Monday Down South: Alabama can still win big without Jaylen Waddle, but it can't replace him
Weekly takeaways, trends and technicalities from the weekend’s action.
Even Bama will miss Jaylen Waddle
Without Waddle, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury on the opening kickoff, the Crimson Tide still proceeded to incinerate a perfectly competent Tennessee defense for 587 yards on 7.7 per play, nearly 2/3 of that output coming via Mac Jones‘ right arm. They still boast the most complete wideout in the country in DeVonta Smith and arguably the most electric deep threat in John Metchie III, who leads the SEC in yards per catch (23.8) and receptions of 40+ yards (5); against the Vols, Smith, Metchie and Waddle’s replacement in the slot, obscure sophomore Slade Bolden, still combined for 318 yards on 20 grabs, before even factoring in the all-purpose contributions of Najee Harris out of the backfield.
Jones completed his first 11 attempts, the Tide ripped off 4 straight touchdown drives in the first half, and the result was never remotely in doubt. All par for the course.
This is, after all, the same outfit that has already replaced a pair of 1st-round receivers (not to mention the most prolific passer in school history) without missing a beat over the first half of the season. And there’s no reason to suspect any of the remaining 5 teams on the schedule will pose a significant threat, either. If any offense is capable of surviving the loss of a dynamic threat like Waddle, Bama has already proven that it’s the one.
Still, if the Tide don’t necessarily need Waddle to stay on course for the Playoff, at the very least the path is slightly narrower than it was on Saturday morning. Waddle has always been an electric, big-play-waiting-to-happen kind of player, as exciting with the ball in his hands as anyone in America, and prior to the injury, he was well on his way to the most productive season of his career. But he has also been a clutch player. On the rare occasions that Alabama really has needed a spark over the past few years, Waddle has usually been the guy to supply it:
• Against Georgia in the 2018 SEC Championship Game, Waddle (then a true freshman) ignited the Tide’s 2nd-half rally with a 51-yard touchdown catch late in the 3rd quarter, cutting UGA’s lead to 28-21 in an eventual 35-28 Bama win.
Confirmed: Jaylen Waddle is incredibly fast. pic.twitter.com/p6TgHkBVsa
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 1, 2018
• Against LSU in 2019, Waddle singlehandedly curbed the Tigers’ early momentum on a whirling, 77-yard punt return that prevented a quick 10-0 deficit from becoming a blowout before Bama’s offense managed to get on track.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 9, 2019
• In his career-defining performance in last year’s Iron Bowl, all 4 of Waddle’s touchdowns came with Bama trailing, most memorably a) a 98-yard kickoff return in the 1st half that evened the score following a deflating pick-6; and b) a spectacular, 28-yard TD grab that gave the Tide a 45-40 lead in the 4th quarter.
This Jaylen Waddle touchdown return is a work of art. pic.twitter.com/4ZcGsgYp42
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 30, 2019
• In their 41-24 win over Georgia earlier this month, it was once again Waddle who kicked off the comeback on a go-ahead, 90-yard TD strike in the 3rd quarter, the first of 21 unanswered points to end the game.
GOODBYE JAYLEN WADDLE! 90 YARDS TO THE HOUSE! pic.twitter.com/SCaA6rYY9e
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 18, 2020
In fact, since he arrived on campus Waddle has only played in 1 game in which he failed to score with Alabama trailing either after halftime or by double digits at any point: The 2018 National Championship Game against Clemson. Otherwise, on a team full of playmakers, no one has been more likely to make big plays that matter when the team’s back is against the wall.
Of course, “electric” is more a know-it-when-you-see-it quality than one that’s easily quantified. (So is “clutch” – DeVonta Smith obviously has a track record in high-leverage moments, too, and not only on 2nd-and-26.) Bolden, a former 3-star recruit who had barely registered on the stat sheet before Saturday, had a breakout game in Knoxville with 6 catches for 94 yards. Metchie made good on the opportunity to expand on his role as the resident deep threat with 7 for 151. Mac Jones emerged with his Heisman campaign very much intact.
Even for a lineup as loaded as Alabama’s, though, it’s hard to imagine that Waddle’s impact won’t eventually be missed. His versatility, his enormous value in the return game, and the field-stretching stress he inflicted on opposing secondaries were most obvious on big stages against the best teams on the schedule; assuming his recovery unfolds as expected, those same explosive qualities will almost certainly make him a first-round draft pick next year. With all due respect to Bolden, he’ll never pose the same type of threat to Playoff-caliber defenses because the same type of threat doesn’t exist right now anywhere else in college football.
