KNOXVILLE – Before Saturday, if Derek Dooley needed a signature win against either Alabama or South Carolina – beating both would be even better – to save his job, Tennessee’s third-year coach has one opportunity left.
Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron passed for a career-high 306 yards and a career-tying four touchdowns and the marauding Crimson Tide crushed Tennessee, 44-13, at Neyland Stadium before a sellout crowd of 102,455.
“We got whipped by a great football team in just about every phase,” Dooley said. “I thought we’d measure up pretty good and we had some chances in the first half, (but) didn’t capitalize.”
The Vols (3-4, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) travel to South Carolina for its fourth straight game against a nationally ranked opponent. The game will start at noon and be televised by ESPN. The Gamecocks lost to Florida, 44-11, earlier Saturday.
Alabama (7-0, 4-0) returns home to play nationally ranked and undefeated Mississippi State.
Tennessee will make the trip to Columbia, S.C., in a weakened state of mind, with the only sliver of hope being that their four league losses were to ranked teams with a combined record of 27-1.
“We’ve got a lot of ball ahead of us,” said Dooley, who coached from the sideline while on crutches and had a stool close by to occasionally rest his surgically repaired hip. “We can’t just stick our heads in our tail and go home. You’ve got to play. And we’ll do it. We’ll recover.”
The recovery must be quick and thorough. Alabama peeled back the onion on just about every weakness Tennessee was trying to hide.
A large contingent of Crimson Tide fans – perhaps in the range of 25,000 to 30,000, possibly more – left the game thrilled with Alabama’s sixth straight win over the Vols.
“This is still a big rivalry for us,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “This is a big game to all of our players and all of our fans.
“I think Tennessee’s team played hard. I think Derek is doing a fantastic job. They have been better and better every year we’ve played them. We were fortunate today that our defense played well enough to keep their high-powered offense to just 13 points.”
The highlight of the night came before the game even started.
Former coach Phillip Fulmer was honored for his recent induction into the College Football Hall of Fame and surrounded by the 1997 SEC champion squad that included Peyton Manning.
Nothing much good happened after that stirring moment.
And before the game reached its painful end, there was only scattered patches of orange in the stands. Fulmer lived through the same scenario in 2008.
Despite Saban’s kind words, Dooley wasn’t all that pleased with the Vols’ offensive performance as a whole.
Quarterback Tyler Bray was not effective, completing 13 of 27 passes for 184 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. The first interception led to T.J. Yeldon’s 1-yard touchdown run. The second thwarted a potential Tennessee score in the end zone.
“He was a little jumpy early,” Dooley said. “He’s got to play well for us to score points.”
Didn’t happen Saturday.
Tennessee’s point production came from A.J. Johnson’s second-quarter touchdown and two Michael Palardy field goals, the second coming with 3:57 left in the game and giving the Vols more than 10 points against the Tide for the first time since 2007.
Palardy’s first field goal, covering 32 yards, resulted in only first-quarter points Alabama has given up since a Tennessee field goal on Oct. 22, 2011. Through their first six games, the Crimson Tide had outscored opponents, 90-0.
The Vols’ offense produced 282 yards of total offense, 200 below their season average.
Marlin Lane, starting in place of injured Raijon Neal, led Tennessee’s rushing attack with 55 yards on 15 carries. The Vols’ lone touchdown came on a 2-yard run by A.J. Johnson, who was operating out of the “Beast Package.”
In performing his primary duties as a linebacker, Johnson recorded a game-high 14 tackles, two more than cornerback Justin Coleman.
Justin Hunter had five catches for 70 yards, both team-high totals.
Drops by a few receivers figured into the offense’s inefficiency.
“I saw it all night,” Hunter said.
Tight end Mychal Rivera felt that Alabama, which has the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense, had a lot to do with the Vols’ offensive woes.
“They were giving us a whole bunch of different looks,” Rivera said. “I can’t speak for Tyler because I was running my routes. We all made mistakes out there.”
Meanwhile, Alabama whacked the Vols’ defense with 539 yards of total offense, becoming the third SEC rival in four games to crack the 500-yard mark. Georgia had 560 and Florida 550.
McCarron was brilliant, completing 17 of 22 passes for four scores and dismantling Tennessee’s secondary. He threw two touchdown strikes to Amari Cooper, covering 23 and 42 yards. Michael Williams caught a 1-yard TD toss and Kenny Bell snagged a 39-yarder.
