Rivalry games are often much closer than Vegas expects, and Alabama’s troubles at home this season were a good indication that Tennessee would be able to hang with the Crimson Tide on Saturday evening.
But few people were ready for the game we got, with Tennessee taking a late 14-13 lead and nearly hanging on for its first win over ‘Bama since 2006.
Here’s how the Tide graded out after a 19-14 victory:
This is becoming all too common at Bryant-Denny: The offense gets into an early funk. Derrick Henry does not touch the ball enough in the first half. Jake Coker makes at least one regrettable decision through the air.
Without an elite defense (more on that below), the Crimson Tide would have at least three losses at this point of the season. Alabama is not built for shootouts, and it’s a near-miracle that the Tide were able to piece together the game-winning drive in crunch time Saturday.
We say “miracle,” but the source of late success was obvious: Tide receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart made big play after big play, and then Henry — looking more and more like a Heisman ceremony lock — teamed up with the offensive line to make a final push toward cigar time.
Without that drive, Lane Kiffin’s otherwise inefficient offense gets a failing grade.
What else can be said about this unit? Their GPA is nothing short of spectacular this year, and it’s essentially carried two weak aspects of the squad — offense and special teams — to a 7-1 record.
There were hiccups on Saturday, including two quick scoring drives from Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs that looked like the Vols were playing against air. But holding your rival to 14 points before ending the game with a strip sack counts as a classic performance in anybody’s book.
There were two dropped interceptions — and a third close one — but that’s nothing to hold against the Tide. Sure, they came through in similar situations against Texas A&M, but those kind of plays come and go for any defense.
This unit is the team’s strongest by far, and the reason it has any hope for the College Football Playoff.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
After last week’s disastrous performance, the special teams unit was solid against the Vols. Kicker Adam Griffith drained two short field goals, and punter JK Scott boomed high-hanging punts that aided second-half field position.
The coverage unit did not allow any big plays, and Kenyan Drake did a nice job on kickoff returns. Overall, there was nothing to write home about, but that’s probably a good thing after some of the misfortunes this unit has stumbled into over the course of the season.
As good as Kirby Smart’s defense continues to be, there is just something off about Lane Kiffin’s attack. The running game tends to disappear, and Jake Coker (seven interceptions in five home games) continues to make iffy decisions.
The offensive gameplan will be magnified against LSU on Nov. 7, especially with the best player in the country coming to do battle with Alabama’s defense.
If LSU can crack Smart’s code on the ground, then ‘Bama will need to respond when it has the ball. The “O” certainly has firepower: it just needs to get comfortable on its home turf.
Yes, the “Third Saturday” game is a heated rivalry, but it has rarely come down to the final minutes since Nick Saban took the Alabama job.
His Crimson Tide teams are now 9-0 against the Volunteers, but only two of those game — 2009 and this Saturday — have been decided by less than two touchdowns.