We had some debate on our podcast about the phrase "house money" and if the Vols will be playing with it on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. Joel pointed out the last time we used said phrase, this happened, a point in the corner of those who would say there's no such thing as house money outside of Vegas because you can always take the worst loss of the modern era and leave feeling terrible because the worst you could possibly imagine wasn't quite bad enough.
So yes, Alabama could drop another 52-0 bomb this week and thus derail much of the positive momentum Butch Jones and Team 117 have built. The simple fact that it's Alabama on the other sideline suggests the absence of house money anyway, because we all know a Bammer or two or ten and we all have a long memory that will turn seven years old Saturday if the Tide do what they're supposed to do.
So there's a conversation to be had here about the moral victory none of us would actually claim, but, you know, wouldn't be the worst you could possibly imagine. A couple benchmarks for that conversation: strangely enough, Alabama has beaten Tennessee by 31 points three years in a row (44-13 in 2012, 37-6 in 2011, 41-10 in 2010). It's as if Nick Saban reached a threshold against Derek Dooley and then said, "That's enough." Alabama didn't score any points in the last seven minutes of any of those games. The line this week hovers around 28.5, which for us right now would technically be progress. Progress would allow the team and the fanbase to maintain enough of its confidence and momentum to feel like you've still got a real shot going into possibly undefeated Mizzou and then the rest of November, when the schedule was supposed to return to "normal" and we'll probably still carry preseason hopes of victory forward regardless. More on that next week.
You can say, "I just want Tennessee to compete," but what you really mean is, "...for at least three quarters," because the Vols have actually been around at halftime against the Tide pretty much your whole life. Under Dooley the Vols trailed 13-10 at halftime in 2010, were tied 6-6 in 2011, and were down 23-10 in 2012. Hashtag, adversity: the Vols were outscored 80-3 in the second half of those games, and only got three because our head coach elected to kick a field goal down 44-10 with four minutes left last year. Coach Dooley, your thoughts?
"We fought them pretty hard for 30 minutes and were scrapping and fighting," Dooley said. "When we came out in the third quarter they got some big plays, and we made some bad mistakes. They took advantage with a few scores and then the game got away from us. The third quarter, obviously, was the difference." - 2010
"We had a ton of ball left and we lost our spunk," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "That was disappointing to see. We did what we said we weren't going to do and that's get affected if something bad happens in the game, and we lost our fight.
"When you lose your fight against a great football team, what happened in the second half is what is going to happen." - 2011
"We got whipped by a great football team in just about every phase," Dooley said. "I'm really disappointed we didn't execute a little better on offense. That's probably the thing I was a little surprised at. The quarterback didn't play well. I'm not sure why." - 2012 and throwing Tyler Bray under the bus on the way out
If you'd like to take this idea a little further back, we all know what happened in 2009, but remember in 2008 the Vols were down just 13-3 at halftime in an eventual 29-9 loss, and things didn't hit the fan in 2007 until the fourth quarter, down 24-17 at halftime in a 41-17 loss. And if you go back one more year, we were beating these guys.
This leads us to one of the more ridiculous stats I've come across in a while: in Alabama's six game win streak, the Tide have outscored the Vols 116-16 in the second half. Tennessee has scored two second half touchdowns against the Tide in the last six years.
So there's competitive, and then there's actually having a pulse in the second half, which has happened exactly once in this losing streak (2009). Doing anything, and I mean anything productive in the second half against this team would be progress.
So that's like 750 words on minimal and reasonable progress.
Now let's talk about winning.
Justin Worley on Third Down
On third down the Vols were terrible at Oregon (5 of 15) and not much better at Florida (5 of 13). But against Georgia Tennessee went 7 of 17 on third down and, as you know, 3 of 3 on fourth down. The offense couldn't get much of anything going on third down all day against South Carolina...until Marquez North made That Catch.
Tennessee's improvement from South Alabama to South Carolina hasn't come via a sudden transformation at the quarterback position, as many of us thought would have to be the case. Instead Justin Worley has taken care of the football, and has made the throws he had to make on third down. The rest of the team has taken care of the rest of the details, as many of us thought would have to be the case at the start of the season.
Alabama is 11th nationally in third down defense, but you can basically just assume Alabama is something really good nationally in all defensive categories. The Vols simply need Worley to continue to execute enough throws to sustain drives, but he'll have to do so on the road against a much better defense than what we've seen the last two weeks. We've seen our receivers grow throughout the course of the season, and the Vols should be healthier than we've seen all year with Devrin Young more involved and Josh Smith hopefully back from a tweaked hammy that sidelined him last week. What can they do against this defense? Marquez North has earned the attention of the rest of the SEC with spectacular play the last two weeks. Can he do something special when the lights are brightest against Alabama?
Can we run on this team?
If this is a resounding no, this thing is over before it starts. To allow Worley to make plays at all, the Vols have to rely on the ground game to establish an identity. The Vols are still very respectable on the ground, 36th nationally at 201.7 yards per game and 24th nationally at 5.1 yards per carry. We got just 141 at 3.6 per last week, in part because we tried to run a read option at Clowney and he tried to kill Rajion Neal once or twice. But it was enough last week.
What would be enough this week? Before we get to the defense and what kind of heroic effort it would take from them, how many points can Tennessee possibly score in this thing? Alabama has given up 16 points in the last five weeks, shutting out both Arkansas and Ole Miss. The Tide gave up 628 yards to Texas A&M and are still fifth nationally in total defense.
Pace of play will again be interesting to watch, because there's certainly an argument here for attempting to grind it out behind our massive offensive line. Virginia Tech, A&M, and Arkansas all ran fairly well on this team, but the Hokies and Hogs got behind so fast it couldn't make a huge difference in the long run.
We'll need Worley to make some plays on third down, but much more often we'll need our offensive line to give us a chance with reasonable down and distance situations. This isn't a new thing for the Alabama game, but it's never been more important. If we truly have the best line in the conference (and we might look more like it when not facing Clowney), now is the time to prove it.
Defensive Identity: Turnovers, Red Zone & Key Stops
The Vols aren't a great defense. Tennessee is giving up 411.9 yards per game (76th nationally) and 5.88 yards per play (93rd). However, to show you how much Oregon skews things (much like Texas A&M with Alabama), take away that performance and the Vols give up 366 yards per game and 5.3 yards per play. Those numbers would land the Vols in the Top 50 nationally.
What Tennessee has been great at is making big plays. The Vols have a dozen interceptions, which is as many as we got all of last year, good for sixth nationally. 17 total turnovers is good for 14th nationally. Both numbers trail only Missouri in the SEC. Of course, Alabama is never a gracious host. The Tide have given it away just six times this year, fourth nationally. I was going to say something about this is what great teams do since Florida State leads the nation with four turnovers, but the Clawfense has only turned it over five times. Given enough time, I'm confident that will change.
To beat Alabama, Tennessee will have to force turnovers. Not in a freakish sort of way, but because that's what this defense has been good at and will need more of. The Vols will have to force Alabama to kick field goals or give it up in the red zone. Tennessee is 20th nationally in red zone scoring defense, with the opposition getting points inside the 20 73.3% of the time. But the more important stat here is Red Zone TD%, a Butch Jones/John Jancek staple, where the Vols are currently giving up six just 56.6% of the time. If Bama comes away with three (or zero) just as often as they come away with six, we can give ourselves a chance.
Tennessee is 78th nationally in third down defense, giving up a new set of downs 40.5% of the time. However, UT's improvement here has been remarkable:
- Western Kentucky: 8 of 15, 53.3%
- Oregon: 6 of 12, 50%
- Florida: 10 of 18, 55.5%
- South Alabama: 7 of 17, 41.1%
- Georgia: 4 of 13, 30.7%
- South Carolina: 4 of 14, 28.5%