By Jimmy Hyams
It’s the Third Saturday in October, and that usually means Tennessee v. Alabama.
While the game is set for Saturday, it won’t end until Sunday morning since kickoff is at 9 pm ET. Tennessee’s hope is that a lot of fans are still watching after midnight. That means the Vols, a 35-point underdog, have kept the game relatively close.
That hasn’t been the case lately. Alabama has won 12 in a row against UT, with 10 by at least two touchdowns and eight by at least 20 points.
Alabama is so dominant, Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt joked this week that he might employ the game plan of an Arkansas high school which never punts and always onside kicks.
Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures.
The Vols didn’t look desperate last Saturday in upsetting touchdown- favorite Mississippi State 20-10 behind a defense that recorded 10 tackles for loss, seven sacks and three interceptions. The Vols held the SEC’s leading rusher, Kylin Hill, to just 13 yards on 11 carries.
While UT lost starting quarterback Brian Maurer to a concussion in the second quarter, Jarrett Guarantano did well in relief, completing 6 of 7 passes for 106 yards and tossing a game-winning TD pass to senior Tyler Byrd with 2:35 left in the game. It was the first time in his career that Byrd led the Vols in receiving yards.
The win was UT’s first against an FBS team in 11 months and renewed hope of making a bowl game as five of the remaining six contests are considered winnable.
The one that’s not: Alabama. Nick Saban’s team is ranked No. 1 and hasn’t lost to an unranked team in 87 games. Alabama has won 29 in a row at home and 44 of 45. Under Saban, Alabama is 70-8 when ranked No. 1 and 139-19 at home.
Alabama has an explosive offense, led by QB Tua Tagovailoa, who has 27 TD passes and one pick while completing 73.6% of his passes. The Tide has an array of NFL-caliber receivers led by Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs. Bama is second in the nation in scoring, averaging 51 points and 536.8 total yards per game, 336 passing.
That’s a departure from Saban’s early years when the Tide relied on a strong run game. Bama is averaging just 170.8 rush yards per game but Saban said its more about having an effective run game, not the yards per game average. Alabama is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Saban also pointed out that some teams have higher rushing totals because of running quarterbacks.
Alabama’s offensive numbers dwarf UT, which is averaging 23 points, 353.5 total yards per game, 146.3 on the ground. UT might start Guarantano at QB, Pruitt said playing Maurer will be a game-time decision. UT expects offensive lineman Jahmir Johnson to play after missing four games with an undisclosed injury. If so, that could be UT’s sixth offensive line combination in seven games.
Alabama’s defense isn’t as stout as usually as the Tide allows 17 points per game and 336 total yards. But the Tide starts four true freshmen on defense due to injuries and has outscored opponents by 192 points in the first three quarters. Bama has a 47-35 edge in the 4th quarter, when games are usually already decided.
It’s worth noting that in the last 65 games, Alabama has forced a turnover in 60 and scored 22 defensive touchdowns. And this season, Alabama has a plus-8 turnover margin.
Here are a few other notes about the game:
*Saban is 12-0 against his former assistants, 1-0 against Pruitt, who took over at UT last year.
*Pruitt said Alabama’s offense is “super, maybe one of the best offenses in the history of college football.’’
*Pruitt singled out center Brandon Kennedy as having played well in recent games. Kennedy, a grad transfer from Alabama, was oft-injured at Bama. He suffered a season-ending torn ACL after the opener last year and hasn’t played much football in his college career. But he’s progressed well due to a chance to play.
*Pruitt said Alabama is very aggressive in the RPO (run-pass option) game and Tagovailoa is very accurate throwing slants and go routes. “They’re probably better than anybody in the country in the RPO game,’’ Pruitt said.
*Pruitt said the key to stopping Alabama’s RPO game is “winning some one-on-one battles. I haven’t seen a team that can guard them. If you can, that’s the answer, but I haven’t seen a team that could do that.’’
*While many people focus on Alabama’s offense, Pruitt thinks the Tide is outstanding on defense, naming several defensive backs and linebackers along with a few defensive linemen. “Alabama’s front is as good as anybody’s,’’ Pruitt said.
*Pruitt on playing at No. 1 Alabama: “It’s a heckuva challenge for us. We’re looking forward to it. It’s exciting for our kids … to compete in Bryant-Denny Stadium against one of the best teams in the country.’’
*Saban said Pruitt has done a “really good job’’ and that the Vols play with a lot of “discipline, toughness and play hard.’’ Saban: `We need to respect that.’
*Alabama has had some games with 10-plus penalties and Saban said that is due to a “lack of discipline.’’ Saban said he’s told the team “you can’t do what you feel like doing. Do what’s right.’’
*Saban said he is pleased with the progress made by four true freshman who have started on defense but he’s “not satisfied with the way we’re playing.’’ Bama is giving up 336 yards per game and 17 points per game.
*Saban said former UT coach Butch Jones has done a “really, really good job’’ as an offensive analyst, watching film and suggesting what Bama could do better on offense. “He’s a great person to have in our organization,’’ said Saban. Jones is in his second year at Bama.