Alabama is reaching peak form just in time for its toughest test of the season.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide dominated Tennessee 49-10 on Saturday to beat a ranked foe on the road for the second straight week. Alabama next returns home to face No. 6 Texas A&M (6-0, 4-0 SEC) in a game that could go a long way toward determining who represents the Western Division in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
“I think we’re going good right now,” Alabama tight end O.J. Howard said.
That’s a bit of an understatement.
Alabama (7-0, 4-0) just delivered one of the most impressive single-game performances by any team all season. Tennessee, which slipped from ninth to 18th in the Top 25 released Sunday, was outgained 594-163 and outrushed 438-32 while dealing with multiple injuries on both sides of the ball.
“We said we wanted a complete game — and they certainly did that,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Indeed, Alabama dominated all phases of the game in the type of outing that should provide plenty of momentum heading into the Texas A&M showdown.
The same defense that had yielded 473 yards in a 49-30 victory over Arkansas a week earlier never allowed Tennessee (5-2, 2-2) to move the ball. Tennessee’s lone touchdown came after the Volunteers recovered a fumble at Alabama’s 11-yard line.
Tide safety Eddie Jackson said the defense benefited from a meeting the secondary had held earlier in the week.
“We feel like we were letting the guys up front down, so we stepped it up in practice with one of our best weeks and prepared for this game,” Jackson said.
Saban noted that Alabama was particularly impressive in third-down defense, as Tennessee went just 3 of 16 in those situations. Alabama will need to continue that progress against a Texas A&M offense averaging an SEC-leading 532.8 yards per game.
“We haven’t played great on third down (or) as well as we thought we could this year,” Saban said. “But we did a great job today. I think that was a big point of emphasis for us going into this game. When you play these no-huddle, fastball teams, when you don’t get off the field on third down, they have extended drives. Players get tired. That’s when they get rolling, that’s (when) they create momentum.”
Alabama’s defense stopped big plays but continued producing them. Ronnie Harrison’s 58-yard interception return was the Tide’s eighth defensive touchdown of the season. Jackson added a 79-yard punt return for Alabama’s 11th non-offensive touchdown of the year.
On offense, freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts continues to show remarkable poise in big-game situations. The same guy who orchestrated victories at Mississippi and Arkansas earlier this year ran for 132 yards and three touchdowns against Tennessee.
“He looks like a junior or senior out there sometimes,” Alabama defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson says practicing against Hurts all week helps prepare Alabama’s defense for mobile quarterbacks. That work paid off Saturday as Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs threw for just 92 yards and was sacked three times and held to minus-31 yards on seven carries.
Hurts helped Alabama produce its highest single-game rushing total in 30 years Saturday. Bo Scarbrough gained 109 yards — including an 85-yard touchdown — and Damien Harris ran for 94 yards. Alabama averaged 8.5 yards per carry thanks to a team effort, as the backs continually benefited from the downfield blocking of the receiving corps.
The next step for Hurts is to develop into a more consistent passer. Hurts was 16 of 26 for 143 yards with an interception against Tennessee. He also had a fumble on a sack that led to Tennessee’s only touchdown.
“We’ve just got to keep on improving in the passing game and get Jalen comfortable because when we play really good teams, some of these runs aren’t going to be quite so easy and the plays that are there to be made in the passing game, we’re going to need to make them,” Saban said.