Like most fanbases, those who bleed Crimson adore the unpredictability and chaos that defines college football, as long as it doesn’t affect the home team. And, with a few very notable exceptions, Alabama has been one of the surest bets in the sport since Nick Saban arrived, consistently keeping the wacky at bay with cold, soulless execution.
Welcome to 2019, folks.
Perhaps Shane Lee’s night best sums up this game. Lee was caught out of position on a couple of occasions as Tennessee running backs Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan ripped off big gains. Then, when it mattered most, he came flying over the pile on a critical 4th and goal following Tennessee’s best drive of the night, dislodging the football from QB Jarrett Guarantano. Trevon Diggs scooped the ball and took it to the house, and the game was over. It was that kind of night.
Clearly the better team as everyone knew coming in, the Tide alternated spectacular play with spectacular mistakes pretty much all night. They started strong: forced a quick punt on the opening possession of the game, promptly stuck the ball in the end zone, then picked off Tennessee starter Brian Maurer on the second possession. On first and goal from the two and poised to go up by two scores, Tua Tagovailoa made what was probably the most boneheaded play of his college career to date, throwing a horrible interception after scrambling around when simply throwing the ball away would have left three more chances to get the six feet required for a 14-0 lead.
After watching Henry Ruggs III hit a gear that many didn’t know existed to run down interceptor Nigel Warrior, Tennessee was able to punch it in and tie the game. Alabama managed to overcome a few stupid penalties to generally dominate the rest of the first half until Tua again tried to extend a play that he should have given up on. As he rolled out to his left, Tennessee DL Greg Emerson dove to make a shoestring tackle, catching one of Tua’s chronically problematic ankles in the turf. Tua was out of the game because he again failed to concede a rep to the defense. While he plays lights out almost all the time, this is clearly a step that he still needs to take in his maturity as a QB.
Alabama muddled through the last few minutes of the half after Mac Jones entered, and when Saban announced at halftime that Tagovailoa was out for the game, there were legitimate fears of a broken streak against the Vols. Fortunately, the defense and running game showed up in a big way. Tennessee gained all of 76 total yards in the second half on 32 snaps, plus another 30 in pass interference gifts from the Alabama secondary on balls that had essentially no chance of completion. When it was all said and done, Alabama prevailed 35-13.
There were plenty of positives in this one. First off, the pass rush was excellent all night, led by Terrell Lewis and his two sacks. A healthy #24 will go a long way toward helping Alabama reach its goals this season. The secondary, despite the bonehead interference flags, was stout enough to limit Tennessee QBs to 50% completions and 4.9 yards per attempt. Christian Harris looked fast and made a few big hits. In fact, the tackling was pretty strong all night. Christian Barmore looked awesome and his limited playing time continues to confound. Lewis and Anfernee Jennings had consistent pressure on the QB. It’s tough to complain too much about a defense that holds the opponent under four yards a play, even if there were some lapses at times.
Najee Harris ran like a man possessed between the tackles, consistently pushing the pile, and there was ample space to run in there thanks to the offensive line. Brian Robinson ran hard as well, as the two combined for 145 yards on 28 carries and added another 6/61 through the air. Outside of the two plays where he tried to do too much, Tua was his spectacular self. Pass protection was very good all night. Ty Perine got his chance to punt after Will Reichard aggravated his hip flexor and averaged 46.5 on two chances, even sprinting downfield to make the tackle on one.
On the negative side, you have to start with Tua’s ankle. The way that play happened just makes you sick, as it was wholly unnecessary. Watching on replay, it didn’t even seem to twist all that much, and he was walking pretty well on it immediately afterward. Hopefully it will be one of those things that heals up well and causes no further problems, but you have to wonder why his ankles are so fragile to begin with. Mac Jones initially looked horrendous in Tua’s stead, but he settled in and made a few throws. He should be fine against an awful Arkansas squad.
Run fits are still a problem at times, and with freshman linebackers that is just going to happen. Saban noted in postgame that these guys don’t have the luxury of veterans who have played in games to help them along, that they just have to learn through baptism by fire. The placekicking still sucks. Penalties were once again out of control, with Alabama matching Tennessee’s 93 yards’ worth on the night.
So, that’s about it. There were a couple of stressful moments, but Alabama managed to win the second half 14-3 without its generational QB, and they now face the prospect of Mac Jones getting all of the first team reps going into Arkansas week. Tua said after the game that he will be back for LSU, and you have to wonder if that went into the decision to pull him. Saban knows that he will need a healthy Tua to have a chance in that one.
Buckle up, folks. This is going to be a wild ride.