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Front Page - Friday, October 20, 2017

Vols not worried about Bama? Just wait until kickoff




Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, a redshirt freshman, got his first collegiate start against South Carolina last week and came within a yard of leading the Vols to a comeback victory as time expired. - AP Photo/Wade Payne

Tennessee’s football team will make history Saturday against No. 1-ranked Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC), no matter what happens with the game.

The Vols (3-3, 0-3 SEC) were 34-point underdogs early in the week for the 3:30 EDT game (TV: CBS) in Tuscaloosa. The 34-point spread is the largest ever in the UT-Alabama series.

You can bet the Vols know how good Bama is. Or do they?

“No, we don’t even worry about that, honestly,” UT sophomore receiver Brandon Johnson explains. “We just prepare for them like we would any other team and go out there and play our hardest.”

They better be prepared. Odds are stacked way, way against the Vols, who are coming off SEC losses to Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Tennessee has gone the last 10 quarters without scoring a touchdown, dating back to a first-half TD in the 17-13 victory over UMass on Sept. 23.

The Vols lost to No. 3 Georgia 41-0 on Sept. 30 at Neyland Stadium and, after an open date, mustered three field goals last Saturday in a 15-9 home loss to South Carolina.

Alabama has won 72 consecutive games against unranked opponents, last Saturday’s 41-9 win against Arkansas being the latest. The Tide’s 59-0 win at Vanderbilt on Sept. 23 was its 19th consecutive victory against an SEC East Division opponent.

UT has lost 10 consecutive games against Alabama and hasn’t beaten a Top 10 opponent since a 51-33 win against No. 10 Georgia in 2006. Tennessee’s last win against a No. 1-ranked team came in 1985 when the unranked Vols beat Auburn 38-20.

Not good numbers for UT and its fans.

“It’s going to be a great, great challenge, but also a great opportunity, a rivalry game,” UT coach Butch Jones says. “This game means so much to so many people, so we’re looking forward to that opportunity.”

It might mean a career change for Jones.

Some football analysts predict Jones will be fired after the Alabama game. Others say he’s gone after the Oct. 28 game at Kentucky. Others says Jones will last until, say, November, or after the Nov. 25 regular-season finale against Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium.

Jones was asked how he focuses on a formidable Alabama team amid all the speculation about his job.

“I don’t worry about any of that,” he says. “All of my focus is on our players and our football program and getting them ready for the Alabama game. That’s all I’m focused on.”

Junior defensive tackle Reginald Kahlil McKenzie Jr. says the Vols are tuned into Alabama and tuned out on talk of a coaching change.

“Like I said, outside noise,” says McKenzie Jr., whose father, Reggie, played linebacker for UT (1981-84) and is now general manager of the Los Angeles Raiders. “We focus on winning football games. We’re focusing on practice (Monday), meetings (Monday), lift this morning (Monday). That’s all we’re focusing on now.”

The Vols missed a chance to take some heat off Jones last Saturday, driving to South Carolina’s 2-yard line in the final minute. The game ended when Jarrett Guarantano’s pass zipped through the hands of tightly defended Johnson in the end zone.

“I got my hands on it,” Johnson says. “It was a tough catch, but I want that one back. It was one I know I can make.”

Johnson knows there aren’t any do-overs in football. Alabama is up next. The Vols are historic underdogs.

Johnson says they have a bunker mentality.

“Our attitudes are definitely still up just because we don’t pay attention to any of the outside noise,” he said. “All the negative talk, we don’t pay attention to any of it. We keep everything in house. We’re excited to get back out there.”

Matchups to watch

Hurts vs. Vols ‘D’

Alabama sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts is completing 63.1 percent of his passes – fifth-best in the SEC – with eight touchdowns and only one interception.

In the win vs. Arkansas, Hurts threw his only interception of the season, snapping a streak of 206 passes without a pick. It was the second-longest streak in Alabama history. Prior to the Arkansas pick, Hurts’ last interception was against Auburn on Nov. 24, 2016.

Hurts, the first freshman to start at quarterback for Tide coach Nick Saban, was the 2016 SEC offensive player by the league’s coaches and the Associated Press, and was a freshman All-American by ESPN and USA Today.

Against Arkansas, Hurts moved into second place on Alabama’s career rushing list for quarterbacks with 41 yards on 10 carries (he was 12-of-19 passing for 155 yards and one TD). Hurts has 1,512 career rushing yards, averaging 68.7 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry in 22 career games. Hurts also is No. 32 on Alabama’s career rushing list for all players.

UT is 52nd nationally and seventh in the SEC in total defense with 372 yards per game.

Tide RBs vs. Vols ‘D’

Alabama leads the SEC and is seventh nationally in rushing yards per game (302.6), and leads the SEC in rushing touchdowns (24) and yards per carry (6.54) after rolling up 308 yards against Arkansas.

Junior Damien Harris is the top rusher with 625 yards, a 9.2-yard average per carry, and nine rushing touchdowns. Hurts is second (558 yards, six touchdowns, 7.1-yard average).

Junior Bo Scarbrough, who suffered a broken leg in last year’s national championship loss to Clemson, has 359 rushing yards and four TDs, and freshman Najee Harris 232 yards and two touchdowns.

Harris rushed for 125 yards and two TDs against Arkansas, averaging 13.9 yards carry, thanks in large part to a 75-yard TD run on the first play from scrimmage. It matched his previous career-high run of 75 yards during the 27-19 win over Texas A&M on Oct. 7.

