Tennessee wrap-up: Bama wins, but has more on its plate to worry about

 

As Randy Travis once sang, it’s not what you take when you leave this world, it’s what you leave behind.

Alabama, again, took victory from Tennessee in this rivalry, a series once close enough between the two teams to be considered competitive, but now more or less as enjoyable for the Volunteers as an annual check-up at a proctologist’s office.

But Alabama left behind much more than that on Bryant-Denny Stadium’s turf. It left behind Tua Tagovailoa’s health. Leading 21-10 just before the half, Tagovailoa was sacked, twisting his left ankle in an ugly manner. He returned only after a trip to the hospital for tests, examinations and probably a few ancient rites and a spirit communal, among other things. He won’t play against Arkansas this week, and may not play against LSU in two weeks, either.

It’s the LSU game, three weeks from now, that matters most. Lose it, and Alabama is at best sitting out the SEC Championship Game and hoping for a miracle during conference championship week. Alabama looks like the only team that can stop LSU. Oklahoma and Ohio State have fairly clear paths to the College Football Playoff. Clemson’s toughest game left? Probably the same South Carolina team Alabama dismantled earlier this year.

Even LSU losing to the Florida-Georgia winner in the SEC Championship Game wouldn’t guarantee Alabama a seat at the playoff table. If Georgia doesn’t lose again, the Bulldogs would probably go over Alabama if it holds the SEC title.

The stakes could not possibly be higher than when LSU rolls into town, and if Tua plays in that game, he’ll be seeing his first action on a gimpy leg. Anyone who watched Alabama’s struggles with a half-healthy Tua last year against Georgia knows what is likely to happen against LSU.

For now, this is Mac Jones’ team. Jones went 6-for-11 for 72 yards after replacing Tagovailoa, but he also suffered a pair of drops and wasn’t really asked to do much, anyway. With a full week of practice as QB1, Jones will probably have a competent showing against Arkansas. Alabama, for that matter, could probably beat Arkansas with Slade Bolden running the BoldCat for the entire game.

LSU is another matter. While the Tigers’ defense has suffered from the same ailments that plague Alabama in 2019 — it’s not a vintage year for either team’s defense — LSU is the only SEC team besides Alabama that can expect to score on every possession. Alabama under Jones probably can’t expect to do that. It was already going to be a tall order to outscore LSU; now, the defense is going to shoulder a much heavier burden.

As enough cigar smoke rose from the Bryant-Denny stands to obscure the stadium’s impressive new LED lights, thoughts may have briefly been on reminding the Vols that, for the 13th straight year, they had been Rammer Jammer’ed and that the hell had been beaten out of them. But it is a victory short-lived, and greatly dependent upon the gait of a certain Hawaiian quarterback whose availability for the LSU game in three weeks looks especially necessary.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Tennessee:

1. Big plays meant more tonight than in any game in recent memory. The difference between a close Alabama win and the blowout-worthy 35-13 final score basically came down to a flag for unnecessary roughness and a fumble on 4th-and-goal. In the former, linebacker Darrell Taylor hit Jones clean, but once he had Jones on the ground, committed some kind of roughing penalty that referee Hubert Owens felt necessary to answer with a flag. Tennessee had Alabama stopped at the moment and the punting unit was set to come onto the field, but the penalty gave Alabama a key first down, one they would later convert on a Slade Bolden-to-Miller Forristall hookup out of the Wildcat (BoldCat?) formation. This game a quarter after Daniel Bituli was thrown out of the game for targeting. There’s no telling what happens to Alabama’s offensive production if Bituli hadn’t been ejected, and if Taylor hadn’t roughed Jones after already having stopped the play in the third quarter, what could have happened had Tennessee gotten the ball back in good field position. Ifs and buts, candy and nuts, etc. Ditto Tennessee’s final gaffe, when Jarrett Guarantano, who had already appeared to have been stopped on 4th-and-goal in the fourth quarter, tried vainly to reach the ball across the goal line and got it swatted away. Instead of a touchdown — or, worst-case, Alabama pinned at the 1-yard line with a green quarterback under center — Tennessee instead handed Alabama its own touchdown courtesy of a 100-yard fumble return by Trevon Diggs. It’s hard to say what the takeaway is here. Was Tennessee its own worst enemy, or did Alabama simply make the big plays when it had to? It’s sort of a cop-out to say “both,” but that might be the most accurate response.