McCarron, a junior from Mobile, Ala., said Saturday’s effort was probably the team’s best of the season.
“Yeah,” he said. “Everyone has to understand that we’re going to take what the defense gives us. One week we might have to throw it and the next we might have to run it more. Tonight, we got them on their heels and we were able to do both.”
Cooper, Bell and Kevin Norwood turned in “long plays” of 54, 39 and 35 yards, respectively. And Yeldon broke a 43-yard touchdown run. Cooper's seven receptions produced 162 yards, a freshman school record.
“People say they’re not a big-play team,” Dooley said, “but they do it every game. They’re more explosive that people give them credit for. They act like a 30-yard run is old hat for them, but that’s an explosive play.”
Bray’s longest pass went to Hunter and covered 44 yards. Lane’s longest run was 12 yards.
And Tennessee, still searching for its first win over a ranked team since beating the Gamecocks in 2009, was severely end-zone deprived.
By the time Palardy kicked a meaningless field goal, not many Vols fans were still around to see it.
“There is no better feeling than watching the stadium empty out before the game is over,” Alabama center Barrett Jones said. “It’s fun, especially being from Tennessee and having a lot of people here watching.”
Jones played high school ball at Evangelica Christian in Germantown.
Despite not playing all that well, the Vols trailed 23-10 at halftime and got through most of the third quarter without falling further behind.
That’s when the crimson hammer fell.
McCarron connected with Cooper on a 42-yard touchdown play, stretching the Tide’s lead to 30-10.
Early in the fourth quarter, McCarron hooked up with Bell for another aerial score. Just over three minutes later, Yeldon swept around right end and darted down the sideline on a 43-yard touchdown run and Alabama’s lead ballooned to 44-10.
So, if Saban believes Tennessee is getting better and better, then the Crimson Tide is playing well enough to stay way ahead of the Vols.
“They keep pushing,” Dooley said. “That’s what they do to most everybody and they did it to us too. We just joined the ranks of the rest of the country.”
The buzz around the state will reach a fever pitch this week, especially in Knoxville where fans are becoming more and more intolerant of Dooley’s slow-moving renovation of the Vols’ football program.
Senior center James Stone said players’ concentration is exclusively focused on practice and games, not whether they’re playing to save Dooley’s job.
“At this moment,” said Stone, who is from Nashville, “we are not thinking about that.”
That time may be drawing near.
Alabama 7 16 7 14 – 44
Tennessee 3 7 0 3 – 13
ALA – Amari Cooper 23 pass from A.J. McCarron (Jeremy Shelley kick), 8;18
TEN – FG Michael Palardy 32, 3:38
ALA – T.J. Yeldon 1 run (kick failed), 11:23
ALA – Michael Williams 1 pass from McCarron (Shelley kick), 6:55
TEN – A.J. Johnson 2 run (Palardy kick), 5:32
ALA – FG Shelley 34, 1:24
ALA – Cooper 42 pass from McCarron (Shelley kick), 2:56
ALA – Kenny Bell 39 pass from McCarron (Shelley kick), 12:46
ALA – Yeldon 43 run (Shelley kick), 9:07
TEN – FG Palardy 21, 3:57
First Downs 23 11
Rushes-Yds. 45-233 27-79
Passing Yds. 306 203
Com.-Att.-Int. 17-22-0 16-31-2
Total Offense 539 282
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 1-0
Punts.-Avg. 4-44.0 5-48.2
Penalties-Yds. 4-23 2-15
RUSHING — Alabama: T.J. Yeldon 15-129, Eddie Lacey 17-79, Kenyan Drake 4-22, Blake Sims 4-10, Brent Calloway 2-6, A.J. McCarron 3-minus 13; Tennessee: Marlin Lane 15-55, Devrin Young 5-21, A.J. Johnson 3-6, Alton Howard 2-3, Cordarrelle Patterson 2-minus 6.
PASSING — Alabama: McCarron 167-22-0 306; Tennessee: Tyler Bray 13-27-2 184, Justin Worley 3-4-0 19.
RECEIVING — Alabama: Amari Cooper 7-162, Kenny Bell 2-68, Kevin Norwood 2-43, Lacy 3-18, Christon Jones 1-9, Michael Williams 2-6; Tennessee: Justin Hunter 7-70, Lane 5-48, Mychal Rivera 1-43, Patterson 1-25, Brendan Downs 1-15, Howard 1-4, Ben Bartholomew 1-4, Young 2-minus 6.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)