SEC Film Room: Tennessee provides a blueprint for what works, what doesn’t versus Alabama defense
No only has Tennessee been on the short end of some of the SEC’s more notable winning streaks, but as of late, they’ve failed to end those streaks in gut-wrenching fashion.
A few weeks ago we saw Tennessee fail to end their decade-long losing streak to Florida by letting what looked like their best chance go right through their hands late in the fourth quarter.
On Saturday, it had the chance to takedown Alabama for the first time since 2006, and also capture a win in Tuscaloosa for the first time since 2003.
However, the Vols once again came up short in capturing a victory that could have changed the course of their program — a road win versus Alabama would have surely swayed the minds of both fans and recruits.
What constitutes this game as a missed opportunity for Tennessee isn’t the final score, though close. It was the fact that it not only won the rushing battle against ‘Bama for the first time since their last victory over the Tide, but that, as a run-based team, they were still able to move the ball well against what is widely considered the best run defense in college football.
Though Tennessee turned out to be another Crimson Tide victim in the process, it seemed to have laid out a blueprint for how teams with option quarterbacks can have success versus Alabama — they also revealed how it fails.
Here’s that success looked like.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has been forced to change his renown defense a bit because of the overabundance of spread offenses in college football. Alabama likes to run its defense out of a 3-4, but you’ll see them use a different variation of that base in a 3-3-5 formation to counter spread offenses.
Though Alabama has some of the most talented secondary players in the country, it’s not as ideal as a pure 3-4 when stopping the run; it does have weak spots in that sense.
Here’s one of them, and an area where Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord did his homework.
One of CBS’ commentators, Gary Danielson, enlightened us during the game that every single play Tennessee has in its playbook has a quarterback run option to it. Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs is one of the best dual-threat signal callers in the SEC and that’s because he can execute offensive creativity very well.
Take a look at the offensive line during the video above. Watch how both the guards roll to the outside, both left and right. Normally, pulling guards move towards where the ball will be run to get the most blockers; that makes sense. But so did pulling both to opposite side.
Replaying this down in slow motion reveals the offensive creativity.
Recall, if you will, Alabama’s adjusted 3-4 set. Less big bodies means less gaps filled and more responsibility on linebackers to make plays in open space. That responsibility also forces them to pick up on other signs of where the play may be going, instead of trying to locate the ball — they can’t see it with so many moving parts. This forces a guessing game, and as we see in the video above, an area the Vols capitalized on.
Both Alabama linebackers are tricked into moving to their left since that’s the strong side of the line where the tight end is. When the right guard pulls that way, they take the bait for a handoff since a tight end and pulling guard to one side is usually a giveaway to where a play is going.
Instead, it’s a quarterback keeper to the open side of the field where the left guard is now sealing the edge against a smaller cornerback. Tennessee knew that if it could get Alabama’s linebackers to freeze or take one wrong step, Dobbs’ acceleration would give them at least five yards, even more on this play.
This play was later in the game, but showed similar success. Here, ‘Bama linebacker Reuben Foster is unblocked, but the moment of hesitation caused by the option meant Dobbs could get to the edge. It was a great way to counter Alabama in the 3-3-5, and a part of Tennessee’s game plan that should be documented and duplicated for team’s with option offense that still want to run the ball against the Tide.
Avoid the Teeth
Remember earlier when I noted the fact that even though Alabama doesn’t have as many players in the box as Saban would like, those remaining players are still very talented? Yeah, I wasn’t kidding. It isn’t a front seven like we’re used to seeing, but that front six for a 3-3-5 still needs to be avoided by opposing offensive coordinators.
Here’s a few examples.
In this play we see Tennessee using two pulling guards to attempt to get running back Jalen Hurd to the sideline. But, instead of following their lead — which probably would’ve resulted in a first down and more — Hurd is tempted and falls for a temporary window up the middle. The reason why Alabama is considered the best run-stopping team in the nation is the speed at which they can close running lanes. Here, even if Hurd wouldn’t have run into his lineman, he’s reminded of why the only reason you call a running play up the middle is to keep the defense honest and set up future play action-plays.
Here’s another example.
This one’s a little different. I like the play call, especially after re-watching the game and seeing how effective Kamara was with the ball in his hands. However, you can’t call a bubble screen that sets up towards the middle of the field from the slot. The point of a screen like this is to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands and into a playmaker’s hands before the space around him become congested. When DeBord called this screen from the slot, he forced Kamara to go right back into the teeth of Alabama’s defense, and negates the purpose of the play call.
Kamara had space towards the sideline, but the design never even gave him the chance to cut and move that way.
This is how you utilize Kamara: Get him away from the big boys.
Those were the ways Tennessee found both success and failure when attack Alabama’s defense. As the SEC regular season moves forward, Alabama since has to face Brandon Harris of LSU and Dak Prescott of Mississippi State. Look for both of those teams to set up a game plan based off where Tennessee failed and where it found success.