KNOXVILLE – Tua Tagovailoa, the next Heisman Trophy winner for the team that’s in the process of ruining this college football season, made a play Saturday at Neyland Stadium that defied even Tua logic.
It was 28-0 for No. 1 Alabama over Tennessee at this point, on the way to a 58-21 naming of the Crimson Tide score, but the Vols were still fighting. On third and 16, Tennessee’s Kyle Phillips and Alexis Johnson barged into the backfield. Tagovailoa ran around. He evaded them. He kept himself alive. He barely got off a throw. All these things happen in football.
But throwing off your back foot — while essentially stumbling backward — all the way across the field, about 40 yards in the air, and somehow hitting your intended receiver in the arm? That happens in video games. Well, it will happen when someone designs a video game in which omnipotent robots play quarterback.
It’s over, people. The national championship, the Heisman, the NFL’s No. 1 pick in 2020. (Yes, college football has to deal with this guy for another season after this.) He’s so good, a long-term injury to him is the only thing that can change where this is heading. He’s so good, he’s already earned one-name status — like Madonna, Ghandi and Sting — and that means I’m allowed to write the rest of this column without trying to spell his last name correctly again.
Back to Tua in a moment. Let’s talk about the Vols (3-4, 1-3 SEC). They should not feel terrible about this result. Seriously. About some of their mental mistakes, yes, including freshman Alontae Taylor punching his way out of the game. But some of the other miscues can be attributed to an overwhelming opponent.
A matter-of-fact and somewhat perturbed Jeremy Pruitt said afterward that “there were some guys on our team that this game was way too big for them.”
“If you just look at the whole deal, they lined up and whipped us between the whistles the whole time, and we made silly mistakes,” Pruitt said. “That’s my fault.”
A week earlier in Pruitt’s first signature win, at Auburn, his Vols created their own momentum. They can get right back to it in a week at South Carolina.
They need to win three of their last five, and after South Carolina it’s Charlotte, Kentucky and Missouri at home, then the season-ending visit to Vanderbilt. Tennessee should not be counted out of any of them, even if the collarbone injury that knocked Jarrett Guarantano out in the second quarter is a long-term issue (which Pruitt downplayed as a concern afterward).
Former UT coach Butch Jones is now on staff at Alabama
Mike Wilson, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
Keller Chryst did not make a case to start over Guarantano if both are healthy, but he did show the importance of the Vols getting him to transfer from Stanford for this season. And he will give this team a chance if necessary.
Even that Vols defense, overmatched from the first snap, kept playing in front of a crowd of 97,087 that started thinning after the Tide scored a quick 28 in the first 11 minutes. Down 37 points in the third quarter, Phillips grabbed a batted Jalen Hurts pass and returned it for a touchdown. Good for the Hillsboro grad and son of TSU athletic director Teresa Phillips.
So that’s Tennessee. Somehow worthy of feeling OK about things after a 37-point loss and record-setting point allowance to a rival. And the rest of college football? You’re playing for second place.
Don’t give me Clemson, don’t give me Ohio State and please — please! — don’t make us watch Notre Dame lose by 40 to these guys. LSU? They’ll get destroyed at home by Nick Saban’s crew in two weeks. Michigan? A rising playoff contender and the best defense in college football, but it would be made to look like a maize-and-blue sieve by Tua and Co.
He actually had an off day by his standards Saturday, finishing 19 for 29 for 306 yards and four touchdowns, a quarterback rating of 199.7. That’s well below the nation-leading 248.1 he brought to the game. He actually missed high on a couple of open receivers and nearly threw his first interception of the season (the touchdown-to-pick ratio is now 25 to 0, by the way).
He also threw touchdown passes to Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs III that were so well-placed, it looked like someone was controlling the football with a remote control and gently placing it into the receivers’ hands. Perhaps the work of an omnipotent robot.
You can spend a good hour going through Alabama offensive numbers in search of the most ridiculous one, and I think I found it. According to Alabama assistant athletic director Josh Maxson’s game notes, receiver Jerry Jeudy came into the game averaging 4.6 yards PER PASS ROUTE RUN. I mean, 27 yards a catch is great, but think about that: Alabama is essentially guaranteed a first down on any series in which Jeudy just goes out for a pass twice.
“They’re showing the world that you can make something happen with great weapons,” Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior said of the Crimson Tide, which is as close as a player is going to get to being frank about an opponent’s greatness in the wake of a loss like this.
No one is beating this Alabama team. No one is coming close. And that stinks for everyone who isn’t an Alabama fan. But maybe next year when backup quarterback Jalen Hurts is somewhere else and the offensive line has to be rebuilt and Damien Harris is gone and all that’s left is Tua and all those receivers and Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris…
Deep sigh, college football. “Like a Prayer” was a hit for Madonna. It’s also a fair description of this sport’s chances of avoiding the oncoming Bama repeat and three-peat.
Contact Joe Rexrode at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.
GRADING THE VOLS: Tennessee falls flat against No. 1 Alabama