CECIL HURT: The beat goes on for Alabama football in Knoxville, but the cost is high

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When will it stop against Rocky Top?

Not the streak. Alabama extended its string of consecutive wins against its historic rival to a record 14 games with a 48-17 victory over Tennessee, almost a casual victory that showed no particular hints that the gap between the two programs isn’t as wide as it has been for the past decade and a half.

That’s Tennessee’s agony in this series. Alabama has been different, more bitter, a pinch of wormwood wrapped in those victory cigars that Alabama annually enjoys. Last year, it was Tua Tagovailoa going down with a high ankle sprain. That didn’t end his season, but he never seemed quite the same after his return, not against LSU certainly. (There is no  medically foolproof way to measure if there was any lingering contributory effect when Tagovailoa sustained his catastrophic hip injury against Mississippi State.) 

On Saturday, it was Jaylen Waddle. One play, a kickoff return. An awkward angle of the ankle as he was tackled on the play. That was the cruel end of a season, probably a career, almost as if he had simply been teleported out of the college football world to reappear somewhere in the NFL in the future. 

Oct 24, 2020; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA;   Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) pushes back Tennessee defensive back Trevon Flowers (1) in the second half during a game between Alabama and Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. Mandatory Credit: Caitie McMekin-USA TODAY NETWORK

The “debate” about whether Waddle should have been returning kicks exists only in hindsight, or in those venues where such idle debating drives ratings. Waddle was Alabama’s best kick returner, just like Henry Ruggs III was when he was back there, or when UA’s best safety, Eddie Jackson, was returning punts – or, if you want to go back that far, when David Palmer was returning kicks along with everything else even though he was a great wide receiver and a good emergency option at quarterback as well.

That doesn’t mean there is no risk, or that Alabama isn’t paying a high price. But it’s a question that no one had raised with Nick Saban all season long.

The first question for Alabama now is how high that cost will be. The Crimson Tide will still be favored to finish the regular season with an undefeated record. The Tennessee game, after Play One, was clear evidence that there is plenty of offensive firepower. John Metchie III had more than 150 yards receiving, and Slade Bolden, now the surrogate Waddle, was solid. But there will be hidden costs along the way. 

Defensive coordinators will be willing to double-team DeVonta Smith without Waddle on the other side. Metchie can make those defenses pay, as he did on Saturday, but there will be more incentive to roll those dice. Without Waddle returning punts, you lose a home-run threat but also those small-but-significant concession yards when teams simply kicked away from him. And, as Alabama’s defense still has its ups and downs, those yards, those points, will not be luxuries in the postseason. They will be necessities. 

No catastrophe affects an offense the way losing a franchise quarterback does. Alabama can adjust. It adjusted without Tagovailoa last year, although one will never know if he’d have carried Alabama to a title if he hadn’t sprained that ankle against Tennessee, maybe having just a bit extra against LSU. The ultimate toll of losing Waddle will be measured in December for Alabama.

For the college football world at large, we already know the answer: it’s a damn shame.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt