessee’s Cardiac Kids come into the game ranked #9. For the first time in a very, very long time the Third Saturday in October has national implications and that makes this Saturday a pretty special day for college football fans – particularly those who love the pageantry and the passion of one of the most historic rivalries in all of college football. Let’s get it on, y’all!
Tennessee comes into this game with more of a limp than a swagger after losing in overtime to Texas A&M. Right now, volunteers are exactly what is needed in Knoxville. The Vols came into the Texas A&M game already missing four starters and, by the time the game was over, the Aggies added four more injuries to the insult of losing in overtime. Ouch. Rocky Top, indeed.
It appears the Vols may get starting running back Jalen Hurd and starting linebacker Darrin Kirkland back this week since both were seen practicing on Wednesday. However, the emergence of former Alabama running back Alvin Kamara has actually added a big play dimension that was missing from the Vols attack so we at the Lighthouse are overjoyed at the thought of Hurd taking away touches from Kamara.
Offensively, the Vols’ QB Josh Dobbs has come a long way in improving his accuracy but he still manages to make a few “oh no, what are you doing” throws thru the air. When he does take to the air, look for (#15) Jauan Jennings and (#6) Alvin Kamara to be the key targets. On the ground, it’s zone read, zone read, zone read with Dobbs, Hurd and Kamara each taking turns toting the rock.
Defensively, new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is blitzing like there’s no tomorrow. He plays straight man outside with a single high safety and then blitzes, blitzes and blitzes again.
In four of Tennessee’s five wins this season they had to come from 10+ points down in order to rescue the victory and they nearly did it once again against A&M last week. Are the Volunteers lucky or are they good? Or are they both?
Here’s what to watch for this week…
Alabama on Offense
The Tide comes rolling into Knoxville on an offensive high, leading the conference in scoring and generating 517 yards of offense last week against Arkansas. Jalen Hurts was superb against Arky, completing 13 of 17 throws for 253 yards and running for two touchdowns. The running game was clicking, as well, with Damien Harris going for 122 yards on only 13 carries and the Tide rushing for 264 yards as a team.
When we turned on the Tennessee vs Texas A&M game, the Lighthouse staff started high fiving as we saw the Aggies run the zone read at will down the beleaguered Vols’ throats. Alabama employs some of the same concepts in their own zone read running game so you’ll be tickled to know the Aggies rushed for 353 yards and four touchdowns against the Vols last week.
Let’s absorb that number again. 353 yards. I repeat: 353 yards! Rushing! Yowza.
By the time the game was over, Tennessee’s undermanned defense was down seven players. The pace of the Aggies’ offense and the fact that A&M got to run 99 plays against the beseiged Vols certainly wore down the Volunteer defense. I’d expect Lane Kiffin to press the gas pedal early this week to see how those Tennessee legs are responding to last week’s abuse.
Here are some good nuggets for you guys to keep an eye on this week…
Rushing Lanes O’Plenty: UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop asks his defensive ends to fly upfield and generate pressure on the quarterback. This also forms a bit of containment against the run, as well. The problem for Shoop & Tennessee is that his ends go way too far up the field, opening a running lane that Tom Arnold and Rosanne Barr could waltz thru while holding hands and singing the national anthem. The Aggies gashed UT repeatedly by running their backs right thru these wide open spaces so look for Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough and Josh Jacobs to run off the inside hips of the Bama tackles while they shove the Tennessee ends further up the field.
Racing to the Edge: There were numerous times the Aggies simply beat Tennessee’s defense to the edge, resulting in big runs for QB Trevor Knight (110 yards) and RB Tryveon Williams (217 yards). Eventually, the Vols started flattening out in an effort to guard the flanks and that allowed Knight to cut the ball back inside and run untouched for a 62 yard touchdown run. Jalen Hurts should have a nice game running the football (as should anyone else who gets a carry).
One-on-ones in the Passing Game: Holy crap, Tennessee blitzed a ton against the Aggies. This left the A&M receivers locked up in one-on-one matchups with Tennessee’s back up corners (All SEC corner Cam Sutton is injured) and they coulda/woulda/shoulda had numerous catches down the sidelines on some fades and fly patterns. There is simply no way the Vol secondary can hold up in one-on-one matchups against Calvin Ridley, Ardarius Stewart, OJ Howard or Robert Foster. Look for some MASSIVE plays in the passing game down the field and down the sidelines this week by the Tide.
