Back in 1990, I was eleven years old when a top ranked Tennessee team played a mediocre Alabama team in Neyland Stadium.
I watched the game at my grandfather’s house in Red Bank, Tennessee, a suburb of Chattanooga. My grandfather, who had played for General Neyland in the 1930’s, played against Bear Bryant on the field, and lived in a dorm room in Neyland Stadium, was such a huge Tennessee fan that on doctor’s orders, because he got too worked up, he taped every Vol game and waited for my uncle to call him to let him know if Tennessee had won or lost. If they won, he watched, if they lost, he didn’t.
But on that day, I got him to watch it live with me, as I chronicled years ago in “Dixieland Delight,” my first book.
For most of my youth as a fan, Tennessee absolutely, positively could not beat Alabama, no matter how bad the Tide team the Vols played was.
That 1990 game ended with Tennessee attempting a long field goal for the win. But Alabama blocked it, the ball ricocheted backwards and the Tide lined up for their own winning field goal, banging it through to win 9-6.
I cried after that game and my grandpa was very upset with me for crying after the game. He told me we don’t cry after games, no matter how upset we might be.
Thirty two years later, now a grown man, I thought about that game from my childhood as Alabama lined up to attempt their own long field goal to win yesterday’s epic game. As is often the case, time felt as if it stood still. There I was, an 11 year old all over again, living on the wild winds of a pigskin in flight.
Toe met leather once more in Neyland, just as it had 32 years ago.
Only this time the Bama kick sailed wide right and Tennessee took possession, made two incredible throws and catches to put themselves in position for a field goal chance for the win.
Thirty two years later, improbably, a missed Bama kick had given Tennessee a chance to make their own winning field goal.
And this time the kick was true and the field was immediately bathed in orange.
And I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried tears of joy in the stands.
I hope my grandpa will forgive me.
The reason why college football is the best sport in America is because of experiences like these, because every game stands on the shoulders of rivalries past, because as you age the games themselves become timeless, you’re every age you’ve ever been watching them simultaneously and you’re with every person you’ve ever loved watching those games too.
Somewhere I know my grandpa, who died in 1994, was watching this game too.
At least once he was sure Tennessee won.
Usually the Starting 11 recaps a ton of games, but yesterday’s Alabama-Tennessee instant classic was the best game I’ve ever seen in person in any sport. The celebration spiraled long into the night and on into the morning all over Knoxville and around the state of Tennessee. I just went downstairs in the house we rented and there are eight bourbon and tequila bottles in various stages of disrepute, a collection of victory cigars both smoked and unsmoked, a pile of discarded Taco Bell fast food that somehow got here around four in the morning, I just had a sodden breakfast taco, Jill Biden would be very impressed, and was going to make myself a coffee, but the machine was too complicated for me to figure out so I’m trying to set a record for amount of ice water consumed while writing a morning column after drinking a metric ton of liquor and beer and spending most of the night with a bunch of guys in a hot tub.
And this all came after three friends and I got in the back bed of a stranger’s pick up truck — he told us it was legal, I have no idea what the law is in Tennessee, but I hadn’t ridden in the back of a pick up truck since little league baseball, when we used to do it all the time — and were part of a rolling celebration in Knoxville traffic. Everyone’s windows were open, at one point a woman climbed halfway out of her car and yelled that my son couldn’t root for Alabama any more now that he knew Tennessee could actually beat Alabama. (I’ve been slowly trying to flip my 12 year old back to a Vol fan and last night was big in his fan recruiting journey.)
I’m telling you I’ve never seen anything like the city wide party that broke out last night.
This win just hit different.
In the space of sixty minutes, Tennessee fans exorcised fifteen years of demons. This didn’t feel like a win, it felt like a cleansing, even as I sit here writing this morning I still can’t believe what I saw.
But let me try and tell you.
1. Josh Heupel is Steve Spurrier 2.0.
Steve Spurrier was the great villain of my college football childhood, his Florida Gator teams tormented my Vols throughout the 1990’s.
His offense was so good that every time a Gator quarterback dropped back to pass you just hoped they’d only get first downs and not touchdowns.
It’s not a coincidence that the last time Tennessee fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts was in 1998, when a Gator overtime field goal sailed wide and pandemonium reigned in Knoxville. Spurrier owned and tormented Vol fans to such a degree that field storming was a colossal release of pent up frustration and emotion, it wasn’t just about that win, it was about the past failures being wiped clean, a new begginng, a blessed baptismal fervor of college football glee.
And now it feels like Tennessee has its own version of Spurrier.
Because this Tennessee offense Heupel has built in year two is mostly made up of player’s recruited for other systems. Yet this Vol team can score 40 on anyone in college football and what’s scary is this offense is just going to get better and better as the quality of player for Heupel’s system improves.
