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By the Numbers: Tennessee vs. Alabama

Does Tennessee actually have a chance on Saturday? Kind of.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Given all that happened this past Saturday against Ole Miss, this next game against the Alabama Crimson Tide certainly doesn’t have the energy we would’ve hoped for.

Even though the Volunteers are ahead of schedule on the rebuild, it might not look like it on Saturday. The Crimson Tide are their usual selves, even if they got knocked down a small peg a couple weeks ago. While ratings systems are unusually high on Tennessee’s chances (one even saying that Tennessee has a 1-in-4 chance of winning), most fans don’t see it happening.

But still, why do those rating systems give Tennessee a shot? It starts with an improving defense and occasionally dominant offense.

FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index)

Tennessee Volunteers

Overall: 33rd (Last Week: 37th)
Offense: 34th (Last Week: 25th)
Defense: 51st (Last Week: 63rd)

Tennessee’s offense did not take too much of a hit. While most expected a better performance than what showed on Saturday, the Volunteers did look much more organized and effective in the second half. The first half was marred by offensive line miscommunications and lapses in execution. But the second half was much cleaner by comparison, and looked more similar to the offense we have become accustomed to. In case you want hard proof: Tennessee’s total yardage in the first half was 151 yards. In the second half? 316.

The focus will now be on starting quarterback Hendon Hooker’s health and what happens if he doesn’t play. He is the catalyst for the offense in the past few games, and really hit his stride as a passer starting with Missouri.

I will reiterate a point I made in last week’s article: The ratings systems cannot account for injuries. That means, if Hooker is out for this matchup, the offense will probably not perform up to the standard they are capable. That could also apply to any defensive injuries as well.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Overall: 2nd
Offense: 1st
Defense: 10th

The Alabama offense is not the freakishly unstoppable offense of 2020—but the Crimson Tide are still rolling at a great clip. Quarterback Bryce Young is growing as a freshman and looks like another future draft pick most of the time. Their running game is a bit more hit-or-miss, and they don’t like to lean on it—but starting running back Brian Robinson Jr. is very capable of explosive plays.

The main threat is going to be through the air. In seven games, Alabama has already thrown for 25 touchdown passes, and they have shown no signs of slowing down. I’m struggling to figure out how Tennessee stops guys like Jameson Williams and John Metchie III in any meaningful capacity. The hope is that Tennessee’s reliance on zone defense will frustrate Bryce Young.

Alabama has yet to score less than 31 points in a single game this year, and every time you watch them, you get the sense that their rough patches won’t last the entire game. To this point, that’s been a safe bet.

FPI (Football Power Index)

Tennessee Volunteers

Overall: 22nd (Last Week: 23rd)
Offensive Efficiency: 29th (Last Week: 21st)
Defensive Efficiency: 26th (Last Week: 29th)
Special Teams Efficiency: 98th (Last Week: 72nd)

Tennessee’s defense may have had their best performance of the year on Saturday.

By most measures, Pittsburgh and Ole Miss have similarly high-octane offenses. Early in the season, the Volunteers got 41 points dropped on them. This past week, they only allowed 31, and that is in large part due to a stout defensive performance in the red zone. While the Rebels did move the ball fairly successfully (and had a good yardage total) the Tennessee defense encapsulated the “bend-don’t-break“ defense. They forced three field goal attempts on the night, one of which ended up missing.

Even crazier to think about? Seven of those 31 points were scored thanks to a muffed punt that gave Ole Miss the ball on the Tennessee 11-yard line. The defense also should’ve had a scoop-and-score touchdown, although poor officiating took that away. That blown call might even be a reason the defensive ranking isn’t higher.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Overall: 2nd
Offensive Efficiency: 3rd
Defensive Efficiency: 6th
Special Teams Efficiency: 7th

At the same time, if you’ve watched Alabama’s defense, you can tell they are susceptible at some level. Texas A&M scoring 41 points with a backup quarterback doesn’t happen by chance. How?

It stems from the linebackers. While many fans will focus on Henry To’o To’o, his transfer actually highlights the deeper issues on their defense. With how Alabama has recruited, why do you think their inside linebackers would need an immediate transfer to help them out? That’s because they evidently saw their players and realized something was wrong. Their linebackers are very susceptible to misdirection plays, and in particular To’o To’o can get baited hard by quarterbacks. This just doesn’t look like the Alabama linebacker units of previous years.

Now, as a counter to that…

Alabama’s defensive line has the ultimate trump card. Will Anderson. If you’ve watched their games, you know his name. He’s an elite pass rusher, and the prospect of him getting after Tennessee’s quarterbacks is not great. If they couldn’t consistently stop an Ole Miss pass rush, it doesn’t look good for the Alabama game. He might be the best pass rusher to come out of their program in a long time. Anderson has already totaled seven sacks, four of which came last week.

Football Outsiders Line Stats

Tennessee Volunteers

Last week, we wondered just how well this line would perform against the Ole Miss defensive line in certain situations. The answer...not great. Tennessee continues to have some of the worst sack rates in the nation.

There is still good news! The defensive line has now moved out of the red “warning” label in any category. They are firmly average or above average in every aspect.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama’s lines are self explanatory. I will note that their offensive line is not as dominant as you might think, and their tackle Evan Neal is clearly heads and shoulders above a couple of their other starters. But they are still quite good, and have held up enough to let a freshman quarterback get comfortable against a tough SEC schedule.

Predictions

FPI: Alabama, 91.2%

FEI: Alabama, 87.3% — Projected Score (41.9-22.2, Alabama)

SP+: Alabama, 78% — Projected Score (35-21, Alabama)