Alabama football: Tennessee missing what it had to make last year's game close

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

It’s one thing to own a streak of 13 straight wins against a rival. It’s another to completely dominate the rival over most of those 13 games.

Alabama’s active winning streak over Tennessee boasts an average final score of 37.6-12.3. UA has scored fewer than 29 points just twice in the streak, while Tennessee has scored more than 14 just three times.

Last year’s game could have been an exception. The final score of 35-16 fell in line with the scores before it, but the Volunteers were one yard away from getting within a possession of UA with fewer than eight minutes to play.

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Tennessee showed some life against UA in the second half of last year’s game, but did so with some aspects its current UT team has yet to show going into Saturday’s game.

“Jeremy's done a really good job there in my opinion,” UA coach Nick Saban of his former assistant, Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt. “They've played very, very well this year. Last week was a little bit of an anomaly.”

A year ago, Tennessee’s Darel Middleton blew up UA’s first play of the second half for a loss, forcing a punt shortly thereafter; on a third-and-6 late in the third quarter, Darrell Taylor’s edge rush and Kivon Bennett’s pressure up the middle forced a scramble that ended short of the line to gain.

Tennessee is not getting that same play from its 2020 defensive front. Taylor is a Seattle Seahawk and Pruitt fired defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh on Sunday. The Volunteers are tied for first in the SEC (with Alabama) with 24 tackles for loss, but only 2 1/2 of those 24 are attributed to defensive linemen.

Pruitt said he would coach the defensive line for the rest of the season.

On the offensive side in 2019, Tennessee won the battle on third down. The Volunteers converted twice on the way to a field goal early in the third quarter, then three more times on the 14-play, 66-yard drive that nearly brought the game within one possession. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano completed a 13-yard pass on third-and-4, an 8-yard pass on third-and-5 and threw into a pass interference penalty on third-and-10.

A year later, Guarantano may have lost his starting job. Two interceptions and a lost fumble in Tennessee’s loss to Kentucky gives him six turnovers in the last two games. His backup, J.T. Shrout, threw an interception in his only pass attempt.

On third down specifically, the Volunteers are converting just 26.42% of the time, 13th in the SEC and 69th of 77 FBS teams with at least one game played. 

Saban thinks those turnovers are masking the play of a good team, one that could threaten UA even without the factors it had to do so last year.

“They’re very well-coached, they’re in the right spots,” Saban said. “But I think when you turn the ball over in this game – I don’t care if it’s us or them or whoever it is – it’s really hard to overcome. We do a little chart every week and show our players the record of every team in the country who’s +3, +2, -3, -2, 0 turnover (margin), and all you have to do is look at that chart and it’s very telling in terms of the impact that turnovers have on the game. I think that’s been their issue and it’s not the rest of their team.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson