In a low-scoring, defensive clash, the No. 8 Alabama Crimson Tide outlasted the SEC rival Tennessee Volunteers, 19-14, on Saturday to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive and well.
It wasn't a vintage performance for the 7-1 Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but the defense came through in a big way. Also, running back Derrick Henry once again spearheaded the offense with 28 rushes for 143 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner with two minutes, 24 seconds remaining.
Tennessee will be left to wonder what could have been as kicker Aaron Medley missed three field goals in what ended up being a five-point loss.
Nevertheless, Alabama came away with its ninth consecutive victory over the Vols.
Despite the result, Tennessee's offense looked solid out of the gates. A missed 43-yard field goal by Medley on the opening drive of the game gave the Tide solid field position on their first drive, though.
Bama took advantage of that as Henry rumbled for a 20-yard touchdown about midway through the first quarter, as seen in this video, courtesy of CBS Sports:
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Henry improved upon his school record for most consecutive games with a rushing touchdown and closed in on an even more impressive mark as well:
While Alabama seemed poised to run the Vols out of the stadium, Tennessee had an answer on its ensuing drive, as quarterback Joshua Dobbs capped a 10-play drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Josh Smith.
The junior signal-caller may have been inspired by the fact that current Denver Broncos and former Volunteers quarterback Peyton Manning was present on the sidelines, as seen in this photo, courtesy of Tennessee Football on Twitter:
The offense dried up for both teams from that point forward, although Tennessee had an opportunity to seize the lead entering halftime.
Medley missed his second field goal of the day from 51 yards out, however, which left the score deadlocked at 7-7.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Saturday was another example of Alabama's first-half struggles in home SEC encounters this season:
Per ESPN College Football, head coach Nick Saban isn't accustomed to playing such tightly contested games against the Vols:
Saban was visibly miffed by his team's first-half performance and made it clear that it needed to improve significantly in the second half, according to ESPN's Brett McMurphy:
The Tide took Saban's words to heart, as they came out of the locker room firing with a 12-play, 73-yard drive. They sputtered at the 2-yard line, though, and were forced to settle for a field goal.
Tennessee had a chance to answer with a field goal of its own early in the fourth quarter, but Medley was wide again on a 51-yard try.
That gave the Crimson Tide a chance to put the Volunteers on the ropes, but they were once again unable to punch it into the end zone. Adam Griffith converted a 28-yard field goal to put Alabama up, 13-7, with just over seven minutes left in the contest.
Despite Tennessee's offensive struggles, Alabama left the door open for the Vols to potentially take the lead.
That is precisely what happened as Dobbs completed passes of 27 yards and 34 yards to Smith and Josh Malone, respectively, before Jalen Hurd ran for a 12-yard touchdown. Medley tacked on the extra point, and Tennessee shockingly led, 14-13, with 5:49 remaining:
Per Josh Ward of WNML in Knoxville, Tennessee, that play remarkably gave the Volunteers their first lead over Alabama since 2011.
Tennessee's mettle and ability to convert on third downs drew praise from Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports:
That put Alabama in a pressure-packed situation, but Saban's team responded as it so often has over the years.
Quarterback Jake Coker wasn't having a great game prior to that drive, but he came through with key completions to ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley to keep the chains moving. It was Bama's workhorse who finished the job, though, as Henry went nearly untouched for a score from 14 yards out:
The Tide's two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful, which made the score 19-14 with 2:24 left and gave the Vols one last chance to steal the game.
Tennessee couldn't repeat its previous drive, though, as linebacker Ryan Anderson strip-sacked Dobbs. Alabama recovered the ball and took a series of knees to close it out.
Manning's face said it all, courtesy of SEC on CBS:
As pointed out by Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports 1, it was yet another disappointment for the Volunteers considering how hard they fought in a hostile environment:
Simply getting a win was huge from Alabama's perspective, but there are several issues that must be ironed out before playing No. 5 LSU in two weeks.
In addition to making few big plays in the passing game, the Crimson Tide's pass protection was suspect, as Tennessee pressured Coker often and sacked him five times.
Alabama is still in a good position to win the SEC and make the CFP, but it won't get there if it performs like it did Saturday against a higher level of competition.
Alabama was able to escape with a much-needed win Saturday, but it was clear that the Crimson Tide were far from their best against a gritty Tennessee squad.
Saban didn't hesitate to acknowledge that following the contest as he mentioned his team's lack of explosiveness, according to Aaron Suttles of the Tuscaloosa News:
Because of that, Saban admitted that he is looking forward to his team getting a week off before a huge meeting with LSU:
Despite the fact that Bama wasn't at its best, Saban was still complimentary of his team's ability to come through with a win.
Per Bleacher Report's Christopher Walsh, Saban gave his players a lot of credit for battling back when things looked dire:
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones was proud of his team as well and insisted that improvements are being made, according to WATE Sports:
While Henry and the defense figure to receive most of the credit for Alabama improving to 7-1, Saban made sure to mention an unsung hero.
It isn't often that quarterbacks fly under the radar, but Coker's 21-of-27 passing performance did to some degree. It didn't go unnoticed from Saban's perspective, however, as he liked what he saw out of his signal-caller, per Marq Burnett of the Anniston Star:
When Alabama plays next, there is little doubt that much of the focus will be on the battle between Henry and LSU running back Leonard Fournette.
That is understandable since both are Heisman Trophy candidates, but the Tide will likely need Coker to make some timely plays like he did Saturday.
Saban is seemingly fully cognizant of the fact that Alabama has a long way to go before it can be crowned SEC champ and CFP participant, but it got the job done against Tennessee and now has an extra week to prepare for the Tigers.
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