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Tennessee at Alabama Preview: Race For Your Life

KNOXVILLE, TN - October 16, 2021 - Quarterback Hendon Hooker #5 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

One of the plays I remember most from the 2016 win over Florida happened early, not late. That game still stands as the “best win in Neyland since ________”, with plenty to celebrate. But anxiety was the keyword on the front end after the Vols struggled with Appalachian State, then again with Ohio in a 28-19 win the week before. The offensive line was banged up and hadn’t played well, making Josh Dobbs vulnerable and a downfield passing game sporadic. Florida’s #BDN had 16 sacks in the first three games, with a noisy secondary making every pass play seem like an adventure.

With the Vols down 7-0 but driving, Florida brought pressure. Tennessee picked it up initially, but it became clear Dobbs was in trouble. And a woman sitting on the row in front of us – feeling, like all of us, some of that same pressure – just let out a blood-curdling scream right before Dobbs was sacked.

That Saturday, despite all the pressure, turned out alright. But there have been others in the last 13+ years where a banged up offensive line made you genuinely fear for the safety of your quarterback. It happened not once, but twice to Justin Worley: knocked out of the Alabama game in 2013, knocked out of the Ole Miss game in 2014 on one of their seven sacks.

Hendon Hooker is day-to-day like the rest of us. The assumption is Tennessee’s offense will be something more like questionable or doubtful if he doesn’t play. Meanwhile, the Vol offensive line may be without at least one of the Brothers Mays. And yeah, it’s Bama.

It’s interesting to see and hear Josh Heupel this week, juxtaposed with some of the local media and Tennessee fans. We’ve lost to Alabama for 14 years now, with only two of them a one-possession game. The line opened at +29, but I’m seeing it at +24.5 some places this morning. In our last two trips to Tuscaloosa, the Vols were +34.5 (2019) and +36.5 (2017).

Progress against these guys is more measured. For instance, if the Vols kept it to just three possessions? That would be just the fourth time in the last dozen tries.

Fans know this drill: despite the significant rise in the quality of football the Vols are playing this year, we give UT only a 6.7% chance of victory Saturday night in our expected win total machine. For the season, our expected win totals hover in that tempting space between six and seven wins:

So it makes sense that much of the fan and local media conversation this week has been some form of, “Rest your guys, take the bye week, get healthy and take your shot at #15 Kentucky.”

It’s refreshing to hear Heupel talk about this rivalry as if he hasn’t had the life beaten out of him yet. So, if Hooker does play, how can we keep this thing out of admirable, but mistaken territory?

Because, of course, the one thing Tennessee hasn’t done well, in all their vast improvement? Protect the quarterback.

The Vols are surrendering 3.57 sacks per game, 120th nationally. It cost them late against Ole Miss, and has cost them often this season. It’s easy to assume this too is a stat inflated by how fast the Vols play, and how many snaps we get per game. But Tennessee is still running the ball 63.9% of the time. Against FBS competition via Team Rankings, the Vols run it 61.6% of the time, the 18th highest percentage nationally.

And against FBS competition, the Vols give up a sack on 12.64% of their dropbacks. That’s 124th nationally. By contrast, that number was 9.24% last season. A 10.53% sack percentage in 2017 is the worst number on record for the Vols with data going back through 2002.

That old saying about three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad? Well, those two things ain’t happening much this year: Hendon Hooker has a 14-to-1 TD/INT ratio, one of just 11 quarterbacks in the nation to throw less than two interceptions in 100+ passing attempts. And his overall completion percentage of 68.8% is 15th nationally.

The famine comes from getting the quarterback hit, and the Vols are giving up more sacks per dropback than ever before. Alabama’s defense isn’t quite as high on the sack list as Pitt’s or Ole Miss’s. But you’d better believe the Tide will be coming.

If Hooker can go, there’s a lot I’m excited to see in this matchup. What, indeed, can Heupel’s offense do against a Bama defense? Can Tennessee’s own defense, the surprise story of our season, make a difference against the Bama offense? Can the Vols actually stay in this game, much the way they did at Florida, and keep it interesting?

Tennessee’s ability to do so – and to keep the positive projection of their season alive – will again depend a lot on how well they can protect their quarterback, especially this quarterback, especially this Saturday.

Go Vols.