On the surface, Tennessee football would seem to have a matchup advantage with the Alabama Crimson Tide. Hendon Hookers is the type of quarterback Nick Saban has always struggled with.
Beyond that, the Tide don’t have the dominant defensive backs or the dominant receivers that they typically have. All of this is leading to make the Vols a trendy upset pick.
However, Alabama is better in one area this year than they even usually are: their front seven. If Tennessee football’s offense is to take off, the Vols will have to address that.
“They have the ability to rush the passer,” Josh Heupel said in his Thursday press conference. “They’re dynamic and destructive in the run game, too.”
Standing out in that group is edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., who may be a transcendent defender. He already has five sacks and 10 tackles for a loss this year.
As a whole, though, the team has 18 sacks. Dallas Turner, Chris Braswell and former Vol Henry To’o To’o will all be difficult. Jaylen Moody should be back too. Then there is Byron Young up front.
“If it was just one guy, it would be easier,” Heupel said. “They’re good across the board. That’s whoever in their front four steps on the field.”
This will be a huge test for the Vols. A huge improvement for Hendon Hooker so far this year has been pocket presence. After the Vols allowed 44 sacks last year, they have only allowed eight this year.
Still, Hooker hasn’t faced a team like Alabama. If Tennessee football’s offense is going to take off, that success in the pocket has to continue. Heupel noted the need to establish the run to keep Alabama’s pass rush at bay.
“We’ve got to have balance,” he said. “You don’t want to be living in third-and-long against these guys.”
Of course, third and long will happen at times. Still, it’ll be more crucial than usual for Heupel’s offense to keep the down and distance in their favor.
That doesn’t mean big plays can’t happen. With or without Cedric Tillman, the Vols have the personnel to generate those. However, they have to maximize what they can do.
“We’ve got to do a good job on early downs,” Heupel said. “Then at the end of the day, we’re going to have to win some one-on-one pass-pro battles in those third-and-long situations.”
Part of handling this issue is practicing well. Heupel has been great at preparation all year, but how the team responds will be crucial.
You would think Alabama is imposing enough for the team to be focused this week. That seems to be the case based on Heupel’s quotes.
“They enjoy practicing,” he said of his players. “Good teams get better throughout the course of the week. I like the approach and what we’ve done so far this week.”
This is a far cry from the Pittsburgh Panthers game. Tennessee football needed overtime to win that after a slew of mistakes in the second half.
Heupel noted the following Monday the team hadn’t practiced well leading up to Pitt. That hasn’t been an issue, based on what he’s said, leading up to any other Power Five game.
“This group continues to get better in the way that we approach everything,” he said. “We’ve continued to practice better.”
When you add in all the hype surrounding this game, including College GameDay coming back to town, it’s even more important to remain focused. The Vols’ experience with that against the Florida Gators should help.
Still, this is a top 10 matchup, and that one wasn’t. Also, facing Alabama is always a different beast from facing anybody else in the SEC. That doesn’t mean Heupel is changing his approach, though.
“I think there has to be consistent nature in the way that you approach every day inside of your building,” Heupel said. “The big games, there is more media attention, there might be more noise as the week continues to go on. But your approach and your preparation and your practice habits have to be really consistent.”