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Tennessee wrap-up: Bama wins the game, but loses the catalyst to its offense

If there’s anything positive to come out of a costly win over Tennessee in which Jaylen Waddle went down on the opening kickoff, it’s that it happened on the first play and Alabama’s offensive results for the day came completely without his presence. Bama needed a measuring stick for the weeks ahead.

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This has been, unfortunately, a running thread throughout Nick Saban’s career at Alabama. He has five national championships here, but how many others have been left on the table due to losses of players like Dont’a Hightower, Tua Tagovailoa, Dylan Moses or Shaun Dion Hamilton? Alabama doesn’t just seem to lose role players; it loses superstars.

This is the second such superstar to be lost on special teams in the last five years, and it could be argued that the other one – safety Eddie Jackson, who broke a leg returning a punt against Texas A&M in 2016 – definitively cost Alabama a title. Alabama would lose 35-31 to Clemson in the national championship game that year, with gaffes in the secondary a big part of the loss.

Now it’s Jaylen Waddle, the catalyst for the 2020 Alabama offense, the guy who makes everyone around him better. Without Waddle going forward, Alabama’s offense is going to function like a jazz ensemble missing a piano. Yeah, that extra trumpet player can hit the notes, but now you don’t have a jazz ensemble, you just have a brass band.

Against Tennessee, it didn’t matter to the final score, unless you have evolved from being concerned about the victory itself, to being concerned about the margin of victory, to being concerned about eclipsing the 50-foot mark. Alabama controlled Tennessee all day save for two long passes. It was, on the whole, actually a pretty dominating performance against a team that has good defensive personnel, a solid offensive line and a pair of decent running backs.

On the other hand, the loss of Waddle was felt, perhaps by no one more than fellow wide receiver DeVonta Smith. Smith finished the day with 7 catches for 73 yards, a good day for any college receiver not named DeVonta Smith. Smith had few opportunities for big plays, due in large part to not having Waddle running routes opposite him. John Metchie III has already established himself as a solid wideout, and led the team today with 7 catches for 151 yards, but he’s going to have to set his future performances with this game as the measuring stick. He’ll have to play this well every game, with no letdowns.

That’s because it didn’t take long to figure out Slade Bolden is a solid wide receiver who is not Jaylen Waddle. Bolden caught 6 balls for 94 yards, but he missed a challenged-but-still-manageable opportunity in the end zone from backup QB Bryce Young. And then there was his fumble, having the ball punched out by a Tennessee defensive back while diving for a first down. Alabama forced a punt on the ensuing Tennessee possession, so it wasn’t directly harmful today, but that kind of thing can’t become a trend.

The best news regarding Bolden is that he’s run the full offense all year, so Alabama will not necessarily have to compress the playbook for him. And he’s athletic enough that, at one point this fall camp, he was considered perhaps the third-string quarterback ahead of Paul Tyson.

There doesn’t appear to be anyone left on Alabama’s regular-season schedule against which the loss of Waddle would cause a change in the presumptive winner of the game. LSU is sort of a mess at the moment, and Auburn isn’t the team it has been in recent years. Both are still decent opponents, but neither looks to be in Alabama’s league. And despite the feel-good story that has been Arkansas football so far, Arkansas doesn’t have the explosiveness to keep up with Alabama.

No, this is a question that will be answered in 2-3 games specifically: the SEC Championship Game, likely to come against Georgia in a rematch, and whatever might come afterward in the College Football Playoff. Everyone knows the measuring stick for this team is Clemson. And after today, Alabama might not measure up.

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

1. Offense was effective, but not as explosive; winning in a methodical fashion gives hope. Waddle never played on offense against Tennessee, so this was a good baseline to set against a team with a quality defense. What it starts to look like is an offense more akin to what Nick Saban ran when he first came to Alabama, albeit with much better quarterbacking and maybe his best all-around running back he’s had yet.

Najee Harris’ ability to pick up blitzes has become the standard setter, at least looking at his 2020 resume. Having a quarterback as accurate and smart as Mac Jones has made Alabama’s short- and mid-range passing games absolutely lethal, and Jones’ ability to throw the deep ball keeps secondaries honest. Alabama had to play most of this game without a healthy Miller Forristall, too, which foisted even more pressure onto the running backs and outside receivers.

Slade Bolden made a couple of mistakes but overall played about as well as anyone could have expected following a battlefield promotion. Metchie’s arm and hand strength doesn’t get talked about enough; it doesn’t just help his blocking. Alabama won’t have Waddle’s speed anymore, but that doesn’t mean the offense can’t function. It does, however, compress the field. Having won today despite that fact should give Alabama hope.

