Locks & Keys Week 8: Vols vs. Alabama, Hold Your Breath and Hope

 

When I was younger, there were no games I looked forward to more than Alabama. Your really could throw out the records, and the streaks were even fun because you knew it could go either way any year.

Nick Saban has sucked the joy out of that. Well, him and Derek Dooley. And Butch Jones. And Mike Hamilton. And Dave Hart. And all the failures.

Now, after a fun week — (man, it was fun, wasn’t it?? Maybe it was more fun for me because of all the bragging rights over my Auburn buddies) — it’s time to go out and probably endure the biggest gut-shot of the season. It’s the week that Alabama fans invade Neyland Stadium, the best FBS team of the modern era probably has its way with our Vols and we have to sit there, take it, and then listen to those buffoons sing “Rammer Jammer” afterward.

Makes me sick just thinking of it.

But here’s the deal: Coach Jeremy Pruitt and the Vols simply cannot let this game erase the momentum from the valiant Georgia showing and the resounding road upset at Auburn. The Crimson Tide is a different animal that has been destroying everything in its path. The Vols have to try to cover the four-touchdown spread, do some things they can build on and, most importantly, not get anybody hurt.

It sucks that those are the goals, but just being realistic, they are.

Could the Vols win this game? Absolutely, they could. Crazy things happen. They did in 1982. They did in 1990. There are many other examples.

Is it likely? Nah. If you think so, you’re drinking orange Kool-Aid and aren’t being very realistic about where these two programs are right now. Alabama under Saban is the most well-built, well-rounded, talented programs in college football history. This dynasty is even greater than Bear Bryant’s at Alabama. Until Saban leaves, it’s probably not changing.

Tennessee went 4-8 last year, don’t you remember? Don’t let last week fool you — this team is still a long ways away. But, also, don’t let this week fool you, either. We’re not going to be as far away as Alabama makes us look.

The Vols have to stay on schedule. They have to keep Jarrett Guarantano upright, get Jonathan Kongbo’s replacements (like DeAndre Johnson and Jordan Allen) some valuable repetitions and not lose anybody else of any value. Games against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt are going to determine the postseason. Tennessee needs a split to get one.

They can’t lose those games this week. That is very important. Tennessee needs to fight, it doesn’t need to give up, and it needs to find some building blocks. But the most important thing is don’t lose more than once against Alabama, and don’t lose what you’ve built. There is a lot of season left to be played.

Now, if there was a chance, let’s take a look at what must happen.

KEYS

Protect JG

If the Vols are going to shock the college football world and upset Alabama, they have to do that by keeping Jarrett Guarantano’s jersey clean. This offensive line did some positive things a week ago against Auburn, and you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a signal-caller tougher than JG.

But Alabama is going to have a bunch of manimals coming after him, blitzing, breathing down his neck, trying to crush his soul and his will. It is vitally important Tennessee’s offensive front plays with more pride than it has so far this season and that Tyson Helton finds some ways to help his quarterback get the ball out quickly.

UT needs to run some play-action to keep the Tide honest and keep the pressure off. The Vols need to hit them with some draws up the middle, and that means they need to win some one-on-one battles in the trenches. If those things happen, UT could put up some points against an Alabama defense that is very good but nothing like it has been in recent years.

Biguns

While Helton needs to dial up some quick strikes to help JG get the ball out of his hands, he also needs some time to get the ball downfield.

Tennessee won the game against Auburn last week because Guarantano threw the ball up and let Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer beat the AU cornerbacks on 50-50 balls. Alabama’s DBs are better than its counterparts on the Plains, but again, this secondary isn’t as dominant as it has been.

Do the Vols have an advantage with their wide receivers? That’s still debatable because of all the talent Saban has recruited, but Tennessee has talent, too. JG has to take some shots downfield, and the Vols have to take advantage of man coverage and win those battles with some big gains. Then, they’ve got to convert those big plays into touchdowns.

Coming of age

Last week was a breakout party for freshman cornerback Bryce Thompson, who had a huge interception and a pass deflection in the end zone against Auburn that may have been the game’s two biggest plays.

He’s really emerging into a young star before our eyes. And his fellow first-year defensive back Alontae Taylor has enjoyed flashes of brilliance, too.

Though Baylen Buchanan isn’t the kind of defensive back you want in man coverage, he’s doing better playing the nickelback position.

They’re all going to be tested this week like they never have before. UA quarterback Tua Tagovailoa isn’t a guarantee to play, but he probably will. If he does, the Vols must face the Heisman Trophy frontrunner who throws one of the prettiest deep balls of any collegiate quarterback in recent memory. Alabama has nearly patented the first-drive long scoring pass with guys like Jerry Jeudy routinely on the other end.

The Tide are going to go long, and they are going to convert more often than not.

Take this into consideration: There hasn’t been a single game this year where Alabama failed to score a touchdown on its opening drive.

