Tennessee football: Three things to improve against Alabama

Tennessee defensive back Bryce Thompson (0) warms up before a game between Tennessee and Kentucky at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020.101720 Tenn Ky Pregame
Tennessee defensive back Bryce Thompson (0) warms up before a game between Tennessee and Kentucky at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020.101720 Tenn Ky Pregame /

Here’s where the Tennessee football Volunteers can improve against the Crimson Tide.

With the performance Tennessee football put on last week at home against the Kentucky Wildcats, it should come as no surprise they’re three-touchdown underdogs against the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide. But with a great team sharing the field with the Vols on Saturday afternoon comes an extraordinary opportunity to improve facets of their play.

We’ve left quarterback production off of this list because wanting to see improvement at that position on Saturday goes without saying. It’s also interesting to note that a few other position groups have underperformed this season but have been left off the hook by fans and media due to the controversy that lies under center.

Win or lose, if the Vols can find success in these three areas on Saturday there will be some glimmer of hope to carry with them into their bye week. Let’s have a look at where Tennessee football can improve and make a statement against the Crimson Tide.

Establishing the run in back-to-back weeks

When Tennessee football left Athens, Ga., their running backs had been held by the Bulldogs to just 36 yards rushing. Eric Gray and Ty Chandler turned that around last weekend, compiling a joint 179 yards on 36 carries. Jim Chaney will likely keep the ball on the ground Saturday, meaning Gray and Chandler will get the chance to prove themselves once again this weekend.

A reasonable goal for the duo to shoot for would be 180 yards on Saturday, given Alabama gives up an average of 149.3 yards per game. If they put up at around that number, it’ll be a clear sign that Rocky Top has a backfield worth talking about.

Winning field position through punting

Wow, does it feel strange pegging a Tennessee football team for insufficient production in the special teams department. With how spoiled Vol fans were with a punter like Trevor Daniel, it’s not easy to miss how poorly Rocky Top’s punting has been.

For starters, Junior Paxton Brooks was atrocious against Kentucky last week, averaging 37.8 yards per kick when the Vols were often punting from their own end of the field. A game that featured four offensive turnovers clearly overshadowed how brutal he was.

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We weren’t the only ones that noticed his subpar performance either. Even former UT offensive lineman Brett Kendrick, who was a member of the Vols from 2013 to 2017, got in on the punter-shaming on Twitter.

It’s not radical to assume the Vols will be forced to punt the ball away a few times against the Crimson Tide, and Brooks will have to capitalize on his moments. Backing up Alabama’s offense and making them march down the field not only gives Tennessee football a better chance to win but takes pressure off of the defense.

Limiting Alabama’s wide receiver production

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We know what you’re thinking. Last week, UT’s secondary held Terry Wilson to just 101 yards in the air. However, he was 12 for 15 throwing the ball, and that’s what allowed the offense to keep the Vols’ defense off-balance in the second half.

While opposing teams QB’s don’t have flashy numbers to show against Rocky Top’s defense, teams have been able to throw against UT whenever they want to. Think back to how different the game against the Missouri Tigers could have gone had some of those inexcusable drops by Mizzou’s receivers had been caught.

Against a top Heisman candidate in Mac Jones and three of the top receivers in the SEC suiting up, Tennessee’s defensive backs will be in for a long day if they can’t keep tight coverage. They’ve had trouble with that every game so far. Jones has averaged 279.5 yards passing per game and has thrown for over 400 yards in his last three. His average completion goes for 13.2 yards,

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Simply put, Tennessee football’s secondary needs to limit yards after the catch and eliminate deep balls. If the Vols can keep Jones and Alabama’s receivers from eclipsing even 300 yards, it’ll be a real statement game for them.