The Third Saturday in October is nearly here. No. 6 Tennessee is set to host No. 3 Alabama, with big time SEC ramifications on the line. The Volunteers haven’t beaten the Crimson Tide since 2006, and this certainly feels like their best chance to pull it off in some time.
Ahead of the massive game, we swapped questions with our Alabama colleagues down at Roll Bama Roll. Brent Taylor hopped in and helped us get to know Alabama a little better.
1. We’ve got to start with Bryce Young, right? It feels like he’s going to play to me, do you get that same sense?
You know as well as I do. Saban’s been on a kick this season about getting all blustery about reporters asking him about injuries. So throw in a starting QB, and you can only imagine the total lack of info. That said, it does sound like Bryce was close to getting there last week, and they decided he couldn’t do it without being a liability. So that suggests he’s most likely going to give it a shot this week. My worry is that he’s going to try, re-aggravate the issue, be ineffective for a half, and then Alabama has to make a change anyway.
2. Let’s assume Bryce doesn’t play. Obviously the offense struggled with Jalen Milroe last week. Tennessee does have a struggling secondary — but could he win enough through the air to hang with Tennessee?
(That’s a funny/strange feeling question to type out loud)
If Milroe looks anything like we saw last week, then, no, Alabama isn’t winning. Fortunately, the Aggie offense was so incompetent that they only scored 3 total points on drives that weren’t assisted by short field turnovers. But expecting to survive a 4-turnover outing against a team with even a pulse of on offense is just not realistic.
Word behind the scenes is that Milroe had been doing really well in practice leading up to the game and then just kind of fell apart under the pressure, and that surprised the coaches. Saban spoke earlier this week that Milroe had a lot of anxiety once he got out there. So the hope is that, with game 1 behind him, Milroe can settle down in the pocket and show what they’ve apparently seen in practice.
2B) If it’s Milroe, can the Bama run game do enough to control the game?
Milroe is a dangerous runner when he’s decisive with it. And Jahmyr Gibbs is looking like a potential 1st round NFL draft pick. The Tide is struggling for the second year in a row with short yardage running, but their explosiveness in the run game is tops in the nation. Even if totally absent a passing game, I think the threat of Milroe’s scrambling will absolutely open up things enough for Gibbs to keep things going. We just can’t have another 3-fumble performance like last week.
That said, you really can’t win in modern football without at least a semi-threat of the pass.
3. Alabama lost a lot at receiver, as they seemingly do every year. Who are the replacements, and how have they performed so far this season?
Ummmm. Well Jermaine Burton transferred in from Georgia. He’s been fine any time he’s been thrown the ball and made some plays down field. Kind of a guy that’s pretty solid at everything but doesn’t really excel at anything. Ja’Corey Brooks is a 6’3” guy on the outside that’s good for a couple of big plays and one bad drop per game. There’s a couple of freshman receivers in Kobe Prentice and Isaiah Bond who have flashed some eye-popping speed, but are still freshmen and hence prone to doing freshman things.
As far as a couple of wild cards, JoJo Earle is a shifty slot guy and a 2021 starter that broke his leg mid-way through last year and is just now getting back into the rotation. There’s also Louisville transfer Tyler Harrell, who supposedly ran a 4.19 forty and averaged like 30 yards per catch with the Cardinals. He hurt his foot in the offseason and we haven’t seen him yet, but he may make a debut this week.
Overall, I’d say the receiver group has underwhelmed. RB Jahmyr Gibbs is the team’s leading receiver. And he’s probably the best one... He’s just also playing running back.
4. Alabama ranks 6th in total defense to this point. They shut down Arkansas, did just enough against a decent A&M team and kind of limped home against Texas with a backup quarterback. Quinn Ewers appeared to be on his way to a big game before he went down, too. Are you concerned with Tennessee’s ability to stretch the field? And how can Alabama defend it?
I’d argue that the defense performed quite spectacularly against A&M. The Aggies had like 5 total good plays all game on offense. They just all happened to come right after a turnover so it was a short field and a score. The Texas game was kind of gross... But also the cornerback that got roasted a couple of times down the right sideline has now been changed out for Terrion Arnold, who’s played phenomenal ball since taking over.
Look, in this modern era of ball, a good offense can score on a great defense. It’s just how the game is set up now. But Alabama’s pass rush is the best in the country and I’d put their secondary in the argument with anyone as well. The only thing that has shown any sustained success against this defense is 50/50 jump balls down the sidelines (Nick Saban will stubbornly go to his grave insisting the corners don’t need safety help on those), a QB that can break sacks and make scribble play throws on the run, or just hope someone in the secondary gets injured and routinely target the backup.
I think Hooker can definitely do some of that better than anyone else Alabama has faced. But can he do it all game with pass rushers chasing after him?
5. Tennessee has one of the most aggressive defenses in the country, by design. They’ll bring seven and accept the results, good or bad. How had the Alabama OL been in pass protection this year? Also, how has Milroe/Young performed against pressure?
They’ve been better than 2021, but still not exactly the standard of blocking we’ve seen over the last decade. Bryce Young has also finally started showing some improvements at throwing hot against the blitz after it wrecking him in 2021. He’ll still revert to scampering around with the ball sometimes, but he’s definitely gotten faster at getting it out. Milroe.... Well, he probably won’t throw it. He’s going to sprint backwards and to the right. If your blitzer is fast enough, it’s an easy stop. But if your blitzer doesn’t have 4.4 speed, Milroe might just take it for 50 yards himself.
6. Score prediction: Who wins and why?
If Milroe is in (and/or Young tries to play hurt): 31-21 Tennessee.
If Bryce Young is totally good to go: 42-27 Bama.
Yeah, I think there’s that big of a difference in QB. Alabama’s defense can and will give up some plays to Hooker, but they’re ultimately the best defense in the country and will hold the Vols to much lower than their season output. But this offense is totally reliant on Bryce Young, and we almost blew it against a gross Texas A&M team without him. But if he’s ready to go, I think he carves up a very suspect Tennessee secondary.