HomeFootballTennessee FootballTennessee 52, Alabama 49: 10 points

Tennessee 52, Alabama 49: 10 points

No. 6 Tennessee upset No. 3 Alabama 52-49 on a last-second field goal on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. Here are 10 takeaways from the Vols’ win…

1.) How?

I have sat around a fire for 2.5 hours, enjoying the mid October temperatures and the tranquility that followed an afternoon of yelling at the TV, and I still can’t figure out how Tennessee managed to win that game.

Confession: I entered the afternoon thinking Alabama would win. I even thought the Tide would cover the 9-point spread. As good as Tennessee has been this season, Alabama is still a supremely talented team. I said before the game that I would be satisfied if Tennessee was simply competitive and didn’t lay an egg like the Vols did in 2016 under Butch Jones. 

Once Tennessee went up 28-10 in the second quarter, I was obviously feeling better about the Vols’ chances. The offense was playing lights-out and the defense was playing well enough. 

But once the scoop-and-score occurred, I wouldn’t have bet a plugged nickel that Tennessee would win the game. How did it happen? 

The answer is that, as hard as it is to believe, Tennessee’s defense played just well enough when it had to. 

Alabama took its first lead of the game at 35-34, then Hendon Hooker threw his first interception of the season. Although it would’ve still been a one-score game with a Crimson Tide touchdown, the momentum might’ve been tough to overcome. Instead, Tennessee forced a punt, and needed only three plays to cover 94 yards and retake the lead.

Then came the answer from Alabama, and the scoop-and-score for the lead. It was 49-42 and most Tennessee fans were shell-shocked. 

There probably shouldn’t have been much doubt that Tennessee could strike back on offense, and the Vols did that. But who envisioned Tennessee stopping Alabama? The Vols didn’t stop the Tide; they allowed Alabama to move into field goal range. But they didn’t let Alabama get close enough for an easy attempt, and Nick Saban was left with a 52-yard attempt that was wide right, setting up Tennessee’s own game-winning field goal attempt.

In other words: This was a gut-check. Offensively, defensively and on special teams, Tennessee did just what it needed to do to win the game, even when the odds were against it. After 15 years of being completely dominated by Alabama, the Vols exorcised a lot of demons tonight.

2.) The defense though…

Yes, the defense rose to the occasion late, but let’s be honest: it was disheartening to watch the defense struggle for much of the game. As good as Tennessee’s offense played, it looked like the Vols were going to lose the game because of their defense. 

I’ve said before that I was not sure Tim Banks is the answer as defensive coordinator, and I’m still not. But it’s not fair to pass final judgment on Banks just yet, because the Vols desperately, desperately need better players at key positions (mostly in the secondary).

We knew Tennessee would give up yards and points to Alabama; this was always going to be the best offense the Vols have faced this season. Bryce Young looked like the reigning Heisman Trophy winner that he is, completing 35 of 52 passes for 455 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Young stood in and took several big hits, and repeatedly made something out of nothing by scrambling when the pressure collapsed the pocket.

Tennessee’s run defense is exceptionally good; the Vols entered Saturday’s game ranked No. 7 nationally against the run. The Vols weren’t great against Alabama’s rushing attack, but they weren’t terrible, either. Jahmyr Gibbs is easily the best running back Tennessee has faced this season. He entered the game with 350 rushing yards in the past two games. He had 103 yards today on 24 carries, averaging 4.3 yards per carry with three touchdowns.

Alabama rolled up 569 yards as a team, and converted on 6 of 13 third downs. It seemed like the Tide was even better than that. 

It’s unfortunate that Tennessee is as short-handed as it is defensively. The Vols’ offense is good enough to win the SEC and make the College Football Playoffs. But neither of those things are likely to happen, because the defense will continue to be the team’s weakness.

3.) Today, Jalin Hyatt became a legend.

The last time an SEC receiver had a game as big as the one Jalin Hyatt had today was when? Just earlier this season, LSU true freshman Kayshon Boutte had 14 receptions for 308 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Ole Miss, setting the SEC’s single-game receiving record.

Hyatt didn’t have anywhere near that many yards today. He finished with six receptions for 207 yards and five touchdowns. But he did it against Alabama’s defense, which is worlds better than Ole Miss’s defense. 