Matchup Nightmares: When A&M went three wide, the Vols either had a safety playing about 15 yards off the inside slot receiver or they left linebacker Colton Jumper to fend for himself against the likes of Speedy Noil and Christian Kirk. Jumper lost this battle time and time again and, honestly, it’s not fair of Shoop to ask Jumper to man up against the conference’s leading receiver (Kirk). Look for Kiffin to align Calvin Ridley on the inside slot and isolate him against the linebacker or against a safety who isn’t in the same area code at the snap.
What is Tennessee Thinking?: On five or six occasions, the Vols had all star defensive end Derrick Barnett in pass coverage – once he was even locked up on wide receiver Speedy Noil (and beaten badly) but the ball was underthrown and landed incomplete. Barnett is second in the country in career sacks so it’s dumbfounding to see him running with a wide receiver 30 yards down the field in man-to-man pass coverage! On the play, the Aggies motioned to an empty backfield by sending Williams out wide. The corner rotated to the boundary to cover the running back and Barnett had to slide out to the slot to cover Noil…man-to-man, no less! The Alabama staff will be able to scout this and will find ways to attack Barnett in coverage if UT continues to ask one of the nation’s top defensive ends to be a defensive back. So. Dumb.
Where’s the Beef: I did come away being very impressed with Tennessee’s defensive tackles as Shy Tuttle (#2) and Kahlil McKenzie (#99) played a very strong game in the interior of the Vols line. They are 311 and 325 lbs respectively so that’s a lot of beef to move on the inside of the line. This will be a critical matchup for Pierschbacher, Bozeman and Cotton (replacing Taylor – likely out with a concussion) in the middle of the Bama line.
- Bad Linebacker: Tennessee linebacker Cortez McDowell (#20) is not a good football player. On three separate occasions, his job was to contain the edge but each time he jumped inside as the onslaught of blockers and backs came towards him. Honestly, he was awful. He may not be able to play this week so that’s not good news for Bama fans.
- Bad Corner: Poor Malik Foreman (#13). If he’s not getting beaten for a long touchdown against Georgia, then he’s getting helped off the field after being flattened by an undersized back against Texas A&M. In his short time in the Tennessee secondary, Foreman has blown more coverages than Jenna Jameson has blown in her entire film career.
- Slots of Fun: Tennessee’s secondary typically vacates the middle against a trips look with three wide receivers to one side. As we mentioned before, the safety or LB plays off of the inside slot receiver, leaving slants and in routes wide open across the middle. Wide. Open.
- Motion: The fly sweep motion caused Tennessee’s secondary to rotate and sometimes caused confusion between their linebackers and safeties. A&M used the fly sweep going one way and then a zone read going in the opposite direction a few times with big success so look for Bama to do the same. They’ll generate a flow going in one direction and then counter back the other way with a run.
- Man Down: With UT playing a ton of man to man in the secondary, the corners were absolutely no help and provided no run support against any edge rushes. When an Alabama back turns the corner, they should run a while before encountering anyone in the secondary.
- Barnett: Barnett has 25 career sacks and has the ability to take an outside-in rush as well as turning the corner. Cam Robinson will have to beware of Barnett’s inside rush as it’s a killer.
- Screens: With UT blitzing so much, look for Bama to pop a screen or two this week.
- Bubbles: The Vols inexplicably lined up “2 over 2” or “3 over 3” throughout the first half against the Aggies and blew an assignment once when A&M motioned a receiver leaving a “2 over 3” situation. These are very winnable and attractive matchups for the Bama receivers as the Vol secondary isn’t the best tackling group we’ve seen.
Alabama honestly should have their way with this broken down version of the Tennessee Volunteer defense. Whether it’s running the football or taking advantage of favorable matchups in the UT secondary, Bama should be able to hang a bunch of points on the board this week.
Alabama on Defense
I love Pro Football Focus (PFF) – it may be the best thing ever invented for football geeks like us. For long time readers in this space, you know I’ve been touting Bama’s new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as being MUCH more aggressive than his predecessor Kirby Smart. We’ve been a big time fan of Pruitt’s aggression and now, thanks to PFF, we have the stats to prove we were right about him!
The Arkansas Game Review will come out later this week but, during the Arkansas game, we noted how incredibly aggressive the Tide was in sending blitzes at the Arkansas QB. In the previous week, we also noted the huge number of blitzes Pruitt called against the Cats newbie QB, as well. At this point, PFF and the Lighthouse completely agree – Jeremy Pruitt is one VERY aggressive defensive coordinator, especially as compared to Kirby Smart. Here are a few stats to know going into the UT game (thanks to PFF):
- Pruitt blitzed 71% of the time against Kentucky when they needed more than 10 yards after first down.
