Unless Johnny Manziel transfers in and is granted immediate eligibility, Tennessee will be hard-pressed to score in Saturday’s game at top-ranked Alabama.
The unbeaten Tide has allowed just eight touchdowns and 68 points through its first seven games. Texas A&M, led by the elusive Johnny Football, scored six of those touchdowns and 42 of those points. Bama’s other six opponents combined mustered just two touchdowns and 26 points, an average of 4.3 points per game.
That raises the obvious question: How did the Aggies manage to score more points on Bama in one game than the Tide’s other opponents managed in six games?
“They have the Heisman Trophy winner,” Vol receivers coach Zach Azzanni deadpanned. “That helps.”
Obviously. Manziel burned the Tide to the tune of 28 completions in 39 attempts for 464 yards and five touchdowns. He was basically the whole show for the Aggies that day.
“They ran around and hit a bunch of deep balls,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “The quarterback was able to scramble and make plays quite a few times. They did a good job of attacking.”
Lacking a Manziel-type threat at quarterback, Tennessee must attack Bama’s defense in a more traditional manner, much the way the Tide’s other six opponents have. This approach did not work well for Virginia Tech, Colorado State, Ole Miss, Georgia State, Kentucky and Arkansas – six teams who combined for one rushing touchdown, one passing touchdown and two field goals in 24 quarters of play.
What’s truly amazing is this: Bama lost four 2012 defensive starters to the 2013 NFL Draft, including superstar cornerback Dee Milliner, the ninth overall pick. The Tide defense was supposed to suffer a drop-off this fall but it hasn’t. Crunch these numbers:
Bama ranks No. 1 among SEC teams in scoring defense (9.7 points per game), No. 1 in rushing defense (98.3 yards per game), No. 2 in pass defense (176.7 yards per game), No. 2 in total defense (275.0 yards per game), No. 1 in red-zone defense (1 rushing touchdown, 4 passing touchdowns and 2 field goals in 11 red-zone penetrations), No. 1 in touchdowns allowed (8), No. 2 in pass-efficiency defense and No. 2 in third-down defense (allowing a mere 30.1-percent conversion rate).
Given how many quality defenders Bama loses to the NFL Draft each spring, you wonder: How does the Tide manage to field such great defenses, year in and year out?
“I don’t know. I don’t have an answer,” Bajakian said with a shrug. “I do know that they’re very talented and they have a lot of depth. They do a good job of developing guys, getting guys snaps. They play a lot of guys. Even when they have to replace departed guys they’re doing it with guys who have accumulated game reps. That helps in the whole process.”
Vol running backs coach Robert Gillespie said the same thing in different words, noting: “When a guy decides he wants to go to the NFL or a guy graduates, the next guy is ready to step in and play. That’s what Alabama has right now. They have a lot of depth.”
That depth is easily explained: Because it wins most of its games handily, Bama reserves get to play a lot of snaps. So, when a first-teamer leaves for the NFL, there’s usually an experienced backup waiting to replace him.
“That is definitely part of it,” Bajakian said. “But even in the course of a (close) game they’ll rotate a lot of guys in there and get them reps. Some of the (lopsided) games they get some of the younger guys in that maybe you hadn’t seen in the closer games. Every rep counts. You learn from every rep.”
Azzanni believes the fact Nick Saban has spent seven years bringing his type of coaches and his type of players to Tuscaloosa is a key reason Bama has built and maintained a defensive dynasty.
“They’ve been coaching and recruiting to their system for seven years now … a lot longer than the eight months we’ve had,” the Vol aide said. “You can tell they’re very well coached in the system: When one guy comes out, a new guy goes in and there’s no drop-off. They know exactly what they’re doing and exactly why they’re doing it.”
Of course, the fact Bama signs more five-star prospects each February than anyone else helps keep the talent level and the winning percentage high.
“They’ve got a lot of good football players. That’s the reality of it,” Vol tight ends coach Mark Elder said. “Obviously, they’re not making very many recruiting mistakes, so there’s a lot of competition. When you’ve got a No. 2 that’s biting on the heels of the No. 1, then No. 1 leaves, No. 2 is ready to go. When they’re recruiting well, they’ve always got that next guy in line.”
Vol offensive line coach Don Mahoney believes Bama defenders are great because they enter each season expecting to be great.
“The young guys understand ‘This is the mentality. This is what we expect,’” Mahoney said. “They’ve got something going that’s special, so maybe the fear of failure helps keep things from going the other way. They just keep on keeping on. You think, ‘Next year they’re not going to be as good,’ but they are.”