It wasn’t easy—especially after Tennessee took a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter—but No. 8 Alabama did what it does best on Saturday: It beat the Volunteers 19–14, the Crimson Tide’s ninth straight victory in this rivalry.
Coach Nick Saban’s team improves to 7–1 (4–1 SEC) and keeps its hopes of securing a second consecutive College Football Playoff berth alive. Here are three thoughts on the closer-than-expected contest.
1. Alabama survived the toughest four-week stretch on its schedule
The Crimson Tide looked far from perfect Saturday. Their offense was mostly uninspiring, accounting for 364 total yards. Their line left plenty to be desired, as Tennessee got to quarterback Jake Coker for five sacks. And their defense—known as one of the best in all of college football—whiffed on numerous tackles, especially when trying to bring down Volunteers sophomore tailback Jalen Hurd.
Still, Alabama won, and given the month it just endured, Saban’s squad can exhale. It went through a brutal four-week stretch with zero margin for error, and it escaped unscathed. The Tide can breath easy knowing they can address their myriad issues with all of their 2015 goals still on the table.
Since Oct. 3, Alabama has beaten Georgia (38–10), Arkansas (27–14), Texas A&M (41–23) and Tennessee without the benefit of a bye. The weekly gauntlet of the SEC is daunting, and this group looked beaten down at points throughout Saturday’s contest.
When it mattered most, however, the Tide’s players stepped up: Coker completed two pivotal passes on the game-defining drive, and 6’3”, 242-pound junior running back Derrick Henry broke free for the go-ahead 14-yard touchdown. Alabama found a way to get it done, reminiscent of its 12–10 win over Tennessee back in 2009, a year in which the Tide would go on to win the national title.
Sure, Alabama looked vulnerable. For a while, it seemed ripe for an upset. But when it could have folded in the waning moments, it didn’t. With a win over LSU on Nov. 7, a repeat trip to the playoff is entirely feasible.
2. Tennessee showed a lot of heart, even if it continues to break them
Following the Volunteers’ 24–20 loss to Arkansas on Oct. 3, panic about the program was starting to spread. On the heels of a healthy dose of preseason hype, this was supposed to be the Tennessee’s year; instead, it sat at 2–3 (0–2 SEC), with two of those three losses coming as a result of improbable, fourth-quarter comebacks.
Despite another loss that drops the Vols to 3–4, maybe it’s time to start showing renewed faith in coach Butch Jones and Co. This team plays hard and could win the rest of its 2015 games before heading into ’16 with a ton of momentum.
Before his fumble in the fourth quarter that clinched Saturday’s outcome, junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs showed off all the tools that make him such a dangerous playmaker. He scrambled in the pocket to keep plays and drives alive and went 13 of 22 for 171 yards passing with a touchdown. Hurd was a beast to bring down, going for 92 yards and the score that temporarily put Tennessee up 14–13. And the young defensive line often overwhelmed Alabama’s offensive front, which is particularly impressive given the presence of surefire NFL draft prospect Cam Robinson.
It won’t make Vols fans feel any better now, but this team is on the right track, even if it still can’t find a way to close out tight games.
3. Calvin Ridley is a star in the making
Alabama’s 6’1”, 188-pound freshman out of Coconut Creek, Fla., appears on the verge of becoming the Tide’s next great receiver. He finished Saturday with six catches for 62 yards, but that line belies the impact he made in crucial downs.
Coker looked for Ridley on several occasions when he needed to convert a third-and-long. Ridley caught the 15-yard pass that set up Henry’s game-winning score and made another standout play for a long catch that got called back because of a penalty.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that he is this good this fast—after all, Ridley was the top-rated receiver in the recruiting class of 2015, according to Rivals.com—but his role in Alabama’s offense should only continue to rise.
Amari Cooper racked up 1,727 yards with 16 touchdowns in coordinator Lane Kiffin’s offense last season. With some experience under his belt, Ridley could eventually put up numbers in the same stratosphere.