Last season, Alabama played its worst game of the year in Neyland Stadium. It was a team-wide dysfunction:
- The Crimson Tide’s solid secondary was torched all night with the same splits play that the Kansas City Chiefs have made famous. Jaylin Hyatt single-handedly won the Biletnikoff exploiting Demarcco Hellams’ lack of elite speed. Hyatt only had six throws his way, but five of them were for scores (a quite dubious record).
- The Tide front four that had averaged allowing just 112 yards per game and under 4 YPC was positively smoked: The Vols rushed for nearly 200 yards and two scores, with every back (including Hooker) hitting over 4 YPC.
- The sure-handed Jahmyr Gibbs dropped what was a sure game-winning touchdown.
- Will Reichard, who was positively outstanding last season, missed a game-deciding field goal.
- James Burnip had his worst game of the year, averaging just 38 YPP — including a 19-yard yard shanker that Tennessee would promptly convert into a touchdown.
- An-already undisciplined Alabama team would be flagged 17 times on the road for 130 yards, many of them illusory with several no-calls going in favor of the Vols.
Here's another look at the game-changing pass interference Nick Saban was asked about following Alabama's loss to Tennessee pic.twitter.com/fDFuZkvxPO— Tony Tsoukalas (@Tony_Tsoukalas) October 16, 2022
If any one or more of those things are changed, Alabama is likely in the CFP last season. But when it rains it pours, and the 52 points allowed were a record against a Saban team; the loss snapped a 16-game winning streak in the series, and left the Tide looking on the outside with no margin for error — and that error would come two weeks later in Baton Rouge.
There is more than a little bad blood here this week; there’s also revenge to be had. But while the jerseys are the same, these are fundamentally very different teams that win very differently in 2023.
If the Crimson Tide is going to get that vengeance, then these are some of the hidden matchups and lesser known areas of emphasis to watch this weekend.
Alabama and Tennessee are, once again, heavily penalized teams. But Tennessee is really bad. They are in the Bottom 20 nationally in drawing flags — in conference games, the Vols are averaging 9 flags for almost 90 yards per game.
And, while ‘Bama fans have become accustomed to opponents getting the breaks (Tide foes are averaging just 5 hankies for 44 yards a game), the good fortune that accompanied UT last year is not to be found. In 2022, UT’s opponents were heavily penalized, with the Vols being in the Top 20 nationally in opponent flags. This year, like the Tide, UT opponents are not getting many flags thrown their way (4.9 for 49 yards per game).
Which team is going to show the most discipline this Saturday? In the Vols’ one true road game this season, UT was flagged 10 times for 79 yards. Meanwhile, Alabama has been much more disciplined at home this year. They’ve been better overall, in fact. ‘Bama had 10 versus Texas and 14 vs. A&M, but in their other five contests, ‘Bama had half a dozen or fewer.
In what is expected to be a close game, who will be the more disciplined team? You have to think flags are going to play a part in the outcome, unfortunately.
And about half a dozen more...
Punting is Winning
James Burnip has frankly been a revelation this season. He has improved a full ten yards in the last two seasons, and by half a dozen over last year. Burnip is averaging over 48 yards per kick, and the Tide are using him a lot more frequently too. He leads the SEC in yards per game, total yards, total kicks, and punts inside the 20.
The Vols are significantly worse in this department. UT is in the bottom third of the SEC, barely scraping 41 yards per attempt. And on the road/neutral fields, UT is the worst in the conference: just 37.38 yards per punt.
The flipside is that — after being atop the SEC for years — the Tide is next-to-last in the SEC on punt return defense, allowing over 12 yards per return. Part of that is the distance that Burnip is putting on the ball, for sure. But it has to be disconcerting to ‘Bama fans. Meanwhile, the Volunteers lead the SEC by a wide, wide margin: UT averages 19 yards per return in SEC games.
Something is going to have to give here.
In a field position game, can Alabama exploit that 11 extra yards per possession when it forces a punt? And, when the Tide punts, can it corral the Volunteers dangerous return men? Or are these mutual advantages just going to wash out?
One gets the feeling that this aspect of the game could prove to be a back-breaker for one of these teams.
How Much Has the Tide Rushing Defense Improved?
Tide fans can be forgiven for being wary of the Vols ground attack. It is among the nation’s best, and certainly in the SEC. Coupled with the bad memories of the Texas game, a nasty UT rotation that rolls three-deep, a mobile quarterback in a scheme that has given UA problems, and Alabama fans enter this one a bit dyspeptic.
But, the Crimson Tide rushing defense has come a long way. I mean a long way, since that second game of the season, when Texas made it look easy. Alabama is second in the conference in rushing defense, giving up just 3.00 yards per carry. Since that Texas contest, ‘Bama is allowing just 2.71 yards a rush, and has allowed just two rushing touchdowns its last five games.
It is not showing up in tackles for loss, but the new-look front seven is stoning teams at the point of attack. In their last three games against SEC opponents, Alabama held Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Arkansas to 56, 69 and 100 yards. And none of those teams even thought about hitting the 3 YPC mark, much less 4 YPC: Ole Miss (1.93), Aggie (1.91), Arkansas (2.78) — with the Hogs getting just 18 yards through three quarters.
But this is a different beast entirely on Saturday, and probably the most talented ground attack ‘Bama will face all season. It is also the most physical, concerted rushing game Alabama will play all year.
How much improved are the Tide over that early September version that was knocked off the ball consistently by the Longhorns?
Bad Road Heupel
If there has been any major knock on Josh Heupel as a head coach, both at UCF and at Tennessee, it is how poorly his teams play on the road, even against unranked teams — and especially the defense.
As an underdog, they barely get off the bus.
At Tennessee, the Vols are 1-3 on the road, including some memorable stinkers, like getting pummeled this year by an average Gator team. Those 29 points surrendered to Florida were the second-most UF has scored this year against a D1 team. Then there’s last season, with everything on earth to play for heading to Columbia...and embarrassing their ancestors with a 63-38 loss to an aggressively bland South Carolina squad. The Vols have not won a one-score road game since 2021. They either play out of their mind, or get walloped soundly when they leave Knoxville.
It was more of the same at UCF. In fact, the writing should have been on the wall for Vawls fans before he unpacked his bags in Knoxville.
In 2020, as the No. 11 team in the country, the Knights walked into Tulsa a 17-point favorite, and left with an 8-point loss. In what was expected to be a field goal-type contest vs. BYU, UCF was doubled up in Boca, 49-23. In 2019, coming off of a 12-1 season with a roster from God that Scott Frost bequeathed, UCF somehow lost three road games to unranked opponents.
The road hasn’t always been kind to Heupel, and it’s usually the defense that no-shows. Which Tennessee team gets off the bus in Tuscaloosa on Saturday?
Over the coming days, much will be written about this game. But there are some intangibles and hidden keys to the game that we think will play a large part in the outcome, if not being downright determinant.
What are some of your hidden keys to the game? Lesser-known matchups?
What SEC officiating monstrosity worries you the most — because, face it, they’re going to screw this up:
The penalties that will be called against Alabama
The penalties that will not be called against Tennessee