Tennessee picked wrong week -- Alabama week -- to be banged up
When facing the No. 1 team in America, ideally you’d like to be at full strength and as healthy as possible.
That won’t be the case in Week 7 when Tennessee hosts Alabama. The Volunteers were already banged up entering this past Saturday’s matchup with Texas A&M, and they sustained even more injuries in their 45-38 loss to the Aggies.
Four of their best players — running back Jalen Hurd, cornerback Cameron Sutton and linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jalen Reeves-Maybin — were unavailable in College Station. Reeves-Maybin, UT’s premier tackler, opted for surgery and will miss the remainder of the season. As a senior, his Vols career is over.
Not only did the defeat to A&M hurt in the standings, but the nearly five-hour affair taxed the training staff.
“Just from here on out, there’ll be no more talk of injuries,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones told reporters after the game. “Done deal.”
Hurd is the Volunteers’ leading rusher. Sutton is their best cover corner. Kirkland and Reeves-Maybin are the defense’s most sure stoppers. Even with 85 scholarships, the “next man up” philosophy has its limits.
At one point or another, Evan Berry, Cortez McDowell, Malik Foreman, Emmanuel Moseley, Danny O’Brien, Jashon Robertson, Kendal Vickers and Dylan Wiesman all exited the Texas A&M game. The O’Brien injury was especially scary — he was immobilized and left on a stretcher — although early reports suggest that he’ll be fine.
Jones might have instituted a gag order, but the injury report will be part of the conversation this week whether he likes it or not.
There isn’t a more merciless team in the nation than the Crimson Tide. Coming off a 49-30 blowout of then-No. 16 Arkansas in Fayetteville, ‘Bama is the top scoring offense in the SEC with an average of 44.8 points per game.
Just a true freshman, quarterback Jalen Hurts (above) is the fourth-rated passer in the conference — two spots ahead of UT’s senior leader, Joshua Dobbs — and a dual threat at the game’s most important position. He’s protected by a massive offensive line and has more than enough runners and receivers lending support.
If the Vols are again without the services of so many quality defenders, their depth chart will be tested like never before.
“We’ve had individuals stepping up all year long,” Jones said. “And, again, not very many teams can recover from the amount of injuries or missed games that we’ve had. And this football team has great resolve and resiliency, and they just believe they’re going to find a way to win.”
The Tide are tied for third in the league running the ball, averaging an even 237 yards per game on the ground. Their two leading rushers, Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs, average 8.7 and 8.3 yards per carry, respectively.
But the difference maker on that side of the ball for Alabama is Hurts, who offers an added element with his legs. While coach Nick Saban has traditionally been a ground-and-pound guy, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is essentially running the spread now. Hurry-up, read-option, RPOs — this isn’t your father’s Crimson Tide.
Hurts has thrown 9 touchdowns and run for 5 more, plus he’s completing 63.8 percent of his passes and averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
Tennessee just allowed 353 yards rushing to the Aggies, including 110 and 3 TDs from QB Trevor Knight. Not to take anything away from Knight, who’s a terrific runner, but Hurts is a more explosive athlete.
The Volunteers were also shredded by tailback Trayveon Williams. He set an A&M freshman record with 217 yards rushing. As a result, they have fallen all the way to 10th in the SEC against the run — their average of 183 yards allowed per game is more than two and a half times that of ‘Bama (69.2), which leads the conference.
The Tide are also relatively healthy on offense, highlighted by the return last week of receiver ArDarius Stewart (below).
“Every team in this conference has marquee football players,” Jones said. “The teams that win have great role players, and we had some role players step up and provide some valuable repetitions for us. But we need more individuals in those roles to step up and, when they get the opportunity, they make the most of it.”
Fortunately, UT has done a better job replacing some of its key contributors on offense. Hurd’s absence wasn’t felt at all.
Finally getting a chance to be the featured back for the Vols, Alvin Kamara was nothing short of sensational against Texas A&M. He single-handedly kept his team in the game with 127 yards rushing, 161 more receiving and 3 total scores.
Kamara was the only consistent performer offensively for Tennessee at Kyle Field. As tends to be the case, Dobbs bounced back and forth between marvelous and maddening. He threw for 398 yards, but his second interception of the day came in overtime — on a head-scratching decision, too — and sealed the decision.
Now Dobbs faces an Alabama defense that simply takes away the running game and leads the league with 23 sacks. Hurd is expected to play, which will help.
Before the loss to Texas A&M, Tennessee was 5-0 and comfortably atop the East with victories over Florida and Georgia. Now 5-1, the Volunteers are still ahead on tiebreakers. Another defeat puts the Gators in the driver’s seat, though.
Even before the season, we knew that this brutal four-game stretch — Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama — would define UT in 2016. Going 4-0 was unlikely, but 3-1 would probably be enough to win the division. However, 2-2 silences any talk of the College Football Playoff and potentially puts a trip to Atlanta on hold, too.
The Vols have shown as much heart as any team in the country. Nevertheless, it’s going to take more than heart to beat ‘Bama.
“This is a resilient group,” Jones said. “They never crack. They never waver.”