Tennessee vs Alabama - Lessons From Heartbreak

Even though the Vols entered last year's Alabama game on the heels of a blowout win instead of a blowout loss against Georgia, many of our questions and doubts were the same as they are this week.  Alabama is one of the best teams in the country, and the Vols...well, we're not.  Still working through a head coach's first season, we're not quite sure what to expect from the quarterback position, and not quite sure our defense is going to have an answer for Alabama's skill players.

But last year, it became clear right away that the Vols could compete with Alabama:  Tennessee forced a three and out on the opening drive, then stopped the Tide on 4th down on their next drive.  The two teams then traded field goal attempts for most of the rest of the game.  It was a defensive struggle throughout, something I'm not sure Tennessee's defense is at all capable of holding up this time around.

Still, we didn't think the Vols were capable of playing with Alabama last time around, and that was in every way a game Tennessee should've won - aside from the three missed field goals, the Vols outgained the Tide 341-256.  Here are some lessons - other than, you know, don't miss three field goals in a game you lose by two points - this year's team can take from coming so close a year ago:

1. Be Balanced

2. Win Time of Possession

In last year's game, the Vols ran 35 times and passed 37 times.  While Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown may not have done significant damage against Bama's monster front (29 carries for 83 yards combined, 2.86 per), Tennessee went to the well often enough to keep Bama honest.  It also helped Tennessee win time of possession by almost five minutes.

The final play gets all the press, but forgotten is Jonathan Crompton's performance:  265 yards on 21 of 36 passing.  He did what he had to do to give the Vols a chance to win, and Alabama had to account for both phases on defense.

This year, here's how the Vols' play distribution has broken down each week:

  • Tennessee-Martin:  43 rush, 30 pass
  • Oregon:  36 rush, 29 pass
  • Florida:  23 rush, 31 pass (lost TOP by 13:32, Gators ran 18 more plays)
  • UAB:  27 rush, 34 pass (lost TOP by 13:14, Blazers ran 31 more plays)
  • LSU:  37 rush, 23 pass
  • Georgia:  26 rush, 25 pass (lost TOP by 9:06, Dawgs ran 10 more plays)

Tennessee's best moments this year, aside from a handful of isolated deep balls that have worked, have come when the running game carried its weight.  This was true in the first half against Oregon, and throughout the game at LSU, both times when the Vols didn't get away from the ground game.  The Vols were balanced at Georgia, but the offense was also down 17-0 after having seen only 9 snaps.

Matt Simms, Tyler Bray, and/or Tauren Poole aren't going to beat Alabama by themselves.  Poole has to run well enough to keep Bama honest, and to pick up those tough third downs.  And whoever's playing quarterback has to keep the chains moving - keep taking chances downfield, especially to Justin Hunter, but be productive enough to, again, keep Bama honest.

We'll need every weapon at our disposal to play with these guys.  The Vols can't fall in love with the pass, but can't expect to get zero from it either.

3. Don't let Greg McElroy go off

In 2007, John Parker Wilson got Nick Saban off to the right start in this rivalry by going 32 of 46 for 363 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 INTs in Bama's 41-17 win, which we called the worst performance by a John Chavis defense during his time at UT.  No quarterback should've ever thrown for those numbers against Chief, especially not JPW.

The Vols took away Wilson's yardage the next year, but not his accuracy, as he went 17 of 24 for 188 in Bama's 29-9 win in Neyland Stadium.  But against McElroy, Tennessee did everything right in 2009:  18 of 29 for only 120 yards, making the passing game a non-factor.

While LSU's quarterbacks were not good enough to take advantage of the Vols' inability to get to the quarterback, remember that UAB's were...and so was Aaron Murray.  McElroy's biggest game this season came with Alabama playing from behind all day at South Carolina, but it was still impressive:  27 of 34 for 315 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs.  Bama doesn't want to have to throw the ball 34 times, but McElroy is still the guy with an 11-3 TD-INT ratio - even if Tennessee somehow slows down Alabama's ground game, this kid has no history of getting his team beat.

Florida learned that Bama can win big even when he throws for only 84 yards, and that may again be the case on Saturday.  But for Tennessee, there's no reason to give him any help.  If he's got all year to throw on Saturday, Bama's offense will do anything it wants, and he'll have a big day.  Tennessee needs to keep him from being a star in this game.

4. Red Zone Defense

Alabama scored zero touchdowns on Monte Kiffin's defense last year.  On their four drives that produced field goals, Alabama had:

  • 2nd and 4 at the UT 21: McElroy threw two incomplete passes
  • 1st and 10 at the UT 30: Richardson stopped for no gain, McElroy incomplete, McElroy to Jones for -3
  • 2nd and 2 at the UT 4:  McElroy threw two incomplete passes
  • 1st and 10 at the UT 38:  Richardson run for -2, McElroy two completions for 8

On the last one, you tip your hat to Leigh Tiffin for making a 49 yarder.  Notice the play-calling trend though:  twice on second and short in range, Bama went to the air on second and third down.  Whether that was simply a play-calling issue, or the Vols' ability to stuff short-yardage runs, Bama went away from the Heisman Trophy winner and it cost them.

This year, Bama will get their yards against the Vols.  But if Tennessee can give up three instead of seven, and again, put the pressure on McElroy, they give themselves a better chance to win.  I'm sure this'll be just as easy to do, despite the fact that we're playing Joseph Ayres instead of Dan Williams in the middle.

5. Make sure Daniel Lincoln's quad isn't hurt

Wait a minute...

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