Another season brings us the traditional game between Alabama and Tennessee, which also brings another year of fans thinking Tennessee players will roll over because of the past. The Tide currently holds a 14-game winning streak against the Vols, meaning the average player was around five years old when the Vols last won. But, this record shouldn’t take away from what this game means to the fans and players involved.
We all know that each year is different and each team brings a different mentality to this game. Even Nick Saban had his thoughts about how this Vols team was playing right now and the rivalry this game still holds.
“It’s a big rivalry game for us,” Saban said this week. “We got a lot of respect for Tennessee. They’re playing their best football of the season.”
Also, if you think Nick Saban doesn’t understand about a team showing up ready to play, along with a crowd that brings the noise for sixty minutes, you’re sorely mistaken.
“We’re going to have to play our best football of the season.”
The Vols could have the services of starting quarterback Hendon Hooker, as he has practiced this week and will look to give it a go on Saturday. This Tennessee offense just works better with Hooker behind center, especially when it comes to the zone reads, which Saban discussed this week, when Hooker was brought up.
“He’s very capable if you try to cheat the end on the dive, the quarterback is going to pull the ball,” Saban said. “They’ve been very effective at doing that. And they’re very well-coached, so they usually don’t do it and make bad plays. They usually do it and make positive plays.”
But, this game is not just what is done on the field, it’s also the hate off the field between fanbases. Growing up in Alabama, fans seemed to hate the Vols more so than they do Auburn. It’s a weird dynamic, especially when the Tigers are right down the road and have had recent success against the Tide. In this state, it doesn’t get any bigger than the Iron Bowl, but from a hatred perspective, Tennessee is on a different level. These two groups of fans are always going at each other, even when the
It’s bigger than the game for some, like Tennessee WR Velus Jones Jr., who grew up in the Mobile area. Talking with him before the season, this was a game that was circled on his calendar. He hasn’t had many opportunities to play Alabama and growing up in this state, he definitely understands how much it means to both sides. He will have family in the stands wearing orange, when in the past, they were most likely wearing crimson.
This Tennessee football team has proven they won’t be intimidated by hostile environments, as they’ve already made a trip to the “Swamp.” But they also won’t be scared of big bad Alabama, after seeing what Texas A&M did a few weeks ago. It’s like that scene in Rocky IV, where Rocky’s trainer looks him in the eye, while fighting Drago, and says “See, he’s not a machine, he’s a man.”.This is the mentality the Vols must have against the Tide, because if not, Alabama will pop you in the mouth and end the fight quicker than Apollo lasted.
The biggest thing Tennessee might do on defense is keep everything in front of them in the secondary, even if that mean playing their safeties high, forcing Alabama to try and make plays on the ground. It would look a little bit like the Ole Miss game, where Brian Robinson had over 30 rushing attempts. Simply put, don’t let Alabama burn you deep, multiple times.
The Vols will get opportunities down the field, especially when Alabama plays man coverage on the outside, so they must take advantage of the few deep shots they’ll find open. If they can do this, it could force the Tide to deal with the QB run, which could be setup by testing Alabama’s defensive backfield. As we’ve gotten closer to the game, the more it feels like Hendon Hooker might get a shot at the Tide. He has progressed during the week, getting a good amount of work in practice.
The key factor for Tennessee to play it close with Alabama will be the running game, so keep an eye on the rotation, whether it be Jabari Small and company, or Tiyon Evans getting the nod. This team didn’t travel to Tuscaloosa to keep it close, which has been mentioned multiple times this week to me by different folks around the program. Josh Heupel has gotten this team to buy-in, week after week. They will play loose, have fun and get their rest starting on Sunday.
We’ve all seen the history, hell, you know the history, so it doesn’t need to be repeated. As Josh Heupel prepares for his first game as head coach for the Vols against Alabama, he knew how much this game meant to the fans once he arrived in Knoxville.
“Saturday we get an opportunity to play in this one,” Heupel said. “As soon as I touched down here in Knoxville, this is a game that this fanbase and players know is important. One that they’re extremely excited about. For the coaching staff, this is a lot of our first to be in this game and environment — looking forward to going down there and competing with our group of guys.”
Sure, Tennessee hasn’t won a game in this series since the 2006 matchup in Knoxville, but that doesn’t take away from the hatred each fanbase will have for each other on Saturday. It certainly won’t affect how the Vols play in this game, because there’s no pressure.
The Vols are playing with house money, knowing that every pundit around the country hasn’t given them a chance on Saturday. But maybe that’s exactly what this team needs. Everyone proclaiming they don’t have a chance in hell Saturday night is a sure-fire motivating factor. We’ve seen what this offense can do, as they came close to beating Ole Miss last weekend in a pretty low scoring battle. So, if the Vols get a sniff of any type of momentum against Alabama, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them stay in the fight.
The coaching staff doesn’t care about the past losses, so why should these players? If you are a Tennessee fan, you hope this team shows up on Saturday begging for a fight, on both sides of the ball. The one thing that has been missing in recent years has been a productive Tennessee offense. Well, they’ve got the makings of a pretty good one right now, so the question is can they force the Tide to respect them.
That question will start to be answered on Saturday night at 6 p.m., as the opening kickoff soars through the air.
I like the chances of Tennessee showing up to fight, but winning will take a Rocky like effort. Tuscaloosa might as well be Russia this weekend, for the Vols’ sake.