Alabama took down Tennessee in Knoxville in one of the biggest rivalry games in college football. While the box score may tell the story of an Alabama-dominated game from start to finish, the report card tells it a little differently.
Alabama had yet to battle an offense this talented this season, mostly due to injuries on the other team's depth chart. Tennessee entered this game with a healthy starting quarterback, something Alabama didn't see against Arkansas or Missouri. Even Michigan was missing its star running back.
Alabama needed to bring its best performance to the field tonight, as the Third Saturday in October rarely plays out as it looks on paper. Especially when you're the team on the road.
Alabama brought enough skill to win in Week 8. Alabama even brought enough skill to dominate the scoreboard. A 31-point victory means the Tide got all "A's," right?
Not hardly. Some aspects of the game were absolutely stellar. Others were good, but still far from Tide standards. Read on to find out who made the grade and who has some extra work to do in preparation for Mississippi State.
Overall Grade: A
A.J. McCarron's final stat line was 17/22 for 306 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. McCarron had some struggles throughout the game, but found his rhythm again in the second half. It seemed like he couldn't do anything wrong in the second half after his incident where he accidentally stepped out-of-bounds looking for someone downfield.
McCarron found six different receivers throughout the game, which kept Tennessee guessing for 60 straight minutes. As Tennessee sold out to stop the run, McCarron made them pay by putting up a career-high 306 yards of passing offense. McCarron may not even get looked at for the Heisman, but he can easily earn a spot in the Alabama Football hall of Fame with continued performance at his current level. Well, except for that one hold for Jeremy Shelley. McCarron dropped the football during Shelley's wind-up, and Shelley basically attempted to kick a point-after while the ball was lying sideways on the ground. Oh well, it could have been worse. He could have pulled a “Charlie Brown.”
Overall Grade: A
Eddie Lacy may be the first-string back, but T.J. Yeldon seems not to have gotten that message. Lacy looked less effective than usual during the game, and most attributed that to the fact that Tennessee was loading the box to stop Alabama's rushing attack. Lacy finished the game with 79 rushing yards on 17 carries for zero touchdowns, although he did set up a couple of the Tide's scores.
T.J. Yeldon finished with 129 yards on 15 carries for two touchdowns. Even if you take his 43-yard run away, he got 86 yards on 14 carries. Yeldon and Lacy are two beasts in the backfield, and they're both so different from each other. If you have somehow prepared yourself for Lacy, like Tennessee did, you are wildly unprepared for what Yeldon brings to the table.
The only mark against the running backs was that they would sometimes bypass the running lane to try to force yardage that wasn't there. If it helps anyone, that was a big mistake happening all over the nation in Week 8. Maybe there was something in the corporate-sponsored Gatorade on Saturday.
Cooper, wide-open for a touchdown.
Overall Grade: A
You just can't say enough about these guys. If McCarron fed them a pass, it was a completion. Amari Cooper hauled in seven passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns against the Vols. Kenny Bell brought down two catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. Kevin Norwood caught two for 43 yards, and Christion Jones hauled a nine-yard reception in as well.
The wideouts in this game only had a couple of marks against them, and they were for missed blocks that were needed to spring running backs into the secondary. Overall, the receivers combined for 306 passing yards on the way to a solid 31-point victory over a major rival.
Overall Grade: A-
There were some missed blocking assignments in the game, but none were all that costly to the Tide's productivity. Other than that, Michael Williams even supported the scoreboard efforts with a touchdown catch. As far as blocking went, the ends found themselves in the right place at the right time on almost every play of the game. The tight ends are unsung heroes of the gridiron, but at least they can find some praise on the internet right here if they want.
The ends didn't put up a lot of stats, but one stat speaks for itself as far as total offensive performance goes: 539 yards. The Tide ate Tennessee's defense up for 539 total yards of offense. When a team puts up that kind of number with one pass thrown to a tight end, you know they did their part in the blocking schemes.
Overall Grade: A
Like the tight ends, the offensive line made precious few mistakes at Tennessee. Dealing with crowd noise, a grotesque shade of orange in their faces at all times and a highly complex offense isn't easy. In every quarter but the third, the Tide scored two touchdowns. In that terrible third quarter, Alabama managed only one touchdown. How sad.
The offensive line did such a great job that Barrett Jones wasn't even playing at center late in the game. He was on the sideline smiling and joking around with the rest of the team as Alabama's youth got some much-needed reps heading into the toughest stretch of the season. When Barrett Jones isn't in the game, you know things are looking good on the scoreboard.
