For those who watch college football and expect the ball to bounce in a predictable or predetermined direction, pour another cup of stout black coffee and wake up. After my Georgia Bulldogs beat Alabama and won the national championship in 2021 and promptly graduated or sent almost everyone to the pros except the water boy and Stetson Bennett, many expected Alabama to return to its traditional role under Coach Nick Saban for the last decade of winning the national championship every other year. This should have been the year.
But one might find streaks of scorched grass in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee last Saturday where Alabama crash landed. The genteel ladies (the term is applied loosely) who live and breathe Alabama football probably had trouble getting enough oxygen while some may have swooned outright. Meanwhile the male Alabama fans and Coach Nick Sabin were left scratching their heads with one hand and their hindquarters with the other.
Who could blame them? The Tennessee offense scored 52 points on the Alabama defense which had been allowing 12.5 points per game. Worse, from a defensive coach perspective, they did it so fast it would make a hummingbird dizzy. Their longest scoring drive was four minutes and 23 seconds. Every other drive was less than two minutes. Sneeze and you could miss a Tennessee touchdown.
On the other hand, Alabama was not hibernating. They scored 49 points and had an opportunity to win the game with a 49 yard field goal with less than half-a-minute left. The kick was wide, and in less than 15 seconds quarterback Hendon Hooker threw two passes for 45 yards to set up a 40 yard field goal by Chase McGrath which resembled a Phil Niekro knuckleball but fluttered through and over the goal posts. Immediately, the north/south magnetic poles of the college football world swapped locations. For Tennessee fans, the victory was described as the reason God created college football. For Alabama fans, it was obvious that the Devil intervened.
The celebration was wild. Some worried tongue-in-cheek that Knoxville might not exist on Sunday morning.
But others saw it coming a year ago when first year Coach Josh Heupel turned the staggering Tennessee program around. In 2020, the Vols went 3-7, but they posted a 7-6 in Heupel’s first year including a loss to Perdue in the Music City Bowl by a score of 47-45. It was a loss, but it showed that Heupel was building an offense to be reckoned with.
The man has credentials. He played quarterback at Oklahoma and was the runner up for the Heisman in 2000. Later he would spend time on the Oklahoma staff as the quarterbacks coach and has developed a reputation as a “quarterback whisperer.” His magic seems to be working with the oldest quarterback in Tennessee history, Hendon Hooker, 24, who transferred from Virginia Tech through the portal. Saturday Hooker connected with receiver Jalin Hyatt for 203 yards and five touchdowns. For Alabama fans, it felt like lightning struck in the same spot five times successively.
Part of Coach Heupel’s strategy is based on a simple wide screen play in which Hooker throws a quick sideline pass to a wide receiver in motion toward three wide receivers that block for him including Hyatt who has recorded a 40 yard dash in 4.31 seconds. As the quick screen play begins to develop, the defensive back must come up and fight past Hyatt in order to help make the tackle or assist. On the scoring plays, Hyatt appeared to be preparing to block but then flashed past the defensive back on a deep route. Once he got even with the DB, the race was over. Saturday, Hooker targeted the speedy Hyatt six times which accounted for the five touchdowns and 203 yards and an average of 33 yards per reception.
Logically, Hyatt needs to be double teamed with a defensive back sitting back and waiting for him to make the dreaded sprint to pay dirt. That’s easier said than done. Tennessee has a very good offensive line that blocks effectively for passing or running plays along with other dangerous receivers. Tie up two defensive players on Hyatt and it can create alternative situations that can cause sudden swooning of female Alabama fans and constant head and lower anatomical scratching by opposing coaches.
So, Coach Heupel and the Vols are a big part of why God invented college football.., for now.