Tomorrow afternoon, the Tennessee Volunteers will be facing off with their most hated rival – the Alabama Crimson Tide. Coached by Nick Saban, Alabama has been a powerhouse in recent years, dominating the series. Tomorrow there is as much optimism about this game for Vol fans as there has been in a long time. Alabama is still a powerful opponent, but the Vols have played well in every game this season and competed well against very good opponents.
While Alabama is expected to win, I want to examine two interesting statistical trends I’ve found that could swing the game in Tennessee’s favor. I have long been a firm believer that turnovers and special teams are two of the most important factors in a close game, and these are two spots where the Vols may have an edge.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
This is a key principle of football in general, but against Alabama it is especially important. Alabama has lost to the Ole Miss Rebels the past few seasons. In these games, the Rebels have won the turnover battle 7-1 over Alabama, and that is the biggest reason they won both games.
So far this season, Alabama has turned the ball over 13 times and forced 16 turnovers for a +3 margin. Tennessee also is +3, but with 5 turnovers and 8 forced turnovers.
Turnovers, to me, are the most important stat in football. When a team turns the ball over, they are either blowing a chance to score or giving their opponent prime field position. More often than not, if you win the turnover margin you can win the game.
Tennessee’s offense has done a really good job of protecting the ball this year and that must continue. Josh Dobbs has only thrown two interceptions, one on a desperation pass in overtime versus Oklahoma, and the other on a crazy tip drill versus Georgia. For all his limitations, he has excelled at protecting the football. That must continue. Last week Alabama beat Texas A&M primarily because of three interceptions returned for touchdowns. A&M didn’t play all that well, but if you take away the 21 points that Alabama scored on defense, the Aggies would’ve actually outscored the Crimson Tide. If Dobbs can continue to play smart and not throw interceptions, the Vols will stay in the game.
On the other side, Alabama has been more prone to turnovers. Jacob Coker has thrown six picks already this season. The Vols haven’t done a very good job of forcing turnovers defensively, and that needs to change tomorrow. Tennessee only has intercepted 4 passes through six games. The recipe to beating Alabama is by forcing turnovers. The defensive line is going to have to pressure Coker into some bad passes, and the secondary needs to be ready to capitalize. Tennessee’s best chance at winning is forcing turnovers and protecting the ball.
WIN SPECIAL TEAMS
In evenly matched games, special teams is often the deciding factor. This is one area in which I believe the Vols have a decisive advantage.
Led by Evan Berry, the Vols average over 37 yards per kickoff return and lead the country. Alabama is tied for 49th in the country in kick return coverage. This is an area Tennessee can exploit. Berry has taken two kicks back for touchdowns already this season, and has had some big returns in other games as well. With Alabama’s weak coverage, you could see a big return tomorrow.
When Alabama is forced to punt, the Vols have the potential to make big plays as well. Tennessee, with either Cam Sutton or former Alabama running back Alvin Kamara, deep ranks 16th in the nation with over 16 yards per punt return. Alabama ranks 72nd in punt return defense, giving up over 8 yards per return, including one touchdown.
Even if the Crimson Tide kick away from Sutton and Kamara like Georgia did two weeks ago, the Vols can still make a play. Alabama is in a deadlock for the most blocked punts in the country this season (2).
Alabama is one of the few college teams who still use a traditional, “pro-style” punting formation. This scheme puts more stress on the blockers, who have to win their blocks one-on-one. Arkansas blocked a punt by sending a basic rush, but the long snapper missed his block and Jeremy Sprinkle came down the middle to partially deflect the ball. Last weekend against Texas A&M, defensive end Myles Garrett rushed off the right edge, beat his block, and blocked the punt.
The beauty of this for a punt block unit is that with this protection scheme, all Tennessee has to do is get one rusher to beat their block at the line of scrimmage. It doesn’t require an elaborate punt block scheme, but just one man winning at the line of scrimmage. The Vols have yet to block a punt this season, but I feel that they have their best chance to do so this weekend as they’ve had all year. The Alabama scheme makes it so each blocker has to win or they risk giving up a block punt. If the Crimson Tide have any slip ups, the Vols need to be ready to block the kick.
Here is one final outstanding statistic about special teams. Out of Alabama’s six fumbles this season, four came on special teams. Their kick returners have struggled holding on to the ball. Tennessee has outstanding coverage units and has the potential to force a big turnover in the kicking game. In Tennessee’s big win over Georgia, the turning point in the game was a Bulldogs fumble on a kick return. If the Vols can force another big turnover in the kicking game, block a kick, or get a big return, it swings the game in their favor.
These things sound simple, but they are critically important tomorrow. I honestly feel like Tennessee’s best chance is to control the ball, play smart, don’t turn the ball over, and hit some big plays on special teams. If Tennessee can protect the ball, and keep the clock moving by running the ball, they can control the game. Alabama has a fantastic team, but I believe this has the potential to be the closest Tennessee-Alabama game in years. So far, Tennessee has been able to protect the ball and win on special teams. The Crimson Tide are weak in the kicking game and turn the ball over a lot. If these trends continue tomorrow, you could see an upset.