2. Offensive line, RBs (especially Najee Harris) are playing at championship levels – and must keep doing so. In the short term, the person who will absorb most of Jaylen Waddle’s production will be Najee Harris, either on receptions out of the backfield or just simply by Alabama running the football more. While Harris was stopped just short of the 100-yard mark against Tennessee, he scored 3 touchdowns and added 6 receptions for 61 yards.

Brian Robinson Jr. and Trey Sanders both had success coming off the bench. And Alabama did this after losing LG Deonte Brown for the game with a shoulder injury. Chris Owens came into the game at center and probably played his best game at Alabama, while Landon Dickerson moved to left guard.

Alabama also got a chance to look at Kendall Randolph and Tommy Brown at left guard later in the game. The offensive line is playing at an elite level ever since a choppy opener, and kept Mac Jones mostly clean while also allowing the Alabama offense to move the ball efficiently on the ground. This is what future games are going to look like in terms of theory, so get used to it. Hopefully, Alabama will get used to the execution as well.

3. Run defense was superb, and the defensive line controlled the point of attack. Alabama’s defense allowed the following stats to Tennessee running backs: Eric Gray, 19 for 57, 3.0 avg., 0 TD. Ty Chandler, 10 for 37, 3.7 avg., 0 TD. Jabari Small, 5 carries for 8 yards, 1.6 avg., 0 TD. Even giving up 37 yards scrambling to QBs Jarrett Guarantano and Brian Maurer, Tennessee averaged 3.7 yards per carry as a team and got repeatedly stoned on third-down runs.

Alabama got a solid game from Phidarian Mathis, Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe, and reserve Tim Smith also had a notable performance in the fourth quarter. Pass rush? Not so much, but Alabama has had a lot to clean up on defense, both against the run and the pass, so if running games can be shut down then everyone involved will take it as a win.

Outside of a sequence of events in the second quarter when LB run fits suddenly became an issue, Alabama’s second level did a much better job this week of complementing the DL against the ground game. Saying Alabama has to get a handle on QB scrambles would be pointless, given that it’s been an issue forever; it never gets fixed. However, in modern football, where everything is built around explosiveness and chunk plays, the fact Alabama was able to keep everything in front of its defense and hold Tennessee to 17 points and 302 yards despite facing a veteran Volunteer offensive line ought to be a source of pride.

4. Tennessee came with the wrong offensive gameplan and was too late to change it. Jim Chaney is one of those guys who gets tagged somewhere along the way with a reputation for being innovative. Alabama has faced him several times, but has yet to see the evidence. Chaney seemed to determined to run on 3rd-and-mid, frequently calling up simple zone plays when the Vols had distances of between 3 and 7 yards to go.

Alabama held Tennessee to 4-of-16 (25.0%) on 3rd-down conversations, an abysmal number and, coupled with 2-of-4 on 4th down, was the preeminent reason the Vols couldn’t keep pace. Alabama didn’t seem to know what was coming so much as the plays didn’t create enough confusion to get Bama out of its lanes. Alabama’s chief sore spot early on has been confusion on defense, particularly at the linebacker level, and Chaney couldn’t figure out a way to create any of that Saturday.

It’s not just that Alabama has better players – which it does – it’s that Tennessee also didn’t use the ones they had to their fullest capacities. Given where Jeremy Pruitt’s Tennessee program is at the moment, his chosen offense seems to be a bit dull, and it certainly can’t create the kind of mismatches it needs to in order to help out a rebuilding defense.

5. The loss of Waddle will impact special teams down the stretch. Changing out Jaylen Waddle for Slade Bolden is a big change in itself at wide receiver; at punt returner, it’s a much wider gap. As a punt returner, Bolden is responsible for creating almost all of his openings by himself, whereas Alabama can scheme him open in the slot.

Trey Sanders now becomes one of the primary kickoff return men. Because of Alabama’s punting woes, any weekly comparison of special teams would eventually come down to a question of whether Alabama’s dangerous return men were enough to overcome deficiencies in the actual kicking comparison. That is certainly no longer so, not at least until Bolden and Sanders prove they’re up to the task.

Speaking of punting, Charlie Scott’s first game in place of Sam Johnson wasn’t great, but both his kicks ended up inside Tennessee’s 20, one of them inside the UT 10. If he can average around 38-40 yards per kick on his mid- and long-range attempts, without shanking any, Alabama can live with that.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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