This will be the best wide receiving corps the Vols’ young secondary faces all year, and they’ve got to minimize the huge gainers and make their share of plays. UT has a lot of talent and even more inexperience in the secondary. They need their share of wins this week. This is where the game will be won or lost.

Uncle mo

We say it a lot, but we mean it a lot, too: Tennessee will have a rowdy crowd at Neyland on Saturday, and the Vols must keep them in it. If not, Alabama’s fans (they’ll travel plenty, too) will take over and so will its team.

The last time UT was at home, Florida gutted the crowd early and kept pushing. We never had a chance to stay in the game as the Vols killed themselves. If that happens against UA, the Vols will lose by 70.

Uh, that’s not an exaggeration.

Tennessee needs some big early plays to get the players believing, get the fans believing and stay in it till late. That’s a huge ask, but it needs to happen if UT has any chance.

Mistake-free

Last week, Tennessee not only made big defensive plays, it played spotless, mistake-free football. Penalties were minimal, and there were zero turnovers.

Giving up the ball and extra possessions against Alabama lead to bunches of Tide points. This is the best Bama offense of the Saban era, and you must keep it off the field. I want to see Tennessee aggressive, and when you play like that against great teams, you can get burned. That doesn’t mean it should change anything about the approach. Guarantano needs to throw the ball around and whatever happens, happens.

But if what happens are interceptions, the Vols are in trouble. They’ve got to make big plays and keep UA from making big plays. They have to make their own breaks and can’t give ‘Bama anything.

They do not need help.

***

All that said, I have a hard time believing the Vols win or even cover the spread. There is just too much talent on Alabama’s side of the ball, and UT doesn’t have the horses to hang.

My fear is the Vols get banged-up and it keeps them from beating South Carolina the next week in a very winnable game. They’ve got to play aggressive, but they’ve got to be smart and get a little lucky, too.

You’re not going to like the prediction, but given my record ATS this year, it should make you feel better about the game.

Prediction:  Alabama 48, Tennessee 17

LOCKS

Well, we took a vacation last week. It certainly wasn’t because of all the money we’ve been making betting on college football, that’s for sure. So far this season, it’s been one step forward, two steps back.

Last week, we were off, but the week before, it was more like 10 steps back. We went 1-6 which takes us to 20-22 so far this season. That’s embarrassing. As a matter of fact, it’s the worst I’ve ever been in this column. That is going to change. I’m not going to predict undefeated this week because every time I do that, I suck.

But it’s gonna be a winning record, guaranteed. We’re going to get back to .500 this week and vow to improve afterward. It’s time, as Lane Kiffin would say.

  1. Illinois vs. Wisconsin under 55: What in the world happened to the Badgers this year? They’re not anywhere near as good as I thought they’d be, and they’ll take out some aggression this week against a bad Illini team. But Illinois can’t score enough for this over to hit.
  2. Arkansas -5.5 over Tulsa: I don’t see the Hogs losing to Colorado State, North Texas AND Tulsa in the same season. I see Chad Morris’ team improving each week, and this is my favorite pick of the week.
  3. California -6.5 over Oregon State: Oh man, the Beavers are bad. Yes, Justin Wilcox’s team is reeling, but it isn’t far removed from playing decent football. This line is far too low even if it is in Corvallis.
  4. Oregon +1.5 over Washington State: I love the Ducks. They’ve been good to me this year, and they’re a well-coached, disciplined team that can win games many different ways. I like them to cover this way-too-low line against the Fighting Leaches.
  5. North Texas -0.5 over UAB: The Mean Green have come back down to earth a little, but I still love Mason Fine and they look back on track after a 30-7 win over Southern Miss. They’ll cover this scant line easily in a defensive battle. Fine will make enough plays.
  6. Purdue +14 over Ohio State: This was my Bleacher Report upset of the week. Not only do I think the Boilermakers are going to win, I’m going to follow up this bet by laying on the money line as well. I’m a Brohm believer, baby! I also think it’s a matter of time before the Buckeyes have their midseason “WTH” game.
  7. Western Michigan -4.5 over Central Michigan: This has trap game written all over it, and the line is just dangling out there as too good to be true. Still, I’m falling for it. I think the Chippewas are awful and the Broncos aren’t. This is a solid cover.

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Isaac Bishop
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Isaac Bishop

Hoping most importantly for an injury free game and beat the spread second. I’m like you in the fact that we can’t be banged up before playing a pivotal game for a bowl against SC next week. Unfortunately I have this weird feeling in my gut that it may be unavoidable.

Alyas Grey
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Alyas Grey

I’m probably going to regret this, but don’t forget that Auburn was allowing fewer pass YPG than Alabama with what was a far tougher schedule. Until they ran up on Guarantano Inc.

I don’t think we win this game, but if we don’t give them essentially free points we’ll have a puncher’s chance.

Alabama 38 – Tennessee 24