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Initial Impressions from the Tennessee Game

Alabama’s loaded offense and improving defense got the job done in Knoxville.

Alabama vs Tennessee Photo by Kent Gidley/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

After a horrendous start that saw superstar WR Jaylen Waddle end his Alabama career with a broken ankle, the Tide forged on with a workmanlike effort to dismantle Tennessee in Knoxville. Seeing Waddle go down was heartbreaking, particularly on such an insignificant play. That was the only kick return the Tide attempted on Saturday, and oh to be able to go back in time and have him fair catch the ball.

That’s isn’t Waddle’s game, of course. Returning kicks will be a specialty in the NFL for him. He has the rare ability to take the ball to the house any time he touches it, and it would be hypocritical to have enjoyed all of the eye-popping plays, some of which seemed impossible, and then decry his decision to make something out of nothing on the opening kick. It just sucks, is all. He’s young, has access to world renowned orthopedic surgeons, and should make a full recovery in time to showcase himself before April’s draft. He will miss out on making some more great memories in Crimson, however, and in that we all lose. Get well, Jaylen.

The silver lining here is that the Alabama offense suffered no ill effects against a Tennessee defense that, according to SP+, has been the second best in the SEC this season. In fact, Alabama has now faced three of the top four SEC defenses, other than their own, in that metric: Georgia (#1 nationally), Tennessee (#18), and Texas A&M (#27). In those three games they have averaged 42 offensive points on 565 yards. Elite offenses are making a mockery of great defense all across the country, and Alabama is leading the charge. Imagine predicting something like that ten years ago.

What more can be said about Mac Jones? Yes, he fit a couple of balls into tight spaces and against Tennessee it may not have been necessary, but if the Tide is to reach all of its goals this year, some of those throws will be needed down the road. All Mac did in this one was complete 81% of his 31 passes, for 387 yards. Sadly, his record streak of 400 yard performances ended at three games as he yielded to Bryce Young late. All of the offensive TDs in this one happened to be of the rushing variety, resulting in Jones’ first sub-200 passer rating of the year. He still holds steady at #1 with a 220.1 mark.

John Metchie III was the main beneficiary of Waddle’s downfield targets, and he made the most of them with seven catches for 151 yards. His one fearless grab of a 50/50 ball to place the ball inside the five yard line was a highlight. Jones will have to lean more on Metchie going forward, and thus far he looks to be ready for it. Slade Bolden played in the slot and looked plenty capable in that role, snagging 6/94. He did have the ball punched out of his grasp for the Tide’s only turnover in the game and had a touchdown pass from Young go through his hands on a slant. In fairness to Slade, that ball had a ton of heat on it. DeVonta Smith finished with 7/73, and he can count on seeing extra attention from opposing defenses now.

The run game was efficient. Alabama’s top three rushers averaged a shade over five yards a pop, led by Najee Harris who tallied 96 yards on 20 carries, with three TDs. Najee now has 14 rushing TDs, an Alabama record for the first five games of a season. Trey Sanders earned his most extensive action yet with seven totes for 29 yards. Brian Robinson played very sparingly in this one and only saw four touches. This will be something to monitor going forward. Najee seemed a little down in the dumps on the sideline for much of the game. Perhaps it was sadness over Waddle or frustration with some blind officials who can’t seem to discern what is and isn’t a touchdown, but he seemed fine after the game.

The offensive line was its usual stellar self. Deonte Brown got nicked up in the second quarter and didn’t finish the game, though Saban doesn’t seem to concerned with the severity. Chris Owens initially came in at center, moving Landon Dickerson to left guard, but after a couple of false start penalties that may have partially been caused by late snaps, Dickerson was moved back to the middle and Kendall Randolph played left guard. The run game wasn’t quite as strong without Brown in there, but they still got the job done.

Saban acknowledged after the game that this 302 yard, 17 point defensive effort was their best to date, and it was. Tennessee’s only sustained drive ended in a field goal after the Tide made them use 13 plays to go 60 yards. Their two touchdowns were both owed to getting their fastest receiver matched up on a safety, first Jordan Battle and then Daniel Wright. Wright did manage to get him out of bounds this time, however. On the next play Patrick Surtain II was beaten for a touchdown, which has been a very rare occurrence this season. He was in man coverage and the throw was perfect.

There were times when the Tide was gashed in the run game, but Tennessee RBs Eric Gray and Ty Chandler were held to 3.24 yards per carry on the day. Most importantly, Alabama scored on defense with a fumble return by Malachi Moore, and held the Vols to 25% on third down. Defensive goals in the modern game are limiting big plays, creating some turnovers with havoc and getting off the field when the opportunity presents itself. Other than the three big plays, Alabama managed to check those boxes, albeit against a rather putrid offense.

Daniel Wright has been maligned but he got the start at safety, and with Demarco Hellams suffering some sort of arm injury, there isn’t likely to be much competition there. Wright did some things better in this game, but again the level of competition wasn’t great. Alabama will need for him to continue to develop in both coverage and tackling. Moore continues to be a bright spot at Star. Jarrett Guarantano had a pretty rough day throwing the ball against the secondary, finishing only 13/24 for 162 yards.

We learned this week that DL Ishmael Sopsher decided to enter the portal, and true freshmen Tim Smith and Jamil Burroughs made appearances this week. Perhaps the catalyst for Sopsher’s decision was seeing younger players make the travel squad while he did not. In any case, Smith and Burroughs seemed to hold up well in their initial action.

Will Reichard continues to prove that he is far from the same old, same old. There shouldn’t be anxiety when he lines up to kick. Saban seemed pleased with punter Charlie Scott’s hang time, but his kicks were not particularly far. Bolden replaced Waddle at punt returner, though he only had one attempt for four yards.

With another easy win in the books, the Tide must now begin life without Waddle. He will be missed dearly by the fans who love to watch him play, but even as a generational talent his loss is far from a death knell for this offense. Bolden will never be Waddle, but he is fast enough that defenses will still have to respect the jet motion and he has some shake in the open field. Both he and freshman Javon Baker generated buzz in camp, and it won’t be surprising to see Baker work his way into the rotation a bit as well. That would allow DeVonta Smith to operate more out of the slot, where he has shown himself to be lethal.

Alabama now moves on to face a Mississippi State team that hasn’t looked too hot since lighting up LSU in the opener, but they are coming off a bye week and throw the ball all over the yard. Alabama’s secondary will need to be ready for everything the pirate has in the playbook.

Roll Tide.