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Six Thoughts: Tennessee beats Alabama

Unpacking a wild one.

Alabama v Tennessee Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

Tennessee found a way. You were waiting for Alabama to take over at some point, and they sure tried, but it never happened.

The streak is over. Tennessee has beaten Alabama for the first time in 15 years, setting the stage for a potentially magical run through the back half of the season.

Here are six more thoughts from today’s game.

Tennessee just beat Alabama without its top receiver, starting safety and down two cornerbacks.

This is important to point out, because this offense is getting better whenever Cedric Tillman returns. As good as Jalin Hyatt and Bru McCoy have been, there’s another dimension to this attack once Tillman is healthy. Now you’ve got another 14 days to get him ready for Kentucky, and then another 21 days to have him ready for Georgia.

As for the secondary, Tennessee is without Warren Burrell for the rest of the season. Kamal Hadden missed today with a hamstring. Christian Charles was shaken up late. Guys like Doneiko Slaughter, Dee Williams, Brandon Turnage and De’Shawn Rucker were leaned on in this one, against the Heisman winning quarterback from a year ago. They were abused, and Tennessee was fortunate to walk away unscathed.

The secondary is a real issue going forward, but this certainly was their toughest test. Maybe they get this test in another couple of months in Atlanta. Regardless, this unit has to stabilize.

The Jaylen McCollough situation also looms large here.

Josh Heupel built a team from literal scratch, and beat Alabama two years later.

It’s so easy to forget how bad this roster looked when Jeremy Pruitt was fired. Tennessee lost 30 players to the portal, and frankly is still battling back to get all of the depth needed to be a national contender.

But Heupel’s build was expedited by a player he didn’t recruit, maybe even a guy he wasn’t sure he wanted. Hendon Hooker went through all of the spring in 2021 learning Heupel’s system, and then the staff went out and worked to add Joe Milton from Michigan. The staff was clearly infatuated with Milton’s arm talent, but it just flat out didn’t work. Hooker came in for Milton in relief last season, and suddenly the Volunteers were rolling.

Cedric Tillman emerged out of nowhere. Heupel’s run game took off. Very quickly, you saw the light at the end of the tunnel. In our wildest dreams, nobody saw a 6-0 start coming. There were just too many question marks. I’ve still got some of those questions — but the Vols keep winning regardless.

Coaching is everything in this game, and the transfer portal has changed the rebuild process. A Virginia Tech transfer found a USC transfer so a USC transfer could let Tennessee beat Alabama for the first time in 15 years.

What a wild story.

Big respect to Bryce Young.

If Hendon Hooker isn’t the best quarterback in the SEC, it’s only because Bryce Young is an absolute magician. We said all week, if Young plays, it’s a totally different game. And boy was it.

The 2021 Heisman winner torched Tennessee for 455 yards and two touchdowns, but a series of penalties, dropped passes and missed kicks ruined his day. Tennessee came after Young, who was questionable due to a sprained AC joint. You know the Tennessee staff knew that, too. Hit after hit, Bryce kept coming back for more — and delivering.

Tennessee might have to deal with him again soon, and they’ll probably have to score 50 points again to beat him. Hats off.

I don’t have a problem with how Tim Banks called this game.

By now we know how Tim Banks is going to operate. He’s well aware of his issues in the secondary, and he’s also well aware of the lack of rest his unit is going to get. From the second he was hired, he knew he had to call games aggressively. That didn’t change tonight.

Going in, I got the sense that he wanted to hit Bryce Young as much as possible. Similar to the Pittsburgh game, he fired away. The only problem? This Alabama offensive line delivered, and Bryce Young delivered pre-snap to account for the incoming blitzes. How many times did you see Young go hard-count, then change a protection? Young was diagnosing coverages/pressures pre-snap, and using Banks’ aggression against him.

Tennessee only got home for one sack, but racked up nine quarterback hurries on the day. A combined seven of those came from middle linebackers Aaron Beasley and Jeremy Banks, which illustrates the amount of blitzing Banks ordered.

When it didn’t work, it was ugly. But it was well worth the risk, considering the status of this secondary. This is what the Tennessee defense is going to be. Thankfully, that’s the toughest test they’ll face, potentially until Atlanta.

Alabama’s mistakes piled up.

Undisciplined football from the very beginning, that’s a huge part of this story tonight on the Alabama side. It’s not what you’re used to seeing from a Nick Saban team, but the Crimson Tide couldn’t get out of their own way tonight. A school record was set for most penalties in a game, most of which came very early on. The Tennessee crowd was rocking, and false starts, holding calls and delay of games plagued ‘Bama early on.

Just when the momentum was turning, Quandarius Robinson inexplicably tried to pick up a punt that had stopped moving. He ended up fumbling, handing the ball back to Tennessee, who immediately scored. A grabby secondary was called time and time again for defensive pass interference, keeping several drives alive for the Volunteers.

Jahmyr Gibbs dropped a huge pass at the end, and then Will Reichard missed his go-ahead attempt to set up Hooker, McCoy and McGrath for the win.

As well as Tennessee responded in big spots, Alabama’s mistakes made everything possible.

Hendon Hooker’s Heisman campaign strengthens.

Two top 25 road wins. Wins over Florida and Alabama at home — no team has done more through six games than Tennessee. The primary reason why is Hendon Hooker. His outstanding efficiency and full grasp of Josh Heupel’s system has been a beautiful thing to watch, and it’s got Tennessee sitting firmly as a national contender.

We all knew Hooker would put up Heisman worthy numbers this year. The x-factor was how many game Tennessee could win. You can’t really win the Heisman without being in the national picture. The Volunteers are going to be top five in the country come Sunday.

You want a Heisman moment? How about five touchdowns against Alabama?

Ohio State’s CJ Stroud is the main competition, and I’m not totally ruling out a comeback from Bryce Young after what we just saw. But Hendon Hooker is at minimum top two right now, coming off of Tennessee’s biggest win in 15 years.