Tennessee and Alabama will meet for their annual matchup this Saturday afternoon in Knoxville. The Crimson Tide have won 13 straight in the series, and enter this one favored by three touchdowns.
We reached out to Brent Taylor over at Roll Bama Roll for some insight on the Tide ahead of the game. His answers are below!
1) Alabama is still Alabama, but recently, Nick Saban’s program has taken on a bit of a new philosophy. Speed and elite playmakers on the perimeter now seem to be the norm, which makes Najee Harris and the rushing attack that much tougher to stop. If you were forced to attempt to slow down Sark’s offense, how would you attack it? Is there any weakness?
Funny enough, in Sark’s 1.5 seasons with Alabama, his lowest point total was against Tennessee last season. Of course, relying on the Alabama QB to get injured mid-game probably isn’t the most surefire method. Alabama’s offense is pretty much all upperclassmen and multi-year starters this year (including most of the OL), so that level of prior experience has given them a leg up on opponents with a shortened off-season. Coupled with the tremendous talent, and, honestly, it’s unlikely we see them even slowed down too much.
So, the strategy has to be to force turnovers. Alabama’s two losses last year were filled with them, and Mac Jones threw two pick-sixes against Auburn when they got some pressure in his face. While Jones has been outstanding so far this season, he showed some of that same nervous recklessness against Georgia for a bit of the first half and was bailed out of a couple of very interceptable balls by his receivers making great plays. I think that Tennessee will HAVE to bring some major edge pressure on Mac Jones and make him uncomfortable early. If they can get a turnover that way, he’s likely only going to get more and more likely to press the ball into coverage to make up for it.
2) Talking to some Alabama friends, they seem to be surprised with the dominance of the offensive line to this point. They handled an elite Georgia front with ease last week. How have they come along?
I’m not sure why anyone was surprised. Last year’s offensive line was easily the best Alabama’s had since 2012 (The 2015 group won an award, but to be honest they weren’t great.... they just enjoyed the fame that came from Derrick Henry being Derrick Henry), and the Tide only lost one starter from that group. They’ve been absolutely phenomenal at pass blocking so far, and after a bit of rocky start at interior run blocking against Missouri and A&M, they were downright dominant the last two weeks.
3) Alabama used to hang its hat on elite defensive play, but that hasn’t been the case so far this season. What’s the biggest issue with this group?
All of it but the cornerbacks.
Seriously though, there’s a lot of issues there that Alabama has to work out. The defensive line is getting absolutely zero push, so even when the outside linebackers get some pressure from the edges, the QBs can just step up and avoid the rush. The inside linebackers have been generally horrible at covering running backs on passing routes, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a front seven so collectively bite on every single play fake the opponent runs. Safety Daniel Wright has particularly been the subject of fans’ ire as he’s missed a ridiculous number of one on one tackles while also messing up some zone coverages to leave tight ends wide open down the seam (though fortunately that issue finally got fixed against Georgia).
On the other hand, Alabama’s two corners, Josh Jobe and Pat Surtain, have only given up a combined 3 catches for like 10 yards this year to my eyes. So just don’t try to hang your hat on throwing to the sidelines.... Pretty much anything else will work if you tack on a play-action.
4) Mac Jones has really taken this quarterback job and run away with it. How much has he improved since we saw him for the first time in this game last season?
Mac looked absolutely terrified against Tennessee last year, and most of us decided right then he wouldn’t be the guy for the job. Since then, though, the dude has done nothing but sling deep ball after deep ball even after throwing interceptions. He shows a lot of confidence (even though we started to see some cracks in the first half against Georgia), has a beautiful deep ball, and is happy to dial back and throw horizontally if the defense is determined to play with a bunch of deep safety help. Obviously, a lot of that is Sark’s influence, but Mac being willing to be patient when the defense is taking away the deep ball has made a lot of difference so far this year.
5) As a guy that knows plenty about Jeremy Pruitt, give us your outsider perspective of how he’s doing at Tennessee. Is it better or worse than you expected?
It’s about what I expected, to be honest. Pruitt was a phenomenal defensive coordinator, but I was worried he didn’t have the experience or the media savvy to really jump straight into managing an SEC team with a fanbase that expects better than what they’ve seen in the past decade. He’s had some good games and recruited well, but there’s been enough talk and media gaffes that I feel like he’s in a bit over his head. Personally, I think he’s going to need to regroup as coordinator again for a year or so, then go try out his head coaching chops at a smaller program without the weight of Phil Fulmer on his back.
6) We don’t have much hope for this game, but go ahead and give us your score prediction anyways.
I think Tennessee does manage to score some on Alabama, even with Jarrett Guarantano back there. But I ultimately don’t see the Tennessee defense being able to hang. I think Alabama jumps out to an early three-score lead, and Tennessee scores back to back touchdowns to make it kind of close before half time. The second half turns into a bloodbath, and Alabama wins 52-20.
Thanks to Brent for helping out! Check out Roll Bama Roll for an Alabama perspective.