No. 1 Alabama stresses improvement as Vols visit

Field Level Media

October 16, 2019 at 4:10 am.

At this point in his tenure at Alabama, Nick Saban isn’t necessarily coaching against opponents but against habits and sloppy execution.

So as the No. 1 Crimson Tide welcome Tennessee to Tuscaloosa on Saturday night for what should be another lopsided Southeastern Conference game, Saban took some time Monday to express concern about his team’s passing game.

This, mind you, is the same passing game that racked up 293 yards and four touchdowns last week in a 47-28 win at Texas A&M. It’s the same passing game whose triggerman, junior Tua Tagovailoa, has a 27-1 touchdown-interception ratio and is the Heisman front-runner. And it’s the same passing game that features multiple receivers who eventually will play for pay.

But after watching Tagovailoa’s streak of passes without a pick end at 185 in the second quarter, and seeing other things that didn’t pass muster, Saban sounded the alarm.

“There’s some things we need to clean up,” the coach said. “We had a couple of maybe missed executions in the passing game that has been uncharacteristic for us this year and far too many penalties in the game, some of which negated explosive plays that we really need to get cleaned up.”

Tagovailoa, averaging 335.2 passing yards per game and completing 73.6 percent of his passes, is on board with his coach’s assessment of the situation. In fact, he wasted little time getting back to work after his 21-of-34 performance at Texas A&M.

Instead of sitting back and relaxing on the plane ride home, Tagovailoa viewed game footage on a tablet.

“I still feel my accuracy — I still have to work on that,” he told reporters. “You know, the timing with guys on routes, in-breaking routes, out-breaking routes, crossers. I mean, throwing guys open. There’s lot of things.”

While Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) seeks to fine-tune aspects of its game, the Volunteers (2-4, 1-2) are simply happy to enter this one on one of their rare good notes. Their defense held Mississippi State to 267 total yards and forced three turnovers last week in a 20-10 win.

But Tennessee has quarterback questions coming into this traditional rivalry. Freshman Brian Maurer left the last game in the second quarter with a concussion and was replaced by former starter Jarrett Guarantano. Coach Jeremy Pruitt said Maurer took some snaps at practice Sunday and will be “fine.” Maurer is listed as the starter.

The game has meaning for Pruitt that goes beyond facing the No. 1 team. Pruitt played at Alabama and served as Saban’s defensive coordinator from 2016-17 before getting the job in Knoxville. Saban is 18-0 against his former assistants.

“This is the rivalry. This is the game,” Pruitt said. “I grew up watching it. I had an opportunity to play in it. I’ve had the opportunity to coach in it — now on both sides — so this week does kind of get you going.”

The Crimson Tide have won 12 consecutive meetings between the teams, most of them one-sided. Alabama’s winning margin has been at least 31 points in seven of the past nine meetings.

Tennessee hasn’t won in the series since 2006 and hasn’t left Bryant-Denny Stadium with a victory since 2003.

Alabama’s leading receiver, DeVonta Smith, was suspended for the first half of this game by Saban for punching Texas A&M safety Leon O’Neal in the fourth quarter.