Overall Grade: B
The defensive line succeeded in dominating the Vols on almost every play. The glaring exception was the three-play, 50-yard “drive” Tennessee capped off in the end zone. The line failed to get adequate pressure on the quarterback to disrupt his rhythm. The line also failed to generate a single sack in this game.
While that was all true, the line did contribute to holding the Volunteers to a minuscule 79 total rushing yards. Another notable achievement was the line batting down some of Tyler Bray's passes. Although stats aren't kept on that kind of thing, they certainly affect the grade here.
When the dust settled, the defense had allowed only one touchdown and one field goal for the entire game. Even when the offense turned the ball over to Tennessee on the 24 yard line, the defensive line stood up to Tennessee and held them to a field goal with not even a first down in what should have been a touchdown drive.
Overall Grade: C
The linebackers were pretty good in this game, but had some issues hitting tackles correctly and giving up some mid-level plays for Tennessee first downs. C.J. Mosley intercepted Tyler Bray once, and that 'Bama drive netted six points.
For the most part, the linebackers were effective in shutting down the Vols, but the 203 passing yards gained by Tennessee were partly the fault of the linebacker corps. With a little more cooperation from the linebackers, Bray could have been sacked three or four times.
Again, the bottom line is that Tennessee only scored 13 points. It could have been much worse, but Alabama is better than what we all saw at Neyland Stadium.
Overall Grade: C+
The secondary did a great job if you consider that the best quarterback they played against was either Mississippi's Bo Wallace or Michigan's Denard Robinson. Arkansas was missing Tyler Wilson when the Tide came to town, as was Missouri missing James Franklin. Alabama's secondary was basically as experienced as a Pac-12 team in Week 3 when it suited up against Tennessee. While the Tide has immense talent in the secondary, the actual skill level is still far below Saban's standard.
The secondary gave up 48 yards in three plays in the middle of the second quarter, not counting the penalty between the next-to-last play and the touchdown. Also, in conjunction with the linebackers, the Tide defense gave up a season-high 203 passing yards. In case you were wondering: The season high for rushing yards allowed is still 80, as the Tide held Tennessee to 79 on the ground.
Robert Lester did save the Tide from giving up a second touchdown by intercepting Bray in the end zone. Not only did that pick stop Tennessee from scoring, it went a long way toward forcing the Vols to mentally admit defeat long before the final whistle blew.
Overall Grade: C-
While the special teams unit had some bright spots, like a 34-yard field goal and some touchbacks on kickoffs, there were some serious issues that plagued the Tide for almost the entire game. For instance, Alabama had a major deficiency in kick coverage. There were many times that the coverage team should have wrapped the returner up before he'd even gained a yard, yet those returners went for 13 yards or better after first contact.
The punting was about par for the Tide, but Cody Mandell has shown us flashes of greatness in the past. At this point in time, Tide fans can't wait to see what Adam Griffith will do in 2013. Adding to that anticipation was Cade Foster's possession by the spirit of his 2011 self. Foster went 0/2 from 44 and 45 yards away. While the game's outcome was never in question this time, the performance brought back vivid memories from the “Game of the Century” last year.
Between allowing Tennessee good field position and ending two Alabama drives with zero points, the special teams unit will probably be carrying the offensive line piggy-back through drills all week.
Overall Grade: A-
Originally, the coaches had earned all “A's” from me during the game. However, toward the end of the third quarter, I began to wonder why Cade Foster wasn't kicking the ball through the end zone on kickoffs. After all, he's done it plenty of times this season. It's clearly not a question of ability, especially with the new kickoff situation.
On the first kickoff of the fourth quarter, Foster nailed a touchback. While this was what we all wanted, it also gave me a glimpse into the minds of the coaches. If Foster just whales on every kick, the coverage team will have zero opportunity to get in-game experience before taking on the likes of Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M over the next three weeks. Everybody understands why Foster is being told to place his kicks now.
In the meantime, we would all appreciate it if the staff would reverse this strategy. As in, let Foster kick the ball for touchbacks until Alabama is at least 21 points ahead. Then, do whatever you want. If special teams hands the enemy a touchdown, go back to kicking touchbacks. It would absolutely pain Tide fans to see LSU run one back to the house in the opening quarter, then see Foster put every kickoff after that through the end zone.
Nobody's asking this legendary coaching staff to revamp the game plan that's earned two national championships in three years. We just want to see it altered a bit for peace of mind and total domination. How fun would it be to say, “We were so far ahead of you that we told our kicker to stop kicking the ball so hard!”?