The distraction of flashy things collided with the grimness of the real world at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The crowd loved the new lights, as expected. They did not love what happened under those lights.
Yes, Alabama extended its streak of wins over Tennessee to a rivalry-record 13 games, but it remains to be seen how unlucky that No. 13 could turn out to be. That particularly depends on the status of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, upon whom Alabama’s streak of College Football Playoff appearances depends.
Nick Saban indicated after the game Tagovailoa had a “high ankle sprain” and would probably be out “a week or two,” but that prognosis is cutting it close for everyone counting the three weeks until Alabama hosts LSU in a decisive SEC West game. Last year’s ankle problems sounded similar, and Tagovailoa never seemed to really recover his full form. All injuries are different, so time will tell. At best, there seems to be no likelihood (or reason) that Tagovailoa will play in next Saturday’s game against Arkansas. Two long weeks of speculation will follow that.
His absence certainly proved one thing: Alabama’s offensive success this year hasn’t simply been a case of a “great supporting cast.” Tagovailoa is the straw that stirs the drink. An orchestra needs a great conductor or else it can end up sounding like a marching kazoo band. The drop-off after Tagovailoa to Mac Jones — who, to be fair, came into a tough situation — was precipitous. No statistic was more revealing of the bizarre nature of the game than this: Alabama had one touchdown pass in the game, thrown by a wide receiver, Slade Bolden.
Saban, in the usual course of post-game comments, expressed confidence in Jones despite his inconsistent evening.
“Mac did some good things,” Saban said. “Our players have confidence in him.”
Even before Tagovailoa went off the field, things were not going exactly the way Alabama wanted. Part of that was a mistake on Tagovailoa’s part.
With a first-and-goal at the Tennessee 2-yard line and Alabama threatening to score a momentum-making touchdown that would have been hard for UT to overcome, the Crimson Tide called a pass, surprisingly.
Tagovailoa was pressured, scrambled and, rather than throwing the ball away with little harm done and a second-and-goal coming, he tried to be Superman. He’s been Superman before, but that wasn’t needed in the situation, which was more “kitten in tree” than “invasion of hostile aliens.” The result was a throw into coverage, a 50-yard return and a series of events that kept the game within reach for Tennessee until Trevon Diggs’ 100-yard fumble return in the fourth quarter put the Volunteers away.
In the postgame, Saban didn’t say a great deal about Tagovailoa’s status. He looked for positives, for the most part, and grumbled, slightly, about expectations that “we are going to score 58 points a game and not give up a first down on defense, and that’s not going to happen.
“We want to be perfect, but that’s not realistic, Somewhere along the line, we hope to be excellent. We’re not there yet. And everybody’s got to do more. We’ve got to do more to get better.”
That includes having everyone available — or at least as close to everyone as this injury-plagued team can have —when the situation calls for it. That may happen, but it will be a long three-week wait before certainty.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.