Which, again, is not to say the Tide can’t continue to make enough big plays to run the table with the blue-chip cast that remains. But it did just get a little bit harder. Sooner or later, Waddle is the type of talent whose absence gets noticed.
This week in Tank
Auburn 35, Ole Miss 28. For weeks Auburn fans pleaded to the relevant authorities to make freshman RB Tank Bigsby a higher priority in the offense. Saturday was a vindication for their efforts.
Oh my Tank Bigsby. 😳😳😳https://t.co/ArRKX81Zvp
— Saturday Down South (@SDS) October 24, 2020
You might reasonably expect a guy nicknamed “Tank” to check in at somewhat larger than 6-0, 204 pounds, Bigsby’s official stature per the school. The more opportunities he gets, though, the more he continues to justify the heavy-duty moniker. In Oxford, he rolled through the Rebels for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns on a season-high 24 carries while breaking (by my unofficial count) a dozen tackles in the process — not counting the ones he shed on a 100-yard kickoff return that was negated by a penalty to open the second half, or the plays on which he dragged and/or barreled over the tackler for additional yardage, as he frequently did.
Yes, that’s a reflection of a very bad Ole Miss defense. But it’s also in keeping with the trend line over the first half of the season: Among backs with at least 50 carries, Bigsby leads the SEC in both broken tackle percentage (41.9%) and yards after contact (265, or 61.3% of his total output). He’s already joined Bo Jackson (1982) and Michael Dyer (2010) as the only freshmen in Auburn history with 3 100-yard rushing games in their debut season — seriously, think of some of the great Auburn backs who are not on that list — and he’s done it in 3 consecutive games in his first month in the lineup.
If Tank is a headliner, fellow freshman J.J. Pegues is a burgeoning cult figure. Although he didn’t touch the ball against Ole Miss (he has 5 touches for 20 yards on the season), the 6-2, 300-pound Pegues played nearly as prominent a role in the Tigers’ ground game as anyone who did, paving the way from his H-back position on a regular basis with suitably bruising results.
Almost exactly half of Bigsby’s output (64 of 129 yards) came with Pegues serving as a lead blocker, including both of his touchdown runs and his longest gain of the day, a 19-yard gain on 3rd-and-short behind a viral de-cleater from the big boy …
6'2" 300 lbs.
True freshman 😳😤 pic.twitter.com/qULCShmsrS
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 25, 2020
… to extend a key 3rd-quarter drive that would end with a 1-yard TD plunge by Shaun Shivers to tie the game. After watching Bo Nix put the ball in the air 47 times with 3 interceptions in a deflating loss to South Carolina, some dedicated man-ball was just what the doctor ordered: Between Bigsby, Shivers (60 yards on 5.5 per carry in his first sustained action of the season) and Nix (59 on 7.4 ypc, excluding sacks), Auburn delivered arguably its most balanced rushing performance of the season and a glimpse of the offense’s potential when it plays to its strengths.
As usual on Malzahn’s watch, that begins and ends with a workhorse back who can consistently pound out a living between the tackles, and for the first time since Kerryon Johnson the Tigers can be certain they have one.
LSU: Back to the grind?
LSU 54, South Carolina 24. Statistically, this game was a whole lot closer on a down-by-down basis than the final score suggested, mostly due to a handful of big South Carolina miscues: The Gamecocks missed 3 field goals and gave up a couple of cheap touchdowns via kickoff return and pick-6, respectively, amounting to a 23-point swing in LSU’s direction. When not randomly imploding, Carolina actually outgained the Tigers in terms of yards per play, 7.9 to 7.2, and only punted once.
But the caveats only go so far. In addition to taking advantage of the Gamecocks’ gaffes, LSU racked up 541 yards of total offense, converted 8 of 10 attempts on 3rd downs, amassed a 15-minute edge in time of possession, and didn’t punt at all — a stellar effort made all the more so by the fact that the Tigers were rolling with a true freshman quarterback, TJ Finley, making his first career start behind center in place of the injured Myles Brennan.
Finley, a 6-6, 242-pound project from nearby Ponchatoula, looked the part, finishing 17-of-21 for 265 yards with 3 total TDs (2 passing, 1 rushing) and an interception that punctuated LSU’s only non-scoring drive prior to garbage time.
Inevitably, the buzz in response to Finley’s debut was loud enough that Ed Orgeron felt compelled to assure reporters after the game that Brennan’s job will be waiting for him when he returns to the lineup, whenever that may be.
