Tennessee and Alabama’s 2022 clash was a high-flying instant classic that will be talked about for decades. Jalin Hyatt and Hendon Hooker became household names and the Vols were definitely back in the college football landscape.
Fast forward one year, and both teams look very different. Sure, both teams still have a lot to play for. With each team sitting with one loss, all goals are still on the table.
However, looking beyond the records, these two teams look like shadows of each program from last season. And there is some reason for optimism if you’re a Tennessee fan going into this game.
Alabama QB Jalen Milroe has been benched once already this season, although to his credit, he’s managed to play improved football since returning to his starting gig after Bama’s putrid showing at South Florida. The Crimson Tide’s offensive line, which is usually stacked with top-level NFL talent, has been surprisingly vulnerable this year, with Alabama allowing the fifth-most sacks in the entire country with 31. As Tennessee is fourth in the country with 24 sacks generated, that’s a nice combination for the Vols’ defense.
So, for Tennessee, there’s reason for hope that last season’s win won’t be a once-in-a-generation thing. However, it’s going to take a career-defining performance for Tennessee to win on Saturday afternoon, and that performance must come from Joe Milton.
Last week was a perfect example of how a running game and good defense can only take you so far. At home against a good but not great Texas A&M defense, the Vols managed to roll up a solid 232 yards on 49 carries. On paper, that’s quite good. However, any time the Vols needed something in the passing game to move the chains, Milton and the Vols’ wide receivers simply couldn’t connect. Deep shots, slants, crossing patterns. All were challenging. You have to be able to pass sometimes to compliment the running game, and Tennessee couldn’t do a thing.
And that’s the scary part. This team can’t complete simple routes right now. Milton and his receivers aren’t on the same page. While it’s largely on Milton, it’s not all. No one is making plays when the ball is coming their way outside of Squirrel White. Ramel Keyton has had a dreadfully disappointing first half of the season. However, it’s on Joe to give them chances for redemption on Saturday.
It won’t take a 2022-type of performance to beat Alabama. This version of the Crimson Tide isn’t going to provide the same type of firepower that will require a shootout. However, there will be four or five throws during the game that will determine the outcome for Tennessee. Two or three third down conversion opportunities to extend drives. An open receiver breaking deep on a go route. Throws that will likely mean double-digit points claimed or lost.
He can make those throws. He did it in the final two games in 2022 after Hendon Hooker went down, although against Clemson he had some struggles and misfires during the game. However, if he can put forth that kind of accuracy on Saturday, it could be enough for the Vols to escape Tuscaloosa with an upset win.
Is that an unrealistic thing to hope for, given the sample size through 6 games so far this year? Hard to say. However, if Milton can deliver, then he can add his name to Tennessee lore in the game that matters the most to Vol fans.
It’s now or never for Joe.