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It has been a homecoming tradition in college football to have a large bonfire before the game.
Not at Bama.
During No. 3 Alabama’s 52-24 win over Tennessee Saturday, the Crimson Tide lit up the Volunteers 28-7 in the fourth quarter and a series of small bonfires broke out in Bryant-Denny Stadium. They were victory cigar fires, which is an Alabama tradition in the Tennessee series..
“It was like a bonfire, man,” Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal said. “I almost got a headache. But I enjoy the second-hand smoke, I’m not going to lie. Got a little nicotine buzz before we got to smoke a cigar.”
The Tide (7-1, 4-1 SEC) has won its second straight since the loss to Texas A&M and won its 15th in a row over Tennessee. Alabama has an open week and then will host LSU (4-4, 2-3 SEC) on Nov. 6.
“It was very noticeable,” said tight end Cameron Latu, who caught three passes for 55 yards. “There was a lot of smoke everywhere.”
As the Tide celebrated, Alabama coach Nick Saban started smoking himself in a postgame interview on ESPN when the interviewer mentioned the “mental lapses” of his team.
“Well, look we beat Tennessee today, so I’m really happy about that,” he said, growing agitated. “It wasn’t a perfect game, and it wasn’t perfect execution. But these people are really, really happy that we beat Tennessee, and I’m really happy we beat Tennessee.”
Saban said, “I’m happy” in an argumentative tone as he is wont to do. Sort of like, “I’m happy, dammit. Can’t you see?”
Saban did not have smoke exiting his ears, but he was obviously not happy about the interviewer’s choice of words.
“We’ve got a bye week. We need to fix some things, so let’s don’t worry about ‘mental lapses’ right now,” he said “Let’s enjoy the win.”
Could Saban, who turns 70 on Halloween, be mellowing before our very eyes? Or was this an early Halloween costume?
Alabama did have some mental breakdowns in the secondary that allowed Tennessee (4-4, 2-3) to stay in the game via big plays.
“We gave a lot of things away, which we need to fix, which we will,” Saban said.
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker threw a 70-yard touchdown to wide receiver Cedric Tillman to get the Vols within seven early in the fourth quarter. Just before the snap, Alabama cornerback Josh Jobe was looking to the sideline for a signal.
“And they went fast and snapped the ball,” Saban said. “The guy (Tillman) ran right by him before he ever was even lined up and ready to play.”
Alabama will be working on such coverage busts and pre-snap penalties during the open week.
“But I’m not going to be negative about the game,” Saban insisted. “I’m not going to be negative about our team. I’m really positive about the way they kept competing in the game. Even though everything wasn’t perfect, we made the plays we needed to win the game.”
Saban then tried to convince a doubting audience.
“I’m excited. I’m happy. I’m pleased,” he said. “There are just some things we need to do better.”
Safety Malachi Moore said “knowing situations and down and distance” will help, as will better open field tackling and fewer mental errors.
Hooker completed 19 of 28 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns, including a 57-yard score to put the Vols ahead 14-7 in the second quarter.
“The defensive backs didn’t play the coverages correctly, and we’ve got to get those things fixed,” Saban said. “We had some match-up issues. We need to fix those things. But the offense answered, and we kept scoring points.”
Saban kept turning back to positive messages.
“Appreciate the fans. They were great,” he said.
Neal agreed wholeheartedly that the fans — all 100,077 of them — lit a fire under the Tide, even though by the fourth quarter, he could not see them through the cigar smoke.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Every game needs to be like that. We do have an electrfying stadium. I love our fans. We need to keep packing our stadium and keep going crazy in there.”
Saban will get away for a day or two at his lake house. The players plan on getting off their feet, too.
“Relax, regroup, but also get better as a team,” Neal said. “Continue to work on finishing.”
And maybe light up.