- Bama blitzed on 48% of the Arkansas dropbacks (29 of 61)
- In the last three games, Bama is blitzing 49.5% of dropbacks.
- Kirby Smart blitzed on just 19.5% of dropbacks in 2015.
Kirby Smart believed in allowing his front four to generate pressure while allowing seven defenders to constrict passing lanes down to the size of the eye of a needle. However, Jeremy Pruitt believes in bringing an extra rusher to allow pass rushing beasts like Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson to enjoy having one-on-one matchups and generate pressure.
Blitzing and aggression are wonderful tools. The added pass rush pressure forces the ball out quickly and that limits the amount of time the secondary has to stay in coverage. This allows Bama’s defensive backs to jump routes and play extremely aggressively in coverage. The down side, of course, is that it exposes the DBs when they lose their one-on-one matchups in coverage and the results can lead to giving up 400+ yards to Arkansas and Ole Miss. However, in those very same games where the Tide secondary was exposed, that same aggressive style also led to multiple touchdowns by the defense in each game.
This week, the Lighthouse is hoping Jeremy Pruitt will channel his inner Kirby Smart by deciding to just rush four and play coverage. Here’s why…and what else to watch for…
Dobbs as a Runner: Josh Dobbs has the ability to escape the pocket and run for extra yardage. If the Tide is blitzing, this could allow Dobbs to escape pressure, break containment and make big plays with his feet. We’d prefer to see a sprinkling of blitzes that target stopping the run this week rather than the all out assault we saw last week.
Dobbs as a Passer: Josh Dobbs has improved as a passer but he’s still missing wide open throws from time to time. Additionally, Dobbs often overlooks the linebackers in the middle of the field so we think the best approach to defending the Tennessee offense will be to play coverage and force Dobbs to prove he can be accurate with the football. If Reuben Foster plays, we are calling for an interception – go get it Reuben!
Jump Balls: Tennessee has beaten a lot of teams thru the air by getting 6’3 Jauan Jennings in one-on-one situations and simply throwing him a jump ball. In these situations, Dobbs doesn’t have to be a great passer – he just needs to elevate the ball and allow Jennings to go get it. Bama must take this play away from the Vol offense with a safety over the top. The Tide corners have given up their fair share of jump balls this week so we hope Jennings doesn’t get many opportunities to make a play.
Alvin: It sure hurts to see former Tide running back Alvin Kamara playing for the Vols. Kamara has transformed his body into a 215 lb stud who can beat you as a back or beat you as a receiver out of the backfield. Frankly, Kamara is sooooo much better than Jalen Hurd and he gives the Vols a game breaking dimension every time he touches the ball. Last week against A&M, Kamara was a one man Wrecking Crew, rushing for 127 yards and catching eight passes for 161 yards. Kamara scored three touchdowns and led the dramatic comeback that forced overtime. We are hoping Jalen Hurd plays this week and takes touches away from the electric Kamara. FYI – Kamara is also the Vols’ leading receiver with 20 catches on the season.
Playing it Safe: Tennessee typically spends the first half of the game trying to score without asking Dobbs to carry the football. Then UT typically spends the second half of the game riding him like a rented pony as they try to mount a furious comeback.
Oh Line: Earlier in the year, the Volunteer line leaked like a sieve and that’s what I expected to see against the Aggies fearsome edge rushers. However, even after losing their starting center to a concussion, the Vol line acquitted themselves pretty well in the game. Even so, the stats show the Aggies generated four sacks (Dobbs held the ball too long on two of these) and eight tackles for loss so all isn’t completely well along the Tennessee line just yet.
Empty Sets: EVERY time Tennessee lines up in an empty set (no running backs in the backfield), one of two things will happen. 90% of the time, Dobbs takes two little steps, eyeballs one receiver and throws the ball very quickly. The other 10% of the time, it’s a slow developing QB draw. When UT goes empty, the Tide should rush four and ask their linemen to concentrate on batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. In the secondary, we want the Tide DBs to come up tight and eliminate the short throws. FYI – it makes ZERO sense to blitz this look because the ball comes out way too quickly.
- Checkdowns, Screens and Flares: Alabama needs to be in tight man to man defense against Kamara whenever he leaves the backfield. Kamara leads UT in receiving and his eight catches out of the backfield last week were death blows to the Aggies. The Vols do a really sweet little slip screen or one man screen that gets Kamara into open spaces. Reuben Foster (assuming he’s cleared and ready to play, which he should be) and Dion Hamilton will have to be up to the task this week.
- Physical Runners: Dobbs, Kamara and Hurd all have an innate ability to break tackles. Bama will have to wrap up and bring additional defenders to gang tackle these boys this week.
