Postgame: Alabama at Tennessee
SPEND MY DOLLAR.
PARKED IN A HOLLER 'NEATH THE MOUNTAIN MOONLIGHT.
This is so much fun I can't stop singing it three days later.
MY DIXIEEEELAAAAAND DELIGHT.
What a freaking game. Finally, after 15 straight losses we got to taste victory against Alabama. It tasted like a fine cigar. Well, not for me. See I'm the worst cigar smoker of all time. The last time I had a cigar I was in high school. It was my first trip to a regular season game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I went with a friend and we were tailgating with his entire family. When my buddy's grandpa found out it was my first Packer game he took out a $30, hand rolled cigar and told me to celebrate. I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn't want to disappoint the old man. I knew enough to know it was a mighty kind gesture. So, I lit that thing and started smoking away.
That cigar put me on my ass. By the time we reached our seats for kickoff I was a mess. My head was spinning and I was sick to my stomach. I spent probably half of the game in the first aid area trying to recover. Not my best moment. If you enjoyed a victory cigar on Saturday night I hope it went much, much better for you than my last experience with a cigar!
I wouldn't have wanted Saturday's game to go any other way. After 15 years of being dominated why should it have been easy? Between 3:30 pm and 7:30 pm last Saturday I felt every emotion known to man. I was on top of the world when Tennessee made it a 28-10 ball game early in the second quarter. I was frustrated when I watched the lead slowly melt away. I was angry when Tennessee got screwed on a defensive pass interference call in the endzone, which led to a go-ahead Crimson Tide score. I was distraught when a fumbled exchange led to an Alabama scoop-and-score. Finally, I was elated when Chase McGrath's game winning kick sailed – fluttered? knuckled? – through the goal posts and the game clock displayed all zeros.
I think at this point I've settled down enough to be able to write about the game. Here are my takeaways from the biggest Tennessee victory in recent memory.
Bryce Young Is a Freak
I was surprised that Bryce Young even played in this game based on practice reports regarding his shoulder injury. Two weeks is about the fastest one can return from a Grade I AC joint sprain to their prior level of performance. Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters during the week that Young was on a "pitch count" and would be considered a game time decision. My belief was that given the nature of his injury, and given the game was not a divisional matchup, Young would likely rest in preparation for the remainder of Alabama's SEC West schedule.
I can see why he didn't rest. Not only did Young play, but he played really damn well. I think his play is captured very well in the following clip that I put out on Twitter.
If Bryce Young was hurt at all he sure didn't act like it on Saturday. In the example above Young exposes the Tennessee blitz presnap, changes the protection to account for it, and throws a strike to his receiver. All of this while standing in his own endzone with the Tennessee student section at his back. The Volunteer defense pressured Young plenty of times, but only managed to sack him once. Young was almost always able to evade pressure and deliver a catchable ball to his receivers.
There is a reason that Bryce Young won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, and he showed why Saturday night. It says a great deal about Tennessee that they were able to take on Bryce Young at his absolute best and still come out with a victory. While it may be getting out ahead of ourselves a little bit I certainly think Tennessee's performance against Young helps strengthen their case for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Obviously there is still quite a bit of work left to do. But, let's say that hypothetically Tennessee finishes the season with only one loss at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs. That loss would likely prevent Tennessee from reaching the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. Could the College Football Playoff selection committee really keep an 11-1 Tennessee out of the four team tournament? I suppose it's possible. But it would be a lot more difficult considering the circumstances of this win. Tennessee took down the Tide with their best player available and playing at an elite level. I think that could be a major factor in playoff selection, should Tennessee find themselves in the mix at the end of the season.
Tennessee Still Played A Bunch of Single High Coverage
Most of my game analysis is done using the standard television broadcast angle. Every now and then I get lucky and stumble across the All-22 footage. That copy is extremely helpful in being able to observe the entire field. Maybe one day with enough support I'll hit it big and can get my hands on the All-22 for every game! With that being said, coverage is an aspect of each game that I pay close attention to but can have difficult charting. Often the secondary is off-screen as a play develops making discerning the exact coverage a challenge. I could have told you that Tennessee was predominantly a single high safety team, but I couldn't have given you hard numbers to prove that was true.
Then, before the game the brilliant Cody Alexander shared these stats with me from Pro Football Focus.
