No. 9 Tennessee has perfected the art of turning lopsided games into heart-racing thrillers. So it was reasonable to expect the Volunteers, even though they had lost nine consecutive games to Alabama, to mount a comeback when they went into halftime of Saturday’s meeting with the No. 1 Crimson Tide trailing by two touchdowns. Instead, Alabama extinguished any possibility of a nail-biter, short-circuiting Tennessee’s comeback attempt before it even had a chance to gather steam. The end result was a 49–10 Alabama win that cemented its place atop the 2016 college football food chain and sent the Volunteers into a bye week nursing their first losing streak of the season.
Here are three thoughts on what took place at Neyland Stadium:
1. Alabama’s passing game is a work in progress, and that’s O.K.
Perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from the Crimson Tide’s win over Arkansas last week was the play of Jalen Hurts. The true freshman quarterback completed 13 of his 17 pass attempts for 253 yards with two touchdowns and registered a season-high 228.5 quarterback rating. Ideally, that performance would have served as a turning point for Hurts after he shook off some rust over the first six games of his college career. Saturday’s performance suggested the arc of Hurts’ progression will unfold less as a smooth, upward slope than a line with recurring hills and dips. Whereas against the Razorbacks Hurts radiated cool, he looked rattled for long stretches against the Volunteers. There were some smart reads and crisp throws that hit their marks, but at least during the semi-competitive portions of the game, Hurts never seemed totally comfortable. The Volunteers’ pass rush deserves a lot credit for that. Derek Barnett, in particular, was relentless off the edge and had his way with projected first-round draft pick Cameron Robinson. Still, even when Hurts had time to survey the field and fire uncontested, he was less precise than Alabama would have hoped after he left Arkansas defensive backs running aimlessly a week ago. By the time he exited in the fourth quarter in favor of backup Cooper Bateman on Saturday, Hurts had thrown for only 142 yards on 25 attempts with a 99.7 passer rating.
But here’s the thing: It probably doesn’t matter if Hurts isn’t at his best. Lane Kiffin doesn’t need him to throw strikes on every play. For one, Alabama has scored as many touchdowns on defense and special teams combined (11) as the preseason Pac-12 favorite, Stanford, had on offense in 2016 entering Saturday’s tilt with Notre Dame. More importantly, the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack has been more productive through seven games this season than it was in 2015, when they had Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry stacking huge carry loads every week. With Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs, Kiffin has three dynamic runners who can pick up yards between the tackles and break big plays. Unlike Henry a year ago, there’s little need to worry about any of those backs wearing down over the second half of the season, because Kiffin can rotate them as he sees fit. On Saturday, Alabama grounded out 438 yards on 8.9 yards per carry, compared to 32 on 1.0 YPC for Tennessee.
And when opposing defensive coordinators array extra defenders around the line of scrimmage to stuff Alabama, Hurts can burn them over the top by connecting with one of the best receivers in the country (Calvin Ridley) or one of the best tight ends in the country (O.J. Howard) or one of the Crimson Tide’s other playmakers. Or Hurts can just stroll into the end zone himself, like he did three times against the Volunteers.
2. This is a nice win, but let’s not get carried away
Nothing Alabama has done this season has even made a small dent in its status as the best team in the country. The Crimson Tide have crushed arguably the most talented team in the Pac-12 South (USC), roared back from an early deficit on the road to vanquish a division rival (Ole Miss) that had beaten them in consecutive years, squashed another division contender (Arkansas) on its home turf and, on Saturday, obliterated the best team in the SEC’s other division. Alabama is making this look too easy, and it’s showing no signs the next six games will be much different. And yet, as smooth as the Crimson Tide’s ride to 7–0 was, they need to keep charging ahead. No. 6 Texas AM visits Tuscaloosa in a week in what should double as an elimination game for the league title game. If the Crimson Tide lose, they’ll need the Aggies to slip twice over the rest of conference play. Otherwise, Alabama would enter selection Sunday without a conference crown to distinguish them from other College Football Playoff candidates. A loss in the Texas AM game, then, potentially could preclude the Crimson Tide the goal they look so qualified to achieve this season: another national championship.
If Alabama plays the way it did on Saturday, it won’t have to worry about its path to the playoff. Even with the Aggies coming off a bye and presenting a terrifying vestige of a previous Crimson Tide loss, coach Nick Saban’s team should roll. Do that, and Alabama can move forward knowing it conquered the most challenging portion of its schedule. Given the way the Crimson Tide have handled business so far, though, it sort of seems like the level of competition is almost beside the point. It’s going to take more than a quarterback with a 2014 bowl win over Alabama on his record to scare the Crimson Tide this season. The Crimson Tide are a thoroughbred approaching the finish line at Churchill Downs. Every other horse in the race hasn’t even begun making the final turn.
3. Tennessee can breathe now
The Volunteers won their two most important games of the season on Sept. 24 and Oct. 1. Victories over Florida and at Georgia gave Tennessee the upper hand in the SEC East. Its next two contests, at Texas AM and against Alabama, were not as pressing because the Volunteers could secure a spot in the conference championship game even if they lost both. The uncertainty introduced by the LSU-Florida mess complicated things temporarily, but now that the game has been rescheduled, Tennessee’s path to Atlanta is clear. The Volunteers own the division tiebreaker over the Gators by virtue of their win against them in late September, and only one of Tennessee’s remaining SEC opponents (Missouri) entered Saturday ranked in the top 75 of Football Outsiders SP + rankings. Let’s say the Volunteers handle South Carolina on Oct. 29, Kentucky on Nov. 12 and the Tigers the following week. In order for Florida to finish ahead of Tennessee in the East, it would need to run the table in conference play, a tall order even if the Gators’ matchup with LSU hadn’t been moved to Baton Rouge (they also play at Arkansas on Nov. 5).
Dropping consecutive games in the middle of conference play saps some of the momentum Tennessee built up over the opening month of the season. Yet the Volunteers can take comfort in the fact they won the two games they absolutely needed to win for the division race. Also, the quality of the losses makes them more tolerable than, say, a hypothetical defeat to an inferior crossover opponent like Mississippi State. At least one (and possibly both) Alabama and Texas AM should make the playoff. Tennessee shouldn’t be discounted in the CFP picture, either. Though Saturday’s margin of defeat won’t help their case, the Volunteers may have a chance to varnish their résumé with a monumental win at just the right time: A Dec. 3 rematch with the Aggies or the Crimson Tide to decide the conference title.