But what Heupel is showing signs of, and what Spurrier had, was ill intentions in the passing game. Both men go for the jugular and coach without fear. Witness the end of the first half, most coaches would have been content to go in up eight and get the ball to start the second half. Heupel drove Tennessee to mid-field and brought in the back up quarterback to throw a hail mary.
That almost worked!
Then on the first drive of the second half, he went for it on fourth down and narrowly missed a dagger score there too.
Heupel coaches just like Steve Spurrier did when he revolutionized offensive football in the SEC.
And I think he’s just getting started with Tennessee.
This win didn’t feel like an aberration, it felt like a signifier of more to come, a coronation of Vol football’s return to glory days.
It felt like 1998.
2. Hendon Hooker is one of the greatest college football transfers of all time.
It’s an elite list, I know, and right now Joe Burrow and Cam Newton are at the top of that list because they both won national championships as transfer quarterbacks.
But what Hendon Hooker has done and is doing for Tennessee football since he became the starter last year is flat out otherworldly.
I don’t know if Tennessee has enough defensive talent, especially in the secondary, to compete for a national title like Burrow and Cam’s teams were able to do, but I do know that Hendon Hooker just helmed up a team that scored more points than Nick Saban had ever allowed at Alabama.
And he did it without his top receiver, a future first round draft pick, Cedric Tillman even playing.
Don’t overlook the final two throws of this game, Hooker hit passes for 18 and 27 yards. Both were big time throws and both were executed perfectly to set up the field goal.
We’re only halfway through the season, but my Heisman vote, if I had one, would go to Hooker after seven weeks of football.
3. Bryce Young was incredible.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player be this impossible to tackle behind the line of scrimmage. It felt like Tennessee had Young dead to rights fifteen times in this game, with defenders diving at him from every direction, and Young just kept sidestepping defenders and firing the ball down the field.
That is, Young never really tried to run to escape the pressure, he only tallied four rushes for -4 yards, maybe that was shoulder related, but he made incredible throw after incredible throw under duress. He kept his eyes downfield and delivered dart after dart while simultaneously leaving Vol defenders tackling open air.
He finished with 455 yards passing and based on my view only made one bad throw all night, an ill advised heave into the end zone on 3rd and goal from the 16 that he got bailed out on with a pass interference call. (Tennessee also got a late pass interference call to their benefit in the fourth quarter, but to my limited vantage point inside the stadium, both of these calls seemed somewhat questionable.)
Put simply, I don’t know that Bryce Young could have played better. Certainly Alabama could have played better, but Young couldn’t have, he was phenomenal.
4. Tennessee’s offensive line handled Alabama’s pass rush.
I believe Hendon Hooker was only sacked one time in the game.
And most of the game he was passing without true duress on him.
Now Hooker’s an elite scrambler so he managed to dodge away from some pressure — he finished with 14 carries for 56 yards — but the Vol offensive line provided elite protection against a Bama defense that has obliterated most lines it has faced this season.
I just kept waiting for Will Anderson to make a huge play and it never materialized.
Credit the Vol offensive line, which also paved the way for 182 rushing yards, topping Bama’s 114 yard tally too.
While the passing game in Heupel’s offense gets a lot of the attention because of its explosive plays, Tennessee ran the ball 39 times and only passed 31 times against Alabama. (Alabama attempted 52 passes a whopping 21 more pass attempts than Tennessee had, which I bet surprises many.)
This Vol rushing attack is pretty damn good too.
So credit the Vol offensive line for a whale of a game.
5. When the Vols fumbled and Bama scooped and scored to go up 49-42, it felt vintage Tennessee for the past 15 years.
It’s one thing for another team to make a play, but for 15 years every time Tennessee has had the chance to return to glory, it feels like a play like this happens, a self inflicted wound that kills victory chances and leaves Tennessee fans staring at the ceiling wondering why they were cursed to become Vol fans in the first place.
Coming into this game Tennessee had not trailed in the second half all season. Even in this game, up to that point, the Vols hadn’t trailed Bama by more than by one point. But suddenly down seven points, it felt like everything might be falling apart.
But the Vols rallied and found a way to win a game despite an awful turnover at a crucial part of the game. They came back to tie the Tide and then made a play to win on the final kick.
That hasn’t happened in a very long time. That proved a key point, not only could Tennessee throw a punch, they could get up from a knockout punch too. This team’s chin isn’t soft.
(By the way, Tennessee’s turnover was bad, but Alabama’s player inexplicably trying to field a punt and turning the ball over is one of the dumbest plays I’ve ever seen. I thought Nick Saban might have a heart attack after that play.)