- Rush Four: Tennessee’s OL is ranked 61st out of 65 teams in pass blocking efficiency rating so Alabama can afford to just rush four in this matchup. UT tackles Brett Kendrick and Chance Hall have allowed a combined 52 pressures on the season so Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson should have a field day.
- John Kelly: Kelly (#4) was very impressive against the Aggies but he did put the ball on the ground twice last week. With Jalen Hurd expected to play, Kelly should have a minimal role this week and that’s good news for Bama.
- Formations: Tennessee often lines up in the exact same formation as the previous play. However, unlike when Kiffin does it, the Vols typically run a different play from that same formation nearly every single time. So, if they line up with trips right and throw a bubble screen the first time then the next play will feature trips right but they will run a zone read instead.
- Unblocked Ends: Tennessee loves to leave the opposing defensive ends unblocked so look for Bama’s defensive ends to blow up quite a few mesh points in the backfield. Alabama has been attacking with their ends any time they are left unblocked so look for this tasty trend to continue Saturday.
- Underthrows – Dobbs habitually underthrows the deep ball so look for Bama’s safeties to get a pick if one hangs up too long. Look for a couple of pass interference penalties against the Tide, as well. They won’t be able to help it…
- Fly Guy – Tennessee likes to get the ball into the hands of Tyler Byrd (#10) on the fly sweeps. He fast! He got five touches last week for 71 yards.
- Jalen Hurd – Alabama is built to stop big guys like Jalen Hurd so we welcome the thought of him playing in this game. It’s guys like Kamara that pose the tougher matchups for Bama and Kamara is the kind of player who can go the distance at any time. Meanwhile, Hurd is a guy who can get you 4 or 5 yards. Welcome back Jalen!
Tennessee uses a lot of formations with their H-backs and tight ends aligned in multiple ways. They even showed a pistol formation with an H-back by the tackle and Kamara next to Dobbs – essentially forming a four man backfield! On the play, Dobbs handed the ball to Kamara each time but he then carried out an option fake with the pistol back. UT shows a good bit of eye candy but at the end of the day they primarily do two things: run the zone read with Dobbs and throw quick passes out of an empty set. Bama has plenty of experience defending this so our only other fear is checking Kamara out of the backfield as Saban’s Achilles heel in blown coverages has always been backs and tight ends.
Bama on Special Teams
Alabama checks in third in the conference in punting, averaging 46.5 yards per punt. Tennessee is ranked 7th with a 42.51 yard average. Combine that with the fact that Alabama is #1 in punt return average (UT is #9) and you should see Alabama have a decided advantage in field position this week.
Evan Berry is a HUGE threat as a kick returner so the Lighthouse staff would encourage kicking the ball away from him if at all possible (which Saban will not do). Berry averages over 24 yards per return (4th in the SEC) but is a threat to break one every time he touches the ball. Bama averages just over 20 yards per return, good for 8th in the SEC.
Alabama and Tennessee both come into the contest hitting just over 70% of their field goal attempts this season. However, Tennessee has yet to hit one from over 40 yards this season. Griffith has hit two kicks over 40 yards and has the leg to hit from beyond 50. Slight advantage to Alabama.
Final Thoughts and Score Prediction
This season, Butch Jones and the Tennessee Vols are likely responsible for a massive increase in the sale of Jack Daniels and a dramatic increase in cardiac arrests across the state. Nothing has come easy for Tennessee this year as they’ve had to rally from over 10 points down against Appalachian State, Florida, Virginia Tech and Georgia. Not surprisingly, the Vols haven’t made it easy on themselves in these games – the Vols lead the nation in fumbles with 21 in just six games and committed SEVEN turnovers against Texas A&M.
For Bama fans, there are two ways to look at Tennessee’s comeback wins. On the one hand, you can look at all of these gaffes by Tennessee and realize they’ve had to be incredibly lucky to come into this game with a 5-1 record. On the flip side, if the Vols ever put together a clean game, they can truly be a handful.
Alabama’s running game should move the ball against the Vols while the Bama defensive line should own the line of scrimmage. On tape, the X’s and O’s matchup looks very heavily slanted towards the Crimson Tide.
Since Tennessee is coming off an extremely physical and heartbreaking overtime loss on the road at Texas A&M, it’s hard for the Lighthouse staff to imagine the Volunteers will be able to muster up their “A” game on this Third Saturday in October. When you combine that with the decimated roster, six straight weeks of exhausting games and the players gleefully eyeing their bye week next week, we think the Tide should roll on Saturday.
Final Score: Alabama 41 Tennessee 20