2. Defense, as a whole, buckled down when it became necessary. Tennessee isn’t an offensive juggernaut by any stretch but the Volunteers haven’t been completely without the ability to make plays in 2019, either. Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt will eventually have to answer for the playcalling that set up the Diggs touchdown to ice the game; there’s no other team in America likely to give Alabama four consecutive shots to stop four consecutive, overly conservative calls. On the other hand, Alabama was up 21-10 when Tua went out and gave up only 3 points the rest of the way in. How it was done — whether it was defensive prowess on the part of Alabama, or incompetence on the part of the Volunteers — hardly matters. The tenor of the game changed immediately upon Tua’s injury, with just about everyone else on the Alabama team affected by his absence. Asked to toughen up, the defense did just that. Time will tell whether that was more a function of Alabama’s ability, or Tennessee’s inability.

3. Running backs again set a new high-water mark in 2019, just in time. Najee Harris went over 100 yards, and Brian Robinson Jr. probably had his best game of the year, all things considered. Given this steady uptick in performance predates Tua’s injury by a few weeks, it’s an important development and one that should give Tide fans hope for the immediate future. It’s tempered somewhat by Tennessee’s issues on the defensive line — the Vol DL is nothing special, and NT Greg Emerson was hurt in this game on top of it all — to say nothing of the effect Bituli’s ejection had on things. Harris also failed to haul in a very catchable pass from Jones on a key play across the middle. Still, Harris went over 100 yards again, scored twice and ran hard. Robinson was explosive when spelling Harris, and the development of both backs as receivers continues — and couldn’t come at a better time. Alabama will almost certainly depend on the run more next week, and maybe again against LSU, Tua or no Tua. It’s a good thing, therefore, that the Tide’s running backs appear ready to meet the challenge.

4. Alabama might have found its punter in Ty Perine. After Will Reichard tried to punt once and re-injured his hip, the Crimson Tide turned to freshman walk-on Ty Perine almost out of desperation. It’s a move fans had been wanting to see for a couple of weeks ever since the story of the walk-on punter who could run a 4.5-or-better 40-yard dash started to leak out of the corners of the internet. Call it desperation, divine intervention or whatever makes you happy, but it worked. Perine hit two punts for a 46.5-yard average and for good measure, tackled Marquez Callaway on his second punt. With Reichard apparently out again, possibly for the remainder of the season, Perine will probably have to actively do something to give the job back to Skyler DeLong or Mike Bernier. Bernier, incidentally, took over the job in 2018 from DeLong in this same game, punting out of his own end zone. Perine took the job this year in the Tennessee game under almost identical circumstances. Kirby Smart hates backup quarterbacks; Jeremy Pruitt now has a strong distaste for backup punters.

5. Jones did a good job under tough circumstances, and he’s good enough to beat most opponents. Is LSU one of those opponents? It’s hard to say right now. Jones obviously will have to be planned for, in a much different fashion than the coaches handle Tagovailoa. Jones thrives on quick passes, or on passes set up by play-action. He’s not a guy who can stand in the pocket for three seconds and select a route to fire on. Those plays often ended in sacks or sub-optimal decisions against Tennessee, and even Arkansas’ front seven is capable of doing more damage than he endured tonight — to say nothing of what LSU can dish out. When Jones came into the game in the first half, it was clear the coaches originally wanted to just run out the clock, but Jones was able to move the offense into field-goal range anyway. He didn’t get Alabama in any trouble, didn’t take unnecessary chances and showed resiliency under pressure. What he can’t do is throw lasers like Tagovailoa. No one else on the roster can, either, so Alabama has to move forward with what it has. Jones plays with energy and is upbeat in the huddle. Those qualities served him well in a game that was, at its core, incredibly weird: The two teams combined to use six quarterbacks (if you count Slade Bolden) and four punters. Arkansas will give Alabama a good opportunity to evaluate Jones under hostile fire without having to really fear the outcome, and with Jones getting a week to prepare from the top spot. There are concerns about his game, but there are going to be concerns about anyone not named Tua. The next seven days will reveal much about Jones’ story at Alabama.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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