6. Neyland Stadium was worth 14 points yesterday.
I’ve never heard a louder stadium in my life and I’m fortunate to have been able to attend big college football games all over the country.
Alabama’s offensive penalties came, I believe, almost exclusively because of the noise.
The Tide had 17 penalties for 130 yards, but the vast majority of those were false start or play clock violations. And I think they were almost all attributable to the incredible noise Vol fans brought to bear.
It was absolutely electric all day long.
And as a fan sitting in the stands, it felt like, this game lasted four days. I’ve never been more physically exhausted and emotionally drained watching a game in person in my life. I can’t even imagine what the players felt like yesterday on the field and what they feel like waking up this morning.
This was an epic classic and Tennessee fans just refused to let this Volunteer team lose. I’ve never seen a home stadium environment this good in my life.
7. Alabama gave up its most points, 52, since 1907.
Bama’s defense had a rough stretch back in 1906 and 1907, they gave up 78 to Vanderbilt in 1906 and 54 to Sewanee in 1907.
Who was their defensive coordinator, Sal Sunseri?
Too soon, Vol fans?
The talk radio phone lines and the internet message boards would have been blowing up if either existed back then. The Paul Finebaum of the early 1900’s must have been having a field day.
But, seriously, the 52 points Tennessee put up yesterday were the most points Alabama’s football team had given up in 115 years.
And Josh Heupel is only in year two at Tennessee and probably thought he should have had sixty. I can see him watching film this morning saying out loud, “Yeah, we left some points out there.”
8. Tennessee is 6-0 for the first time since 1998.
I’m not sure if this is a national title contending team, but I feel like Tennessee will put up forty on anyone.
Now the defense may give up fifty one game and the Vols may lose, but I don’t think anyone is slowing down this offense in a substantial way.
(National title odds this morning are: Ohio State +170, Georgia +190, Alabama +450, Clemson 12-1, Michigan 16-1 and Tennessee 20-1. Everyone else is 50-1 or more.)
This Alabama win was huge, but it doesn’t really mean that much, honestly, when it comes to going to Atlanta and winning the SEC. Winning the SEC East is going to still run through defending champ Georgia, and the Bulldogs are unlikely to lose twice in the SEC, meaning the game against Tennessee will be worth 1.5 games if you factor in the tiebreak.
Interestingly a loss to Georgia and Tennessee finishing 11-1, might well put the Vols in better shape for making the playoff than they are for making it to Atlanta. Because I find it hard to believe there will be many teams with a better resume than an 11-1 Tennessee team would have.
But that’s for future analysis.
The most important thing coming out of this game is Tennessee is officially back.
In year two of Josh Heupel. I’ll admit, I never saw this season coming. In fact, I panned the Heupel hire two years ago because I thought Tennessee could spend more and find a better coach. I was wrong. I don’t think there is any coach in America who could have Tennessee 6-0 in year two.
Coming into the season I thought Tennessee could go 9-3. But I don’t think any Vol fans out there even dared to dream of beating Alabama and being 6-0 right now.
That’s what made the experience so joyous and transcendent in Neyland yesterday.
Games against Pitt, Florida and LSU were super stressful because they were games Tennessee was “supposed” to win. But Bama? As my friend Alan put it, this was a house money game for Vol fans.
Which is why so many Tennessee fans are waking up this morning, many of them hungover beyond belief, shaking their heads and thinking, “Did that really just happen?”
Yes, it did.
The Vols really did beat Nick Saban.
9. Jalin Hyatt had one of the best games I’ve ever seen from a wide receiver.
He had six catches for 207 yards and five touchdowns.
I can’t even remember the last time I saw a college receiver with five touchdowns in a game.
He was flat out uncoverable.
And Hendon Hooker may throw the prettiest deep ball I have ever seen.
He hit Hyatt in absolute stride for two deep touchdown catches.
Again, remember, Tennessee put up 52, the most points Alabama has given up in 115 years, without its most proven offensive weapon, Cedric Tillman. If Tillman can come back healthy, this Vol offense probably has another gear. And a pass catching trio of Hyatt, Tillman and Bru McCoy is downright elite.
And if you’re a young receiver, how could you not want to play in this offense?
Here were some of my comments right after the game.
10. My Outkick National Top Ten
As always, I’m ranking entirely based on what we’ve seen on the field so far this year, not what I expected to see in the preseason. And I think if you’re just ranking based on quality of wins, I think Tennessee has the best wins in college football right now.
2. Ohio State
8. Ole Miss
9. Oklahoma State
11. The SEC power rankings
4. Ole Miss
7. Mississippi State
8. Texas A&M
10. South Carolina