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The Flip Side: What to Worry About, What to Feel Good About Post Alabama Loss

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Looking a bit further into the box score.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Much like ripping a band-aid off, the Alabama game needed to happen for Tennessee. Grimace all you want, but everyone knew coming in to 2018 that it was going to a dominant victory for the Crimson Tide. It lived up to expectations.

Despite a 58-21 final score, Tennessee surprisingly outperformed some predictions (21 points is the third most scored on Alabama this season!). Saturday’s contest confirmed some of our previous observations and shed light on new ones. We review below.

Worry

Mental Destruction

Tennessee’s ability to rebound from a devastating loss to Florida provides some evidence that Pruitt and his staff are able to prepare their team mentally. Past Tennessee teams would have given up after that performance, but the Volunteers showed fight against Georgia and then pulled off an upset of the Auburn Tigers.

What happened on Saturday is different though.

In the loss against Florida, Tennessee understood why it fell flat on its face. Committing six turnovers (three of which were inside your own 20-yard line) will hamper even the best college teams. While the final score was incredibly disappointing, Tennessee realized that it was mainly due to self-inflicted wounds.

Not so for the Alabama loss. Tennessee made mistakes, but those mistakes compounded an overall domination. The Volunteers didn’t have the players or the game plan to win. No one actually expected an upset, but it can be demoralizing to see just how far away your team is from being competitive. You start second guessing your own ability and wondering if the coaches have you on the right track.

Now is not the time to wallow in their own pity. A bowl game is still very possible, and if they can build off their momentum from Auburn, their chances at reaching the postseason start to look favorable. It will require a solid mentality however, and that’s a difficult ask when you just experienced a loss like this one.

Offensive Line Miscommunication

More than a few of Alabama’s successful quarterback pressures can be chalked up to simply having better players or calling the right blitzes. They don’t explain everything however, since Tennessee’s offensive line had the advantage in a few situations.

For instance, on Jarrett Guarantano’s fumble, the Volunteers had six players blocking while Alabama had five players rushing. But they got confused by the blitz and let the quarterback take a hit.

Another happened late in the second quarter with Keller Chryst at the helm. Alabama had four linemen, yet somehow they got a free shot at Chryst despite Tennessee appearing to have everyone accounted for. That’s an egregious communication error and the type of play which will get a quarterback injured.

Alabama was going to get their pressure regardless. Still, a sign of improvement would’ve been minimizing the mistakes on Tennessee’s end and accepting the plays where Alabama’s superior talent/coaching won out.

Feel Good

Keller Chryst’s Backup Ability

Jarrett Guarantano’s injury in the first half could’ve been catastrophic. Backup Keller Chryst hadn’t seen much action up to that point, and finally getting that playing time against Alabama seemed like the perfect recipe for a collapse.

Shockingly enough, Chryst played well. He didn’t blow anyone away or restart the quarterback competition, but he threw for two touchdowns and continued to press the ball down the field. That latter development is Tennessee’s best chance at having a productive offense for the rest of the season. If Guarantano isn’t 100 percent healthy at any point, Tennessee will still need a competent passer.

For now, Chryst can supply that.

Ty Chandler Versatility

The light seems to have clicked on during the Georgia game. For Ty Chandler, for Tyson Helton, for everybody. The sophomore running back has always been known as an explosive player with an Alvin Kamara level ceiling, but the first few games of the season showed none of that (aside from a cakewalk matchup against UTEP).

Ever since he scored a 35-yard touchdown against the Bulldogs, Chandler rediscovered that potential and is being put into advantageous situations by the coaching staff. His numbers on the ground in the past three games are fairly pedestrian—just 98 yards on 30 carries.

But as a receiver, Chandler has 12 receptions for 154 yards (12.8 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. One of those touchdowns came against the Crimson Tide on a beautiful wheel route where Tennessee’s receivers successfully countered Alabama’s pass coverage. It was the proper mix of Chandler’s talent and quality play calling.

By now it’s clear that Tennessee will have limited success in the run game. If that remains true, then using Chandler as a receiving threat is the perfect way to keep him involved and keep his playmaking ability on the field.

Remaining Secondaries

The stretch of Georgia-Auburn-Alabama on Tennessee’s schedule was always going to be rough.

Yet in all the mire came a diamond: Tennessee’s receivers can go toe-to-toe with every single secondary in the nation. Their ability to beat all types of cornerbacks down the field and to win jump balls with incredible consistency is a sign of good coaching and utilized talent.

It’s not enough to fully carry an offense and it’s not enough to win you games against better teams. But it’s a starting point.

Now that the gauntlet is past, Tennessee faces just one more S&P top 10 defense in the Kentucky Wildcats. The rest of the opponents (South Carolina, Missouri, Charlotte, and Vanderbilt) are all much less impressive on the defensive side of the ball. Each of the remaining opponents also have noticeably less talent in their defensive backfields. If Tennessee plays their cards right, they can help maintain offensive production with a continued focus on deep passing.