By Jimmy Hyams
As Alabama steamrolled Tennessee in the first half, media members scurried through the record books searching for record-breaking performances against the Vols.
Alabama scored touchdowns on six of its eight first-half possessions, held the Vols to minus-13 rushing yards in the first half and embarrassed UT 58-21 Saturday on CBS – the most points ever scored by an opponent at Neyland Stadium.
The most points ever scored against UT in the modern era was 62 at Florida in 1995.
Then, there was the 1896 campaign, when the Vols gave up 70, 64 and 60 points – but none of those games were in Knoxville.
The contest frustrated Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, who made it clear he needs a different roster to compete with the elite in the SEC.
“I promise, we’ll recruit 25 other guys that will play the right way so we don’t have to play in another game like this,’’ Pruitt said at halftime, trailing 42-14.
During his post-game press conference, Pruitt said UT is playing just four seniors who do it the right way so “we could trade 25 (signees) for four and give us a chance.’’
Indeed, there is a considerable difference in the talent level of Alabama and Tennessee.
“You look at their sideline and you look at our sideline and they don’t hardly look the same,’’ Pruitt said.
No they don’t. Tennessee’s less talented team hardly had a chance against arguably Alabama’s most explosive offense in history. The Tide led 28-0 11 ½ minutes into the game. For all practical purposes, the outcome was decided.
To Tennessee’s credit, it fought back to cut the margin to 28-7 and stopped Alabama on consecutive drives, forcing punts. But an ill-fated onside kick game the Tide possession at the UT 43 and the Bama turned that into a touchdown.
About all that was left for Tennessee was to compete and try to make things respectable.
But not much pleased Pruitt against his former boss as coach Nick Saban ran his record to 15-0 against former assistants.
Pruitt didn’t like the way his line of scrimmage on offense and defense got whipped. He didn’t like UT’s inability to run the football. He didn’t like Ty Chandler catching a kickoff THEN calling for a fair catch, putting the ball on the UT 3-yard line and leading to safety. He didn’t like freshman cornerback Alontae Taylor throwing a punch in front of an official and getting ejected. He didn’t like the way his players blitzed.
“We called a blitz and our guy is tip toeing in there and they throw a touchdown pass,’’ Pruitt said. “When their guy blitzed, he didn’t tip toe in there.’’
Pruitt said Alabama probably could have scored 58 points without throwing a pass. When Bama did pass, it was usually a thing of beauty as Tua Togovailoa completed 16 of 26 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns.
“For some guys on our team,’’ Pruitt said, “this game was way too big for them.’’
UT wasn’t playing with a full deck as several players were out with injuries – including linebacker Jonathan Kongbo (torn ACL) – and a couple of defensive backs. But Bama wasn’t at full strength either, having lost some players earlier and suspending defensive lineman Raekwan Davis for the first half after throwing punches in the Missouri game and disciplining running back Damien Harris for undisclosed reasons. Harris didn’t start.
But that hardly matter. Tennessee wasn’t going to beat Alabama if it played a near perfect game. It wouldn’t have won had UT played like it did in upsetting Auburn on the road.
But Pruitt had hopes his troops would simply play better and smarter.
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, brilliant against Auburn, struggled against Alabama, completing just 5 of 10 passes for 63 yards before exiting midway in the second quarter with what appeared to be a collarbone injury.
“Jarrett got hit probably every time he threw the football,’’ Pruitt said.
Grad transfer Keller Chryst did a nice job in relief, completing 9 of 15 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t under as much duress as Guarantano, perhaps suggesting Chryst does a better job of recognizing blitzes or calling pass protections.
Chryst wasn’t the only bright spot for the Vols. Jauan Jennings caught six passes for 102 yards. Defensive Kyle Phillips broke several tackles in returning an interception 27 yards for a touchdown. And Tim Jordan ran hard to get 50 yards on 14 carries.
But it wasn’t nearly enough.
One play in particular caught Pruitt’s eyes.
Alabama backup quarterback Jalen Hurts scrambled 21 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Tide a 58-21 lead.
“It looked like we were running in slow motion,’’ Pruitt said.
Therein lies UT’s problem. The Vols aren’t fast enough or strong enough to compete with the better teams in the SEC.
But that doesn’t mean UT can’t win three of its five remaining games to earn a bowl bid.
You wonder if the Alabama beat down will strip this team of some confidence.
But if UT can play like it did at Auburn, it has a chance against each of its remaining foes.