The bigger question is what kind of run support will be waiting for him. The running game was a nonentity in the Tigers’ losses at Mississippi State and Missouri, forcing Brennan to go to the air a combined 94 times in those games as the team eked out an anemic 2.2 yards per carry (including sacks). On Saturday, they looked like a different unit entirely, riding sophomore RBs John Emery Jr. and Tyrion Davis-Price to the tune of 223 yards on 5.9 per carry, facilitating manageable down-and-distance situations for their young quarterback while chewing up clock, as well.
LSU isn’t about to retreat from the full-blown spread passing offense that obliterated the school record book last year, but Brennan’s high-volume output in the 2 losses felt more like necessity than choice. If they can continue to manage it with Auburn and Alabama on deck, more balance only makes the offense more dangerous.
The best of the week.
1. Alabama QB Mac Jones. Jones occupies the top spot for the 4th week in a row, claiming it all for himself this time after finishing 25-of-31 for 387 yards in Bama’s blowout win at Tennessee. Whatever questions remain about his athleticism, his decision-making and downfield accuracy continue to render them irrelevant.
2. Auburn RB Tank Bigsby and WR Seth Williams. Bigsby’s above-the-fold afternoon in Oxford we’ve already covered, but for sheer athletic spectacle, the Seth Williams Show is one of the season’s breakout hits. Against Ole Miss, Williams had one of the most productive days of his career with 8 catches for 150 yards, a total that included a jump ball in double coverage …
Bo Nix find Seth Williams deep to set up a Shawn Shivers 1-yd TD pic.twitter.com/SFCfSQKYkD
— Power of Dixieland (@Power_Dixieland) October 24, 2020
… an open-field hurdle …
Goodness gracious Seth Williams pic.twitter.com/LSkOUNwMr6
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) October 24, 2020
… and the go-ahead/game-winning touchdown from 58 yards out:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 24, 2020
Seth Williams is a mutant whose hands are black holes sucking in everything that enters their radius.
3. LSU RBs Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. The running game has been a sore spot for LSU, but watching the Tigers’ sophomore backs emerge in tandem against South Carolina was an encouraging glimpse at their potential, if nothing else. As the season wears on, it’s not difficult to imagine the offense evolving back into a more run-oriented mindset.
4. Alabama RB Najee Harris and WR John Metchie III. Harris had one of those days against Tennessee that looks good enough on paper (20 carries for 96 yards, 3 TDs + 61 yards receiving) and just left you shaking your head in real time:
Trying to tackle Najee Harris doesn't seem like a fun task. pic.twitter.com/czoAv1I1tp
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 24, 2020
You know: A Najee Harris type of day.
For Metchie’s part, although he didn’t find the end zone, he did step up in Jaylen Waddle’s absence to bring in 7 receptions for 151 yards, including 2 grabs that gained 45 yards apiece. That pushed his season average to 23.8 yards per catch, the best of any FBS player with at least 15 catches this year.
5. Auburn DB Roger McCreary. McCreary was credited with 5 tackles and 2 tackles for loss in the Tigers’ win over Ole Miss, one of them coming on an ill-fated fake punt attempt by the Rebels. He also accounted for the game’s first and only turnover with an end-zone interception off Rebels QB Matt Corral to thwart a scoring opportunity on the game’s opening possession.
Honorable Mention: LSU WR Terrace Marshall Jr., who had a relatively quiet day by his standards with 6 catches for 88 yards and 2 TDs in the Tigers’ win over South Carolina. … South Carolina RB Kevin Harris, who continued his streak of solid games with 126 yards and 2 TDs against LSU on only a dozen carries. … Alabama DB Patrick Surtain II, who turned in arguably his best game of the season with 4 tackles and 3 PBUs against Tennessee. … Ole Miss LB Sam Williams, who finished with 11 tackles and 3 TFLs against vs. … Auburn LB Owen Pappoe, who recorded a team-high 14 tackles against Ole Miss. … South Carolina LB Ernest Jones, who had 19 tackles in the Gamecocks’ loss at LSU. … LSU DE B.J. Ojulari who had 3 sacks against the Gamecocks. … And Kentucky LB Yusuf Corker who tackled up 18 tackles (16 solo) in the Wildcats’ 20-10 loss at Missouri with a pair of TFLs, including the decisive stop on a 21-play, 66-yard drive by the Tigers that drained 9:35 from the clock and ended with a turnover on downs when Corker dropped Mizzou QB Connor Bazelak inside the UK 10-yard line.
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The scoring system for players honored in Superlatives awards 8 points for the week’s top player, 6 for 2nd, 5 for 3rd, 4 for 4th, 3 for 5th and 1 for honorable mention, because how honorable is it really if it doesn’t come with any points? The standings are updated weekly with the top 10 players for the season to date.