Visiting Tuscaloosa as a Tennessee student six long years ago proved to be an interesting experience to say the least.
The game itself was an instant classic, going into five overtimes before Tennessee finally prevailed 51-43. It was en exhaustive, enthralling evening for Tennessee fans. That victory was one of relief, which is in stark contrast to the sequence of events that unfolded yesterday in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
For the better part of the 21st century, it was Tennessee, not Alabama, who was expected to win the great rivalry known as the Third Saturday in October. That all changed when Nick Saban was hired, and Phil Fulmer was fired.
It is no secret Fulmer’s last years were uncharacteristic, notably the decline in stellar recruiting, which allowed other SEC teams to jump ahead of Tennessee.
Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa just meant Alabama would be good for the foreseeable future, so Tennessee had to make a splash itself. Lane Kiffin was definitely a splash, just not the splash everyone expected.
Much maligned for his sometimes off-the-cuff and inaccurate remarks, Kiffin’s goal was to bring attention and excitement to the Tennessee program, and he did that by bringing in top recruits like Bryce Brown and Nukeese Richardson. Both players have made immediate impacts as freshmen.
The excitement that came with a blowout victory in the season opener against juggernaut Western Kentucky quickly subsided with losses to UCLA, Florida and Auburn. To the average fan, Tennessee was losing in the same fashion that fans experienced in the waning years of the Fulmer era. However, one has to look beneath the surface at what Kiffin is doing to appreciate the strides the Volunteers are making.
Kiffin inherited largely the same team that performed so abysmally last season, including maligned quarterback Jonathan Crompton. Kiffin decided Crompton would be the guy, and not Nick Stephens, although many will always wander (until next season) why Stephens was never given a real shot.
Through the first few games, it became painfully obvious Crompton could not be the type of quarterback Kiffin needed, but Kiffin did not give up on him. Making some subtle adjustments, Crompton is now a respectable SEC quarterback.
Instead of forcing Crompton to make a myriad of difficult throws, the playbook now calls on a bevy of run plays, sprinkled in with some screen passes, now routes, and quick slants.
The result has not yielded high-scoring efforts (Georgia aside), but Tennessee can control the clock and Crompton’s interceptions are down. Imagine how good the Tennessee offense will be when Brown is a junior and Tennessee has a quarterback under center for two seasons that can make the tough throws.
Fast forward to yesterday when Tennessee came to visit the number one team in the AP poll, the vaunted Alabama Crimson Tide. If you missed the first 58 minutes, you really did not miss much. What you saw were two of the best defenses in the country.
As a fan paying $130 for my lower-level ticket, I was a tad disappointed until the final few minutes. With roughly five minutes remaining and the score 12-3, Tennessee had a 4th and 5 from their own 30 yard line. Kiffin decided to punt the ball, a decision I not only questioned, but as a competitor was enraged by. How could Tennessee have a shot at winning by giving away the ball down two possessions?
The Alabama fans around me snickered, saying Kiffin just wanted to keep the score close. I could not disagree with them. Then lightning struck: Mark Ingram fumbled for the first time in his Alabama career. Crompton sprung to life, quickly leading the Vols on a touchdown drive to close the gap, making the score 12-10 with just under two minutes left. Tennessee was out of time outs, making the ensuing onside kick an all-or-nothing proposition.
Of course, Tennessee recovers the onside kick and marches down the field. With just seconds left on the clock, Tennessee is about to do the unthinkable: upset the #1 ranked Crimson Tide in one of the most unpredictable comebacks since Oklahoma was victimized at Oregon a few seasons ago in the final moments.
No matter where you stand on Kiffin’s clock management in those waning moments, he cannot be criticized for pinning the game on a 44 yard field goal by a guy who had been making clutch kicks since his freshman year.
With the Alabama faithful becoming more nervous by the second, I left my seat and sprinted down to be with the Volunteer fans, just in case I could experience the celebration of the decade.
Who wants to be with a bunch of angry Alabama fans when their team loses? Daniel Lincoln lined up for the kick, and if he made the field goal, this would arguably be one of the most amazing comebacks in college football history, considering Tennessee could only muster 3 points through the first 57 minutes.
The snap was away, hold appeared to be good, but Alabama was not to be denied, at least on this Saturday. Ask any Tennessee fan if they thought Lincoln would go 1-for-4, and exactly zero fans would predict that reprehensible statistic. Any way you look at it, Alabama caught a break on this Saturday and remained undefeated.
While Alabama fans have pause for concern, the scant group of Tennessee fans that made the trip have all the reason in the world to be optimistic. Nonetheless, moral victories do not count in the real standings.
As a veteran fan of SEC rivalry games, in the past I have been subjected to some ignorant and outright rude fans, especially when Tennessee wins a game. I was pleasantly surprised by the plethora of Alabama fans who kindly congratulated myself and other Tennessee fans on a great game, played hard by both sides. After thirty minutes, I felt like I had played, having received so many hand shakes and condolences.
As a visitor to Tuscaloosa, this was the first time out of three trips I can honestly say I enjoyed my trip and the fans were cordial throughout the game and post-game experience. While there are your run of the mill intoxicated, ignorant Alabama fans scattered throughout, the majority were very respectable people, even those I sat around in section MM.
I would argue the Mark Ingram fumble was the most important play of the game, because without it, the decisions of Kiffin would be questioned throughout Volnation today. Instead, Kiffin looks like a tactical genius who nearly pulled off the upset of the season.
Regardless, I can confidently say to Tennessee fans I personally believe the Vols are on the right track and will return to prominence before the so-called experts thought we would.
While our offense still leaves something to be desired, the last two minutes of that game last night made the entire weekend trip worth it. And we didn’t even make the kick.
As for Alabama, they will struggle with Florida in the SEC championship game. But having personally jetted over to Mississippi State and catching the end of that game on the field, I cannot confidently say Florida looked very impressive either.
Which begs the question: Who will play for the national title?