TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — In the end it didn't matter. No Tua. No problem. At least not when the opponent was 34.5-point underdog Tennessee, the game was in Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium and the officials' whistles gave the visitors no breaks throughout the Crimson Tide's 35-13 win Saturday night.
Yet to look ahead, one can't help but wonder how vulnerable the top-ranked Tide might be if Tua Tagovailoa, their Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, is out for an extended period of time with an apparent right ankle injury.
"He's got a high ankle sprain," Bama boss Nick Saban told ESPN immediately after the game. "He's probably out one to two weeks."
As long as it's not more than that, the Tide should be just fine. Arkansas is on tap next for Alabama, the second of three straight Southeastern Conference games inside Bryant-Denny. Then comes an open date, followed by the potential game of the year between Bama and current No. 2 LSU.
Saban almost seemed to relish winning this one without Tua, saying, "I'm really pleased we had to grind this one out."
And if Tagovailoa can really be fully recovered by Nov. 9 against the Tigers, America's football fans should be in for a treat. But if it's reserve quarterback Mac Jones against LSU, another dream Alabama season might fail to meet national championship goals for a second straight year.
After all, despite the relatively comfortable victory margin, this was also a game long in doubt, and not really secured until the Volunteers fumbled on the goal line on a play that might have pulled them within eight points with less than eight minutes to play — but instead went the other way for a 100-yard touchdown by defensive back Trevon Diggs.
That score with the ensuing extra point not only provided the final margin but delivered perhaps the lasting image of this game for the Big Orange Nation.
For as Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano left the field after fumbling the ball as he attempted to put it across the goal line, noticeably angry coach Jeremy Pruitt met him on the field, appearing to yell at the redshirt junior as he pointed his finger at him, even briefly appearing to yank at his QB's facemask.
The tirade continued for more than two minutes, and it would surprise no one if Guarantano has taken his last snap for the Big Orange, however right or wrong that scenario might prove to be for a struggling team that can't seem to find a suitable quarterback on the roster.
Especially when players later confessed that the play that was run was not the play that had been called.
Yet whether due to injuries or ineptness, it seems for every step forward one of the three Tennessee quarterbacks — Guarantano, Saturday starter Brian Maurer or third-teamer J.T. Shrout — takes, it is soon followed by a step or two backward.
Against the Tide, Guarantano was in the game only because of a hit to Maurer's head. After yanking Guarantano after the goal-line fumble, Pruitt watched Shrout unload a beauty of a pass down the right sideline for Josh Palmer, who couldn't quite haul in the throw.
But two plays later, Shrout also appeared to trip over his feet while attempting to avoid being sacked. The play lost 12 yards.
Point is, as difficult as this is for the Big Orange Nation to accept, if Guarantano is so far in the doghouse that he can't escape, and Maurer — having possibly sustained two concussions in two weeks — isn't allowed to face South Carolina next Saturday, Shrout might become the starting quarterback by default.
No offense to the redshirt freshman from California, but if Shrout is in, any realistic chance for a bowl bid might be out for the Vols, who now stand 2-5 overall and 1-3 in the SEC.
That said, this was quite possibly the most impressive coaching job turned in by Pruitt over his first 19 games on Rocky Top. If Guarantano scores instead of fumbles, this one might have gone to the wire with Tennessee owning the better kicker.
"You have to give Tennessee a lot of credit," Saban said. "They gave us a lot of formation variations."
But in the end it wasn't enough. Bama has won 13 in a row against the Vols, not that it will be the news of the day. Instead, it will be the health of the Bama quarterback that will be on the minds of most of the college football community in the weeks to come. Story upon story will be written about the seriousness of a high ankle sprain. What's the treatment? Is the Tide medical staff hiding anything? Should Tua risk further injury when half the NFL's teams are tanking to have a shot at drafting him?
And if he plays, will he be healthy enough to escape an LSU pass rush that would like nothing better than to send him to the sideline due to that injury flaring up?
Once upon a time in the late fall of 1971, the entire state of Alabama was held hostage by an injury to Tide running back Johnny Musso's big toe during the week leading up to the Iron Bowl against Auburn, both teams entering that game with perfect records and Tigers quarterback Pat Sullivan having won the Heisman Trophy a couple of days before the game.
Musso played and Bama crushed the Tigers 31-7. It's unlikely such a history would repeat against LSU. The Tigers look too good at the moment. But the other part, the Heart of Dixie becoming overwrought over Tua's injured ankle, is almost a 100% certainty.
Because as UT proved again Saturday night, when you don't have a quarterback you can count on, you almost always can count on losing.