Following a 49-10 loss to Alabama on Saturday, Tennessee coach Butch Jones relished the fact that next week was a bye on Tennessee’s schedule.
“I think the bye week is coming at the appropriate time,” he said. “A lot of it will be spent in the training room, getting healthy.”
Actually, that break is coming a week too late.
The Alabama bookend to a daunting four-game stretch for Tennessee left the Vols even more depleted on the offensive and defensive fronts; and furthermore, it sends Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC) searching for answers in personnel in order to ultimately reach the SEC Championship game.
Alabama (7-0, 4-0) capitalized on a patchwork Tennessee defense that, on Saturday, featured one-time fourth- and fifth-string linebackers Elliott Berry and Dillon Bates. And the top-ranked Tide attacked mainly via the running game, rushing for 438 yards on 49 carries.
“It’s a line of scrimmage league. It’s a line of scrimmage game,” Jones said. “You’re not going to win many football games giving up the rushing yards and lack of rushing productivity we had tonight.”
Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts was the catalyst for Alabama, running for 132 yards and three scores on 12 carries. He also threw for 143 yards. His 45-yard touchdown run gave Alabama a 21-7 lead with 7 minutes, 22 seconds left in the half. He added scoring runs of 2 and 1 in the third quarter, putting to rest any hopes of a Tennessee second-half rally that Vols’ fans saw against Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M.
Bo Scarbrough added 109 yards on five carries for Alabama, but a majority of those yards came on an 85-yard scoring run for the final points of the game with 11:38 to play.
By game’s end, Tennessee’s defense was worse for wear. Defensive tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Kendal Vickers sustained injuries. And those came on the heels of defensive tackle Danny O’Brien being dismissed from the team earlier in the week. Alexis Johnson did not dress.
“They didn’t have a lot of depth, and that’s why we went fast,” Alabama senior tight end O.J. Howard said. “We saw they didn’t have a lot of depth on defense, and we kept fast tempo for the whole game, and they got tired."
Tennessee’s offense fared no better in the depth department, especially up front. True freshman Marcus Tatum had to burn his redshirt and fill in at right tackle for Chance Hall. Redshirt freshman Drew Richmond filled in for left tackle Brett Kendrick when he left the game due to injury with 6:46 left in the first quarter.
“We had no choice,” Jones said of playing Tatum. “We’re down in numbers. We’re depleted in the offensive line. When you look at being down Brett Kendrick, Jashon Robertson and Dylan Wiesman, the one thing you can't replace is their experience.”
The Vols’ only touchdown came on a two-play drive with a short field. Alvin Kamara’s 7-yard run early in the second quarter capitalized on a Derek Barnett sack for a 14-yard loss that jarred the ball loose from Hurts. Reserve defensive lineman Quay Picou recovered the fumble at the Alabama 11, and Kamara made it 14-7 Alabama two plays later.
But Kamara, one week after rushing for 127 yards and going for 161 yards receiving against Texas A&M, played only a supporting role Saturday to Jalen Hurd’s return from the injured list. Hurd’s running style, however, played right into Alabama’s hands, and he finished with 28 yards rushing on 13 carries and minus-1 yard receiving on three catches.
Kamara had but 10 touches against Alabama, compared to the 30 he had the week before against Texas A&M.
Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs couldn’t offset his backfield mates’ lack of productivity. Alabama’s defense held him to minus-31 yards rushing and 92 yards passing.
Alabama had 10 tackles for loss for a combined 56 yards lost and three sacks for 37 yards lost.
Derek Barnett had a sack, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble and an interception for Tennessee in front of a plethora of NFL scouts. Berry had nine tackles and two tackles for loss, and Todd Kelly Jr. led the Vols with 11 tackles.
Tennessee returns to action Oct. 29 at South Carolina and closes the SEC schedule with home games against Kentucky and Missouri before playing at Vanderbilt in the season finale on Nov. 26.
While those SEC foes aren’t garnering Top 25 votes anytime soon, Tennessee’s injury situation levels the playing field a bit. And Vanderbilt was able to knock off Georgia on the road Saturday.
So there are concerns going forward for Tennessee, which was the preseason pick to win the SEC East.
“We know each week that the goals and aspirations are there,” Dobbs said. “Every time you step on the field you're playing for something, and we know the importance of each game."
Added Dobbs: "We have to stay together. We can't let this game divide us but we've got a lot of work to do; we've got to get back at it Monday and keep it going."