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Six questions with Roll ‘Bama Roll

Let’s learn about the Tide.

Arkansas v Alabama Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images

It’s ‘Bama week, so it’s time for our annual Q and A with Roll ‘Bama Roll, SBNation’s Alabama site. As always, thanks to Brent Taylor for helping out with these.

On with the questions!

1. I feel like Alabama and Tennessee are somewhat similar, both experiencing massive downgrades under center with Joe Milton and Jalen Milroe. I know Milroe has been up and down — where/how does he win and where/how does he struggle?

Up and down is certainly one way to look at it. Jalen Milroe has been a very interesting QB, to say the least. On one hand, some of his deep throws show a combination of precision, mechanical perfectness, and arm strength that only a couple of NFL QBs can do. When he takes off running, he’s one of the fastest players in the country. On the other hand, completing any passes in the 5-20 yard range feels nearly impossible. He’ll stare down his receivers and get intercepted, and his pocket presence is utterly baffling. Sometimes he’ll stand in the face of a blitz and deliver a 50-yard bomb with perfect accuracy while getting smacked. Sometimes he bails on the pocket with no pressure and runs out of bounds for 1 yard. Sometimes he’s totally oblivious to his left tackle getting roasted and gets walloped.

It’s truly a wild ride. I believe he leads the country in yards per attempt (or at least close to it), but also takes 5 sacks per game. And while some of that is on a circus of disasters on his OL, a lot of his sacks are very much self inflicted.

Throw that in with an offensive coordinator that seemingly doesn’t believe in screens or any other gimme passes to boost completion percentage, and you have a QB that, for the most part, every dropback results in a massive downfield gain, a scramble, or a sack.

2. Just looking at the numbers, Alabama ranks around the bottom of the barrel in sacks/pressures allowed. Is that a personnel issue? How do they fix it before facing Tennessee’s big-time pass rush?

It’s a lot of issues, to be honest. The left tackle has been an utter disaster. Kadyn Proctor is a five star freshman and won the job, but he’s clearly not been ready. He’s north of 360 pounds, and has been next to useless against speed rushes around his outside. Alabama tried playing his backup, and he just wound up getting beat by both speed rushes and inside counters, so that didn’t go too well. Then there’s the center, who’s a 5th year senior and multi-year starter, and, for some unknown reason, forgot how to snap the ball correctly for four straight games. He sent ground slider after ground slider back toward the QB, and two games ago, he gave up and swapped to doing a non-spinning snap. Essentially just gives the ball an underhand toss end-over-end back to the QB. It fixed the accuracy, but the ball gets to the QB a lot slower, and I think that’s also been contributing to slowing down the passing plays.

Then there’s Milroe running himself into a lot of sacks. He does this thing where he has open rushing lanes, but pulls up to look for a downfield pass and winds up getting sacked during a moment of indecisiveness.

Finally, Alabama’s new OC, Tommy Rees, seems to treat the passing game as only something to do on 3rd downs when you have to get downfield. There are no quick passes in this offense. No slants, screens, swings, etc. It’s all 2008-esque pro-style smash and flood concepts with hi-low downfield reads, and very, very little play-action or misdirection. The lack of horizontal movement, quick passing game, or play fakes allow defenses to tee off on Milroe with overload blitzes all game long.

3. Alabama just doesn’t seem like Alabama so far. What’s been the main issue?

So, this has been a common sentiment, even among Alabama fans (probably even moreso among our fanbase, to be honest). I actually disagree. 2021 and 2022 were not Alabama. The Tide had a soft defense, an offense with no identity other than “Bryce do something,” dropped passes every week, and they absolutely wilted in every road game.

This season, for all of the media wanting to bury us, has felt more... right. This team is very similarly structured to the 2014-2017 Alabama teams with an aggressive defense that may give up a deep pass here and there, but makes the opponent earn every single yard. The defensive line isn’t getting pushed around for the first time since 2017, the linebackers are actually big enough to stop the run, and the safeties have more speed than they have in years.

Meanwhile on offense, Alabama can definitely hit the explosive plays with Milroe’s arm and legs, and running back Jase McClellan (and sometimes Roydell Williams) breaks a whole lot of tackles with very little credit to keep drives alive. The WR group as a whole is making the most of their rare targets, with Isaiah Bond, Kobe Prentice, Jermaine Burton, Jalen Hale, and TE Amari Niblack all making some extremely high-level catches in traffic.

As a whole, the offense has struggled. LT and C have been a disaster, and that ruins a lot of things. But the effort and even clutch moments from all of the other players around that have felt better than the last couple of years. Just better vibes as a whole.

4. Tennessee ran right at (and right through) a really good Texas A&M front last week. For contrast, Alabama had 26 total rushing yards the week before against the same front. (31 of those yards were taken away by sacks). Any concerns about the run game facing another top 20 unit on Saturday?

Yeah, a little. The run game has definitely been disappointing. The offensive line bulked up this offseason with the intent of getting better at rushing after a poor 2022, and I think the plan backfired. They’re great at short yardage, sure, but they don’t seem to ever be able to get any second level blocks, so Jase McClellan gets a lot of 4.5 yard rushes over and over where he gets through the line, shimmies around one linebacker, and gets taken down by the second guy.

Last week, 3rd stringer Jam Miller finally (FINALLY) got some playing time and had a couple of explosive runs on the edge, which felt like the first off-tackle runs we’ve tried all year. The results were encouraging. So who knows, maybe Alabama is adding more than just the inside zone on 2nd and 10 over and over.

5. Flipping that question around, Tennessee ran for 230+ on Texas A&M. On paper, Alabama ranks right with the Tennessee run D. The Vols ran for nearly 200 last year against the Tide — how does this year’s front seven compare?

Alabama’s front seven is night and day from where it was last year. Last season, it felt like the entire line stood there and just hoped Will Anderson could beat a triple team to make the play. This year, NT Tim Keenan has brought a centralizing strength that the Tide has lacked since 2018, and he’s flanked by last year’s Freshman All-SEC Jaheim Oatis and 5th year senior Justin Eboigbe, who looked like the best player on the line in 2022 before a season-ending neck injury early on.

On top of that, getting the undersized Henry To’oTo’o off to the NFL and letting a platoon of the bigger and more explosive Deontae Lawson, Trez Marshall, and Jihaad Campbell has done wonders for Alabama’s linebacker group taking on blocks and shutting down runs. Tennessee has a great run game, of course, so I think this is a strength on strength matchup, and both teams will get their fair share of great plays on each other. But again, this isn’t a group that’s just going to roll over like they did in 2022.

6. Score prediction?

Alabama has been very consistent with scoring 24-28 points on offense each game, and I’m going to say the Tide also gets one score from defense or special teams to get to 34 points or so. The real question is how Alabama handles the Tennessee offense. On one hand, Alabama’s defense has done really well outside of a few YOLO deep bombs against Texas. They did have problems with KJ Jefferson scrambling and South Florida’s QB rushes though, and that offensive system is a carbon copy of Tennessee, so the QB run worries me a little. Ultimately, my distrust of Joe Milton outweighs my respect for the Tennessee offensive scheme, and I’m going to say 29 points for the Vols.

A sketchy 5-point win for Alabama.... But I am FAR from confident in it.