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Better Know an Opponent: South Alabama

We're not sure how South Alabama is 2-1, but here they are and here we are, so let's do this thing.

So, well, this is a football team, I guess.
So, well, this is a football team, I guess.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

The good news, I think: Tennessee should be able to win this game with most of the quarterbacks on their roster. South Alabama is following the James Franklin path of "well, I don't really know how you've won any games to this point, but here you are" success that totally isn't sustainable across seasons but might work for a little bit. On the whole, South Alabama is somewhat average; on the balance of quality of opposition, we're in good enough shape.

So what on earth is South Alabama doing?

  • First things first: it's still weird that this game doesn't qualify Tennessee for the Florida State Honorary Best Out-of-Conference Schedule award. I'm not totally used to South Alabama actually being a Sun Belt team yet.
  • South Alabama has yet to play a game at a margin larger than a TD, losing by 1 to Southern Utah and then picking up a couple of Locks & Keys upsets via wins over the Green Wave and Fightin' Big Red on a Motorcycles.
  • National ranks by yards per play: 73nd in rushing O (4.26 YPC), 33rd in passing O (8.1 YPA), 38th in rushing D (3.45 YPC), 56th in passing D (6.7 YPA). Your mileage may vary by the quality of opposition and having only played three games.
  • Buyer beware on a lot of those rankings, as will happen when a) we're a third of the way into the season and b) for some reason CFBStats only goes to a single decimal place in yards per attempt. I don't know why this happens, but it does. This doesn't mean they're not awesome, for the record.
  • A quick aside: 6.7 yards per attempt is better than Justin Worley's YPA, which is 6.5. Justin Worley is the best QB on this Tennessee roster right now.
  • For some reason, South Alabama's defense concerns me more; this may have to do with them getting after guys behind the line - their TFL and sack yardage per game is wildly consistent (30, 29, 27 and 22, 22, 24 by game). Quantities are a bit less uneven, and WKU did a decent job limiting quantities of TFL, but just got hammered when they did. WKU: the gift that gave heavily to Tennessee in Week 2 and gave me a headache in Week 5 as I try and read anything into that game.
  • The return of CB Tyrell Pearson was good for 2 INT last week, but if we learned anything about WKU, it's that interceptions fall from the sky like candy playing them. Seriously, I found WKU mildly amusing three weeks ago and I'm going to hate them by the end of this piece.
  • Two of the top 3 tacklers (and 3 of the top 5) are DBs (S Qudarius Ford, CB Charles Watson, and CB Montell Garner). CBs with lots of tackles are either blitzing all the time or really good at allowing completions. They'll be challenged by a Tennessee quarterbacking crew that's really good at not completing passes. (The free shots will subside when play improves.)
  • NAME BREAK! Qudarius Ford, Cordivido Grice, Rush Hendricks (who is not a RB nor has any carries to his name; for shame), Ucambre Williams, and DeMarrion Buford-Hughes.
  • Their QBs - Ross Matheny and Brandon Bridge - have this weird not-quite-platoon thing going on. Both guys have played in each game this season, but Bridge got more PT in the Southern Utah and WKU games and barely played against Tulane. Matheny, meanwhile, has still gotten the lion's share of the snaps.
  • Matheny's actually been pretty explosive (9.8 yards per attempt, 4 TD, 2 INT, 198 yards per game). (For the record: Worley's at 6.5 YPA, 6 TD, 3 INT, 130 yards per game, and some wicked hindsight he picked up as a temporary bonus in the second quarter last week.)
  • Both Matheny and Bridge run, but Bridge is a little more explosive. That means they're a platoon QB system where both guys have somewhat similar skill sets. Irony, you slay me sometimes.
  • Jay Jones seems to be a tiny (5'9", 180), but effective enough RB. Tennessee's seen a lot better than him, though, and he's probably the worst primary RB they've seen so far (and may see all season). He's the best guy on South Alabama, though (6.61 YPC).
  • For a team that doesn't complete a ton of passes, TE Wes Saxton (12 rec, 185 yards) at least offers a new type of threat. Shavarez Smith (10 rec, 181 yards) and Jereme Jones (13 rec, 144 yards) are the only other guys of note in the return game.
  • This team seems mostly dependent on the defensive side of the ball, which could set up well for Tennessee. I'm actually not sure how they've managed to win two of their first three games - there are some weird things happening here.
  • No, seriously, there are. WKU utterly self-destructed in their game, throwing three picks in a row (stop if you've heard this before) late to allow South Alabama to come back. Against Tulane, they were wildly effective as far as not having dead drives. (This was also true against WKU, but pretty much every drive save 1 ended in some kind of scoring chance.)

There may not be a ton here to really point to, and in absentia the obvious gaps - think Tennessee's struggles with running QBs - should present problems. However, based on the last two weeks you'd be forgiven for forgetting about the fact there are teams out there that Tennessee is actually more talented than. South Alabama is one of those teams.