KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Practicing against the nation's best defense each day apparently is helping Alabama develop a championship-caliber offense.
A.J. McCarron threw for a career-high 306 yards and four touchdowns Saturday night as the top-ranked Crimson Tide trounced Tennessee 44-13 at Neyland Stadium. The Tide have scored at least 30 points in each of their first seven games, the longest streak to start a season in school history.
McCarron's four touchdown passes matched a career high set twice previously. He has 16 touchdown tosses with no interceptions this season. The junior quarterback called it the most complete game Alabama has played all year.
"We set the tone and we stayed on it," he said. "We never let up, and that was the biggest thing Coach keeps preaching."
McCarron got plenty of help from a pair of freshmen.
Amari Cooper caught seven passes for 162 yards, the most receiving yards ever by an Alabama freshman. He scored on a 23-yard reception in the first quarter and a 42-yard catch in the third. Cooper also had a 30-yard touchdown in the third period nullified by a penalty.
T.J. Yeldon ran for 129 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries for his second consecutive game with at least 100 yards.
"We just kept grinding and grinding," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. "We squandered a few opportunities at times, but I think the key to the drill was just keep playing and play the next play. Compete and be relentless in how you do it."
Alabama's defense also was as relentless as ever.
Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 SEC) had scored at least 31 points in each of its first six games, but the Volunteers couldn't muster much offense against an Alabama team that entered Saturday leading the nation in total defense, scoring defense, run defense and pass efficiency defense.
Tyler Bray went 13 of 27 for 184 yards with two interceptions and no touchdown passes for Tennessee.
Tennessee has lost 11 of its last 12 SEC games and is 0-14 against the Top 25 since Derek Dooley took over the program in 2010. The different circumstances surrounding each team were evident from a look at the stands, as more than one-third of the 102,455 fans were cheering for Alabama (7-0, 4-0). By the midway point of the fourth quarter, many of the Tennessee fans already had headed to the parking lot.
"We got whipped by a great football team in just about every phase," Dooley said. "I'm really disappointed we didn't execute a little better on offense. That's probably the thing I was a little surprised at. The quarterback didn't play well. I'm not sure why."
Dooley returned to the sidelines less than two weeks after undergoing surgery on a fractured right hip. Dooley had worked from the press box last week in a 41-31 loss at Mississippi State. Tennessee officials said before the game he'd sit on a stool throughout the game, but he instead worked the sidelines on crutches while frequently being shadowed by an officer as well as assistant coach Antone Davis.
Tennessee's beleaguered defense forced a three-and-out on Alabama's opening possession, but the Tide scored on four of the next five drives to take a 23-10 halftime lead. Alabama's lone scoreless series the rest of the first half came when Cade Foster was wide right on a 44-yard field-goal attempt.
Cooper opened the scoring and put Alabama ahead for good when a coverage breakdown by Tennessee allowed him to get all alone in the right corner of the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown. Yeldon added a 1-yard TD run in the second quarter after C.J. Mosley's diving interception of Bray's wobbly pass gave the Tide the ball at the Tennessee 32.
"Awesome," McCarron said of Cooper. "(He) doesn't surprise me one bit. He can be as good as he wants to be. As long as he keeps working and keeps putting forth the effort, the sky's the limit for that kid."
The Vols' best hopes for a second-half comeback disappeared when they lost the ball on downs after reaching the Alabama 33 early in the third quarter. After Bray threw a third-and-1 incompletion, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson took a fourth-down snap out of the Vols' "Beast" formation and was stopped short of the first down.
Alabama then put the game away by reaching the end zone on its next three drives.
McCarron connected with Cooper on a 42-yard touchdown pass that extended the Tide's lead to 30-10 late in the third quarter. McCarron found Kenny Bell for a 39-yard completion that made it 37-10, then Yeldon raced 43 yards around the right end with 9:07 left in the game.
"That's the greatest feeling in the world as an offensive lineman, (when) in the fourth quarter you can tell that you can run the ball," Alabama center Barrett Jones said. "They know it's a run, and you know it's a run, and you can still run it."
Before the game, Tennessee honored former Vols coach Phillip Fulmer and his 1997 SEC championship team that featured Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who made it to campus for the ceremony.