This was a win that started with a loss.
Alabama 48, Tennessee 17 will be remembered for the asterisk that came with Jaylen Waddle’s opening-kickoff, season-ending broken ankle. What followed was the expected offensive clinic quarterbacked by Mac Jones and the other usual suspects as Alabama offered a first look at the plan minus Waddle.
With five games left in this already-abnormal regular season adjustments will come minus one of the most explosive receivers in the golden age of the Alabama passing game.
For Slade Bolden, it meant an immediate promotion from the second wave to the front line. The sophomore from West Monroe, Louisiana was targeted just once in the first four games before catching six passes for 94 yards in Knoxville.
Nick Saban said he thought Bolden “played well” before noting a drop he had on a laser from Bryce Young in the fourth quarter.
He was also the only other wide out other than John Metchie and DeVonta Smith to be targeted as Saban wants to build more depth.
And that’s where this league-only schedule adds a twist to the development process.
“We need some of our young guys — this is one of the things that, not having a couple games outside the SEC where you can play some of these guys … we’re going to have to have some of those guys step up and be ready to play,” Saban said. “And they have really gotten much experience.”
Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain listed a few freshman receivers to keep an eye on moving into the second half of the season. The group includes Javon Baker, Traeshon Holden and Thaiu Jones-Bell. Holden is the only of those three who’ve seen playing time to date as the Kissimmee, Florida product saw late action in Knoxville. Third-year sophomore Xavier Williams is also an option on the depth chart.
For now, the offense didn’t suffer too much.
Mac Jones still threw for 387 yards, completed his first 11 passes and finished 25-for-31. Najee Harris caught six passes out of the backfield for 61 yards while Metchie continued his breakout season. His seven-catch, 151-yard afternoon marked his second triple-digit performance as a favorite Jones downfield option. The Canadian averages 23.8 yards per catch with 21 receptions in his first season starting.
“He’s a strong receiver he’s got good quickness he’s got really strong hands,” Saban said. “I think he’s a smart guy. He really plays the game well, pays attention to detail runs good routes. And he’s fast. And he’s quick out of a break.”
Metchie said word of Waddle’s injury reached the sideline a few drives into the game but they had to dial in on the job at hand.
“I think we did good,” Metchie said. “It’s part of the sport. Guys get banged up and it’s the next-man-up mentality in fighting through it as a unit and as a team.”
Waddle is no small presence to replace. He had 100-yard performances in each of the four games played before Saturday with an explosive burst that made him among the most enticing draft-eligible players of the 2020 season. His 557 receiving yards still lead the team despite not catching a ball Saturday.
Much of the burden will fall to Smith, whose 556 yards only barely trail Waddle. His 45 receptions more than double Metchie’s 21 as the last remaining jewel of the 2017 receiving recruiting class.
Alabama will face Mississippi State, statistically the league’s best passing defense, next Saturday. Up next is LSU, which entered the Saturday night visit from South Carolina with the nation’s second-worst pass defense allowing 380 yards a game.
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.