KNOXVILLE — While Alabama was slogging through its seventh football game in seven weeks last Saturday against Ole Miss, Tennessee running back Tauren Poole was watching the Crimson Tide on television — after rising at noon from the bed of his childhood home in Toccoa, Ga., and eating his mom’s cooking.
“It was kind of good to get some rest,” Poole said. “My legs were kind of heavy that last stretch of games. I’m ready to run now.”
While Tide receiver Julio Jones was tweaking — that’s tweaking, not tweeting — his injured left hand against the Rebels, UT quarterback Matt Simms was visiting his brother Chris in Nashville.
“I think it was good to get away,” Simms said. “I’m sure the coaches were happy not to see us every day over the weekend, and I’m sure a few of the players were excited to get away from the coaches, too. But now everyone’s excited to go back to work.”
But could the off week work to the same advantage for the Big Orange that it appeared to last year? Could this eerily similar scenario — refreshed Vols versus weary Tide — deliver a result even more shocking than the eventual national champs surviving their biggest scare of the year when Terrence Cody blocked a UT field-goal try on the game’s final play to preserve a 12-10 Tide win?
Or could Tennessee go one better and actually upset Bama this time around?
“Every year is different,” said UT linebacker LaMarcus Thompson, who stayed around campus during his weekend off. “We were such a different team last year. But obviously, if we execute like we did last year against them, we’ll give ourselves another chance to beat them. Hopefully if we get that chance again, we’ll get it done this time. “
The early point spread in Las Vegas doesn’t predict a UT win. Much like last year, the Tide are at least two-touchdown favorites. But this Crimson outfit is presently a pale substitute for last year’s model. And it isn’t just the 35-21 loss at South Carolina, the injury to Jones or the largely revamped defense that has Bama looking vulnerable.
Last year’s team pounded you from the opening snap. Fatigued you. Hurt you. This Tide bunch seems to need the big play to succeed. And they’ve given up enough big plays to force a comeback victory at Arkansas and last Saturday’s nervous win against Ole Miss.
Still, unlike last year and the brief reign of Lane Kiffin, at least the current UT coach understands the vast history of this rivalry, which will stage its 93rd act Saturday evening in Neyland Stadium.
“Growing up, you always knew about the Third Saturday in October,” Derek Dooley said during Monday’s media luncheon. “We screwed that up when we added more teams [to the SEC]. But this will always be one of the great traditions in college football.
“Tennessee-Alabama. It’s what makes this place special. It’s what makes the SEC special.”
Thanks to four losses in their first six games, Saturday against the Tide and next week at South Carolina have now become the last two opportunities for the Big Orange to make this season special. Lose both and a .500 overall record is the best UT can hope to achieve. But win one or both and the Vols might actually have a realistic chance to win the SEC East, odd as that sounds.
Yet Volniacs the region over don’t need to draw comparisons between this year and last year to find hope against Bama. Instead, they need only recall 2000, when another Tennessee team entered this game with a losing record (2-3).
Then as now, the Vols had lost at Georgia before their off week. Then as now, a talented freshman quarterback from California was languishing on the UT bench.
During that 2000 off week, then-coach Phillip Fulmer elected to roll the dice with the rookie Casey Clausen, who rewarded his coach with a 20-10 win that led to six straight victories before a Cotton Bowl loss to Kansas State.
During this year’s off week, Dooley is apparently giving a lot of reps to the current California Kid — Tyler Bray.
“We’ll play him early,” Dooley said of Bray. “I don’t want to get to halftime, and we haven’t.”
Whether it’s the third Saturday in October or the fourth, whether this game mirrors the contest from 2000, 2009 or none of the 92 that have come before it, the thought of what might be is what always makes UT-Bama special, regardless of the records or the point spread.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...