Nick Saban is known for his infallibility against former assistants, but those former Saban proteges usually put up a fight—the same couldn’t be said for Jeremy Pruitt Saturday.
The most important news from the game was the injury to Alabama junior wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. After the opening kickoff, Waddle took the ball out of the endzone and sprinted toward the right sideline. As Waddle was going down, his ankle was rolled by a Tennessee defender, sending him straight into the medical tent. Waddle was then taken into the locker room and onto the hospital. Coach Nick Saban confirmed that Waddle would be out for the rest of the season.
“It’s really a sad time for me, for Jaylen Waddle and his family,” Saban said. “He’s got a very similar injury to what Kenyan Drake had. It’s a high ankle sprain but also a fracture, so they’ll probably have to do surgery on him. We’re gonna fly him back privately with doctors and take him right to Birmingham and see what we have to do right away.”
Then-junior running back Drake broke his leg in brutal fashion during the Ole Miss game in 2014. His NFL draft stock was not as high as Waddle’s, so Drake returned for his senior season where he backed up running back Derrick Henry in Henry’s Heisman year. Drake had his redemption moment during the National Championship game opposite Clemson, where he returned a kickoff for a touchdown and shifted all the momentum to the Crimson Tide. Drake went on to be drafted by the Miami Dolphins, and he currently starts for the Arizona Cardinals.
For the Alabama offense, it was next man up. Sophomore wide receiver Slade Bolden was in top shape as he filled Waddle’s role on punt returns and at receiver. Bolden finished the game with six receptions and 94 yards. Saban was overall pleased with how the offense performed but still had a couple of criticisms.
“I thought he played well,” Saban said. “He had a drop there in the end zone at the end, but I thought he made some really good plays in the game. I thought Mac [Jones] played really well, made some really good throws.”
To most, Mac Jones played better than “really well.” The redshirt junior quarterback completed 25 of his 31 passes and threw for 387 yards. Though he didn’t throw for any touchdowns, he managed to score on the ground from the one-yard line.
The key to the team’s offensive success, however, was the running game. Senior running back Najee Harris padded his Heisman résumé with 157 total yards and three touchdowns.
The defense has been the main concern for most fans and analysts throughout Alabama’s undefeated season thus far. The defense had a resurgence against a struggling Tennessee offense. One of the highlights of the afternoon was when freshman defensive back Malachi Moore recovered a stripped fumble and took it into the endzone for the score. After the game, junior defensive back Patrick Surtain II showed nothing but praise for the young phenom.
“Looking at a young guy making those plays, it gives us motivation across the board because you know we can depend on him,” Surtain said. “He’s making plays, as well. The sky’s the limit for him. As the season’s gone, you can tell he’s been getting better, more comfortable as the weeks go by. He’s only gonna get better.”
The defense’s potential had to be reassuring to most Alabama fans Saturday. In this revitalized, offense-heavy college football era, the days of holding a team scoreless are far less likely. Tack on the COVID-19-related losses of preseason practice and the SEC defenses of old start to fade away.
Alabama currently leads the country in points scored per game, averaging 48.4. This high scoring volume leads to opposing offenses getting more opportunities to score, which can put a defense on its heels as the game goes on. After the game, Saban said that the defense played its best football of the year.
“This is probably the best we’ve played,” Saban said. “Even though there’s some plays in there you can be critical of. I’m sure we’ll do everything we can to get it fixed. But I was proud of the way the guys played. They played with a little more confidence, and we were pretty aggressive overall.”
Alabama got great reps against a hurry-up offense as the team prepares for Mississippi State at home Oct. 31. Tennessee only managed to score 17 points, which is the lowest an Alabama opponent has scored all season long. Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano had an inefficient afternoon for the majority of the game, going 13 for 24 and only 167 yards. Saban said the defense will use this game as a stepping stool moving forward.
“I think at times, we did OK, but I think we gave up at least three big plays, maybe four,” Saban said. “They were running the ball a lot. Early in the game, we weren’t stopping runs really well, so we put a little bit more pressure on the secondary. In the second half, though, we really shouldn’t have given up the plays just because we were playing split-safety coverages, but we’ll look at it and try to get it fixed.”
Alabama will host Mississippi State on Halloween afternoon. Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach and his air raid style offense will be looking to bounce back after losing three straight games.