On over half of their snaps the Tennessee defense plays with a middle of the field safety. In the Alabama pregame article I wrote about how Texas chose to defend the Tide. The Longhorns run a similar 4-2-5 defensive scheme to Tennessee, although – as you can see from one of Cody's tweets above – they run a higher percentage of quarters coverage. Since Texas held the Crimson Tide to just 19 points I was curious to see if Tennessee would lean more heavily on quarters coverage against Alabama.
As far as I can tell – again, using the television broadcast angle – they did not. The Vols again played a majority of single high coverage, which I thought was very impressive. In years past Tennessee may have been exposed on the outside playing single high coverages as the corners don't have as strong of safety help. However, as we mentioned in the pregame article, Alabama just does not have the same types of athletes at receiver that they have had in recent years. As great as Bryce Young was – and again, he was outstanding – Alabama wasn't able to beat the Tennessee defense deep over the top for explosive scores. The Tide had two passing touchdowns on the day, one from seven yards away and the other from one yard away. Preventing explosive passes is something that the Tennessee defense has done well all year. Although they give up plenty of yards they keep the majority of plays in front of them and force the offense to drive the ball.
The Volunteer defense gave up 455 yards total through the air against Alabama. That's a pretty big number, and there isn't just one simple explanation for what happened. I do think that one contributing factor was Alabama's use of presnap motion. The excessive crowd noise and lack of experience in the secondary – due to recent injuries and safety Jaylen McCollough being unavailable for this game – seemed to cause a few breakdowns in communication when Alabama receivers went in motion. This is something that needs to get cleaned up, but I think we can expect it to as more experienced players return to the starting lineup.
Tennessee Ran The Ball Effectively
I've touched on it a number of times: not many teams can slow down the Vols on the ground. The deep touchdown passes are exciting and receive a ton of attention, but this is not an Air Raid attack. Yes, Tennessee wants to spread you out, but they want to carve you up on the ground if they can. To date only three defenses have held a Josh Heupel Tennessee team to under 100 yards rushing in a game. One of those teams was Alabama in 2021, so I thought a big key to this game would be Tennessee's ability to run the ball.
The Vols managed only 65 yards on the ground in last year's contest. They had 32 rushing yards this year after just the first drive. By my count Tennessee had 31 designed rushing attempts on the game. Of those 31 designed runs 25 of them (81%) were gap scheme running plays. Gap scheme plays refer to attacking a specific gap using leverage and pullers. It's clear that Tennessee placed an emphasis on using gap scheme runs to move the ball on Alabama.
I talked about one of these gap scheme runs in this week's scheme session video.
In this specific example Jacob Warren cuts the play up rather than following the designed path of the play. Jabari Small, reading the block of Warren, follows him to open grass. This type of situation where a back found open space even though a play wasn't necessarily designed to go that direction is something Tennessee had success with multiple times on Saturday afternoon. If the Vols can run the ball on this Alabama front, then they should be able to run it on anyone.
Tennessee Got Some Help
I think the Vols got a little bit of help in this one! I think just about any team needs some luck to beat Alabama with Bryce Young playing at his highest level. However, I don't think the Vols were assisted by the officials like some whiney Crimson Tide fans would like you to believe. Instead, I think Alabama made some questionable decisions that cost them in the end. For one thing they elected to kick a field goal inside the five yard line early in the second quarter. They also failed to use enough clock at the end of the game. The Vols were able to hold on to two of their timeouts, which were crucial in getting into field goal range on their final drive. Yes, Alabama committed a ton of penalties. A majority of those penalties were presnap, procedural penalties that can't really be argued. The one's that weren't were fairly obvious. Tennessee's high flying offense puts added pressure on their opponents, and I think one way that manifests itself is in uncharacteristic decision making. I bet Alabama would handle the field goal decision and end of game clock management differently if they had a second chance.
That'll do it for this week's postgame article. I still can't believe it's real. Tennessee finally beat Alabama. In two years Tennessee has gone from 3-7 with a massive loss of players to the transfer portal to undefeated, ranked third in the country, and are the most exciting team to watch in all of college football. This is a special season, and I know all of us can't wait to see how far we can go.
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Enjoy the bye week...uh... I mean enjoy the UT-Martin game! As always, Go Big Orange!