How can Vols cause trouble for Alabama?


Tennessee’s improved pass defense has helped lead a turnaround in Knoxville.

Last season Tennessee became the first SEC team to allow 38 points in seven consecutive games, finishing last in the conference in points and yards allowed.

Though Tennessee’s run defense could get exposed against Alabama, its pass defense could cause issues for quarterback AJ McCarron. Tennessee has allowed the 19th-lowest opponent-adjusted QBR (31).

Last year Tennessee finished last in the SEC, allowing an adjusted QBR of 66, including a 90 to McCarron in a 44-13 loss.

For Tennessee to pull the upset, it must force turnovers and prevent big plays in the passing game. It has done both of those this season.

Forcing Turnovers

The Volunteers have already matched their turnover total from last season (17), and it has had a direct impact on their record.

Tennessee is 4-0 when finishing with a turnover margin of even or better and 0-3 with a negative differential.

Winning that battle is paramount this week as Alabama has won 43 consecutive games with a positive turnover margin.

McCarron rarely turns the ball over, with the second-best career interception percentage (1.3 percent) among active quarterbacks.

One way Tennessee could try to force him to make mistakes is by playing more coverage.

When Tennessee sends four or fewer pass rushers, it has 12 interceptions and has allowed six touchdowns. However, when it sends five-or-more rushers, it has allowed four touchdowns without an interception.

McCarron has been efficient when facing five-or-more rushers this season, throwing for an SEC-high nine pass touchdowns and one interception in those situations.

Limiting Completion Percentage and Deep Passes

Tennessee has also been very good at forcing incomplete passes. Quarterbacks have completed only 52 percent of passes against Tennessee this season, the third-lowest percentage in the SEC. Last week Tennessee held South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw to a career-low completion percentage of 33 percent (7-for-21).

McCarron has the sixth-best completion percentage (67 percent) among active FBS quarterbacks.

Tennessee Pass Defense

He is especially good at completing long passes. McCarron has thrown 66 passes of 20 yards or longer without an interception since the start of last season, 24 more than any other player from an automatic-qualifier conference.

His 56 percent completion rate on such passes is fourth among AQ quarterbacks in that span (minimum 30 attempts).

For the most part, Tennessee has been strong at preventing long passes. Tennessee has held FBS opponents to a 29 percent completion rate on deep throws.

Last year, McCarron burned the Tennessee defense throwing to Amari Cooper. Cooper caught all three of his deep targets, scoring two long touchdowns. Cooper ended up with seven catches on eight targets for a career-high 162 yards.

However, McCarron has struggled to find Cooper this season. He has completed only 15 of 32 pass attempts when targeting Cooper (47 percent).

For Tennessee to have a chance to shock Alabama, limiting McCarron’s efficiency will be vital. When McCarron posts an adjusted-QBR of 65 or better, Alabama is 28-0.