3 key areas will decide Alabama-Tennessee game in Knoxville
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones knows enough about this season’s Alabama team to call them the most talented they’ve faced, and all of them have been talented.
After reporters waded through the phony pleasantries, Jones stated he believes his team can beat Alabama and knows his team can’t turn the ball over against the Tide and expect to win the game.
Jones has talked for years about what a young team he has at Tennessee. He can’t use that as a crutch this season, and he hasn’t done so. You can’t when you have 18 returning starters, the most in the conference.
If the season trend for turnovers continues, things do not bode well for Tennessee. The Volunteers’ first loss of the season, a 45-38 double-overtime defeat at Texas A&M, was marred by a turnover margin of -4. The Aggies picked off a Josh Dobbs pass into double coverage to seal the game.
The same day against Arkansas, Alabama demonstrated its own ability to come away with interceptions. With the help of quarterback pressure, Alabama had three of them, or perhaps more accurately, Minkah Fitzpatrick had three interceptions, one of them a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Alabama leads the FBS with seven defensive touchdowns so far this season. As stated before, while Kirby Smart was known for disciplined defenses, Jeremy Pruitt has become synonymous with creative defenses. Being able to take away the football is one of the hallmarks of Pruitt’s unit, and those seven scores are head-turning considering Alabama had four all of last season under Smart.
Last season, Alabama, like Tennessee against A&M, was hurt by a lopsided turnover margin (-5) in a loss to Ole Miss. Nevertheless, Alabama finished the season with a positive turnover margin (+0.7 per game). This season’s team has a slightly better turnover margin (+0.8), although it is significantly better than Tennessee’s (-0.5).
However, with all of that said, Tennessee kept last year’s game close with Alabama by playing to a draw in the turnover battle and more importantly, holding Alabama to its lowest rushing total of the season (117 yards).
Last season, Derrick Henry was the leading rusher in the game with 143 yards on 28 carries, but Jacob Coker’s “carries” for -26 yards hurt the team’s total.
Four teams ran the ball for 92 yards or more last season against Alabama: Georgia, Clemson, Tennessee and Ole Miss. Clemson and Ole Miss were the only two to gash Alabama’s secondary as well.
Meanwhile, Tennessee found great success in the running game but struggled in the passing game. Earlier this season, Ole Miss gave Alabama its stiffest challenge, once again gashing the defense with passing, but the Rebels had little success in the running game.
This season, Jalen Hurd has been Tennessee’s top back with Alvin Kamara getting half the number of carries. However, Hurd sat out last week with an injury, and Kamara more than made up for his loss by setting a school record for all-purpose yards in a game (312).
Hurd did reasonably well against the Alabama defense last season, rushing for 92 yards on 18 carries as Tennessee actually outrushed Alabama by a total of 132-117.
That said, Alabama has a much different running game this season. The workhorse in Henry is gone, but the committee of Damien Harris (478 yards) and Joshua Jacobs (307) has started the season well. Meanwhile, QB Jalen Hurts has picked up his fair share of rushing yards (third on the team with 296 yards). Also, Bo Scarbrough showed flashes of his potential against Arkansas.
As a result, Alabama is tied for third in the SEC with 237 rushing yards per game.
Another area where Jones is likely nervous is special teams. Both teams carry the same kickers into this season’s game. Alabama’s Adam Griffith was 2-for-2 on field goals last season, while Tennessee’s Aaron Medley was 0-for-3 in a game decided by just 5 points.
Jones may be hesitant to send Medley out for field goal attempts beyond the 20-yard line. Medley missed attempts of 43, 51 and 51 yards last season. In 2016, he’s 0-for-2 on attempts of 40 yards or longer and 5-for-5 on attempts of 39 yards or less.
If Alabama gets a draw in the turnover battle, holds Tennessee’s passing game in check and outperforms Tennessee in special teams, the Crimson Tide should roll to another win.