It was an incredible game — perhaps the best single-game performance in the history of the Third Saturday in October. And, today, Jalin Hyatt became a Tennessee legend. It’s hard to remember a better performance by a UT wide receiver in the program’s history, which is something to say, considering that Tennessee was once known as Wide Receiver U. This is the school that has featured receivers like Alvin Harper, Carl Pickens and many other great ones. 

I remember thinking that Hyatt didn’t live up to the hype last season, finishing with 21 receptions for 226 yards and two touchdowns. 

Obviously he’s lived up to it this year, however. After today’s game, he has 33 receptions for 595 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. When Cedrick Tillman went down, Tennessee needed someone to step up, and Hyatt has stepped up in a big, big way. He might very well be the best receiver on Tennessee’s roster right now, Tillman not withstanding. He’s making himself a millionaire right before our very eyes.

4.) Heisman Hooker.

Did Hendon Hooker do anything to hurt his status as a Heisman Trophy contender today? I think not. Before his second interception was overturned by a pass interference penalty, some were already crowing on Twitter that Hooker was toast as a Heisman candidate. I don’t think that would’ve been a fair assessment, even if the pick had stood. Hooker was being asked to carry an incredible load today, given how poorly the defense was fairing — the entire offense was. 

As good as Young looked today — and he showed exactly why he’s widely regarded as the best quarterback in college football – Hooker looked better. The INT earlier in the second half was his fault. The fumble was not his fault. He finished 21 of 30 for 385 yards and five touchdowns. 

We talked at the beginning of the season about how Hooker was a dark horse Heisman candidate. Obviously he’s a legitimate candidate now, and after tonight’s game it’s hard to imagine that he’s not at the top of most Heisman lists. This guy has truly blossomed under Coach Josh Heupel.

5.) A nice game by Jaylen Wright.

If I told you that Tennessee sophomore Jaylen Wright averaged more yards per carry than Jahmyr Gibbs today, would you believe me? 

Well, believe me. Wright finished with 71 yards on 12 carries, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. In fact, Tennessee averaged 4.7 yards per carry on the ground as a team, topping Alabama’s average of 4.3 yards per carry. 

It was impressive to see Tennessee lean on the run at times in the second half and be successful. That just doesn’t typically happen against an Alabama defense — not unless you are a Georgia or an LSU or, occasionally, an Auburn with an elite tailback. Wright isn’t regarded as an elite tailback in anyone’s book, but he did well enough today to help his team to a win.

6.) The play-calling was a little weird.

I’m not going to dwell on this much because, well, Tennessee won the game. Josh Heupel may not be beyond reproach but he’s certainly proven himself to be one of the best offensive minds in college football, who can scheme with the best of the best.

With that said, Tennessee’s play-calling seemed a little weird at times in the second half. The out routes to the tight ends were head-scratchers, and the offense seemed a little off its timing for much of the second half. The decision to hand off on 4th and inches late in the game (the play didn’t stand because of a false start penalty that nearly cost the Vols the game) was absolutely bizarre.

7.) No, the refs weren’t in the tank for Tennessee.

It seems almost ludicrous to have to type this, but if you’re reading comments from Alabama fans on social media, you would believe that the officials gift-wrapped this one for Tennessee.

That’s nonsense. 

First, it was good to see that Alabama can be called for holding; the Tide was actually called for holding several times. But, let’s face it, they could’ve been called for several others — including one that was very blatant to stop the pass-rusher coming off the edge on the Tide’s first touchdown play. 

Alabama was called for a program-record 17 penalties for 130 yards, but that has become a hallmark of this year’s team, which has many questioning whether the Saban era might be nearing an end. Alabama had a record-tying 15 penalties against Texas.

I’m biased, but I didn’t see any penalties called against Alabama that I disagreed with. However, there was one called against Tennessee that was simply horrific: The defensive pass interference in the end zone on 3rd and goal that prevented Alabama from having to kick a field goal and allowed the Tide to instead score a touchdown. It was absolutely not defensive pass interference. In fact, it should’ve been offensive pass interference.

So even if the defensive pass interference against Alabama that wiped off the Hooker INT and kept Tennessee’s chances alive was a bad call, it simply off-set the terrible call earlier in the second half. Contrary to what Alabama fans claimed, it was an obvious pass interference on Alabama. I won’t lie; I was shocked that it was called. It was the right call, however.

Also, the targeting review that turned out to not be targeting was the right call. It was close, but it was the right call. (For the record, it probably should’ve been roughing the passer, but that isn’t a reviewable call.) 

8.) The offensive line’s play.

Tennessee’s offensive line has been a comedy of errors at times in recent years. Obviously it is much better these days, but it was still a relative weakness last season. This year, though, the offensive line play is a strength. Alabama only had two tackles for loss tonight (Tennessee had four). And while Tennessee pressured Bryce Young nine times, Alabama wasn’t able to pressure Hooker even once. 

That’s pretty incredible. And I’m pretty sure if I told you that Tennessee’s yard per carry average would be higher than Alabama’s today, you would’ve laughed at me.

9.) A wrap for coach of the year?

How can Josh Heupel not be a lock for SEC Coach of the Year at this point? The job he’s done at Tennessee is simply incredible. I don’t think it can be overstated or stated too often: Two years ago, this program was as close to being dead in the water as a college football program can be. Less than two years later, Tennessee is a legitimate playoff contender. 

Obviously the transfer portal has changed the game, and has made it possible for teams to go from also-rans to title contenders much more quickly. But let’s not discredit Heupel’s role in turning this thing around. It’s simply incredible. 

We saw Tennessee move into the Top 10 in 2016, but that turned out to be a flash in the pan, and by the time that season ended, it was obvious that Butch Jones was a short-termer as the Vols’ head coach.

This 2022 Tennessee team has 6-0, and four of its wins have come against teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at the time. In spite of that, people claimed coming into today that Tennessee hadn’t played anyone. Those people will have to be quiet now.

10.) Now what?

So where does this go from here? First, I’m glad that next week is a homecoming game against Tennessee-Martin. The Vols could rest every single starter and still dominate that game. If the Kentucky game was up next, I would worry about a trap game. But the Vols will have some time to rest, heal, and get their minds right before that very important showdown against the Cats, which are putting the finishing touches on a win over a ranked Mississippi State team as I type this, on Halloween weekend.

Coming into this game, a valid question was whether you would rather Tennessee beat Alabama or Georgia, if the Vols could only win one. Assuming wins in the games the Vols will be favored in the rest of the season, Tennessee could earn a spot in the SEC Championship Game by beating Georgia. A win over Alabama, meanwhile, does nothing to boost Tennessee’s chances of going to Atlanta, because the SEC East still goes through the top-ranked Bulldogs.

On the other hand, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Tennessee could lose to Georgia, then see Georgia defeat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, and still get into the College Football Playoff along with the Bulldogs. 

Obviously I’m not suggesting that scenario is likely, but this much is for sure: Tennessee is now a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff. That’s an incredible thought, something no one would have dared to have hoped for when this season began, even though there was a lot of hype around this team. At this point, though, it’s a legitimate goal.

In fact, I dare say that Tennessee is more deserving of being the nation’s top-ranked team on Monday than any other team. The Vols won’t be, of course. They’ll be a Top 5 team for the first time since they were ranked No. 3 to start the 2003 season, but they aren’t going to leapfrog Georgia or Ohio State or Michigan or Clemson. In fact, the Vols were much closer to No. 7 USC than to No. 5 Michigan coming into this week. 

But when you consider the resume, Tennessee is now 4-0 against ranked teams this season. The Vols’ offense is probably the best in America. Would you have imagined coming into this season that Tennessee would put up 50-plus points against a Nick Saban defense? I don’t think any Vol fan would’ve dared to dream of that. Yet, here we are. And it has been striking just how easily Tennessee has been able to move the football against Florida, LSU (on the road) and Alabama. 

All of that stuff is just talk at this point, though. What’s important is this: Tennessee is 6-0 heading into late October, will be 7-0 heading into Halloween weekend, and controls its own destiny for both an SEC championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Tennessee-Georgia game in three weeks just became very, very important. 

Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor and publisher. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett, or email him at bgarrett at ihoneida dot com.

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