“In terms of Alabama, probably the most complete football team I’ve seen in a number of years, and all you have to do is look at their body of work through this season already,” Jones acknowledged.

Tennessee’s rush defense wilted in the second half against South Carolina. The Gamecocks rushed for 145 yards in the second half, 87 in the fourth quarter, and finished with 194 yards on the ground.

That left the Vols 122nd in the nation (out of 129 FBS teams) and last in the SEC in rushing defense with opponents averaging 242.8 yards per game on the ground.

Tennessee’s pass defense ranking, second nationally and tops in the SEC with opponents getting 129.2 yards per game, is misleading. With the Vols’ defense against the run, opponents haven’t needed to throw.

Guarantano vs. Tide ‘D’

Guarantano, a redshirt freshman, played well enough in his first career start against South Carolina to get the start against Alabama. He was 11-of-18 for 133 yards. However, Guarantano was sacked seven times by the Gamecocks, resulting in minus-2 net yards on 17 carries (44 yards gained, 46 yards lost).

“A lot of things to build upon,” Jones notes of Guarantano’s game against South Carolina.

“He was in here all day (Sunday) going through it. I thought he brought some energy. He was able to create some plays with his legs, but also (had) some growing things with making his first start against a very good and fast, physical, defense.

“I think there were some things he’ll continue to grow (from). One thing you can’t put a price tag on is playing experience. But I liked the overall command presence. I thought our players fed off his leadership, his energy, and he did make some plays. I thought at the end he stood in the pocket and he gave us an opportunity in leading us down the field to have an opportunity to win the game at the end. A lot of positives to build upon.”

Alabama will be more of a test than South Carolina. Junior QB Quinten Dormady, who started the first five games, could get a shot if Guarantano struggles.

The Tide is fourth in the nation in total defense with opponents averaging 254.3 yards per game (Georgia is third, giving up 252.6 per game). Alabama is first in the nation against the run, allowing 66.7 yards per game, and 25th nationally and seventh in the SEC in passing defense at 187.6 yards allowed per game.

UT is 98th nationally and 10th in the SEC in passing offense at 185.3 yards per game.

Noteworthy

Buyout numbers

If Jones is fired by Nov. 1, Tennessee will owe him more than $8.1 million. Jones has three years left on his contract after this season. If his staff is fired along with Jones, UT would owe Jones and the 10 assistants (including strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson) more than $14 million.

Tennessee is 33-24 under Jones, 14-21 in SEC games.

“He’s got a tough road,” said former Auburn coach and ESPN analyst Tommy Tuberville at the end of calling the South Carolina game. “Next week is Alabama, and we all know what that does. He’s lost three in a row. Three SEC games.

“People are really, really upset about what’s going on, especially the 41-0 loss to Georgia. That’s just. … that’s hard to swallow.”

Medley is out

Senior placekicker Aaron Medley missed the South Carolina game and is out indefinitely with mononucleosis.

Freshman Brent Cimaglia of Page High in Franklin made all three of his field goal attempts against South Carolina and will be the Vols’ starting kicker while Medley is out.

Jones said safety/kick returner Evan Berry and tight end Jakob Johnson would return from his injury to practice Monday and could play against Alabama, but sophomore defensive end Darrell Taylor was still suspended, as of Monday.

Ridley’s streak

Junior Calvin Ridley has caught a pass in all 37 games of his career at Alabama. His 37-game streak ranks third in the nation among FBS players.

Ridley, who had four catches for 51 yards against Arkansas, leads Alabama in catches (33) and receiving yards (441) and has two TD catches.

Last year, Ridley led Alabama in catches (72) and was second in receiving yards (769) and TD catches (seven) behind ArDarius Stewart (54 catches, 864 yards, eight TDs). Stewart is playing for the New York Jets.

Watch the freshman

Alabama freshman receiver Henry Ruggs III has caught four passes this season – all for touchdowns.

The former star from Robert E. Lee High in Montgomery, Alabama, had a 16-yard TD catch against Fresno State; an 8-yard TD catch against Ole Miss; an 8-yard TD catch against Texas A&M; and a 20-yard TD catch against Arkansas.

Ruggs’ four catches this season totaled 52 yards. He also returns punts (10 for an 8.6-yard average) and kickoffs (six for a 19.8-yard average).

Ruggs was a five-star prospect as a high school senior and was rated the No. 24 recruit in the nation and the No. 1 receiver by 247Sports. He also played running back and was forced to play some quarterback late in his senior season at Lee High.

In the red zone

Tennessee’s failures in the red zone against South Carolina left the Vols near the cellar nationally among FBS teams. UT got inside South Carolina’s 20-yard line four times.

The Vols are tied for 111th in the nation (with Middle Tennessee State and Southern Miss) in red-zone offense. In 19 red-zone attempts, the Vols have scored six rushing touchdowns, four passing touchdowns, and kicked four field goals.

Alabama is No. 21 nationally in red zone defense. In 15 red-zone tries, Alabama’s opponents have two rushing TDs, five passing TDs and have kicked four field goals.

The Tide has the same national ranking (21st) in red-zone offense. In 36 red-zone tries, the Tide has scored 33 times (19 rushing TDs, six passing TDs and kicked eight field goals).

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville