KNOXVILLE — Derek Dooley is the son of a legendary Southeastern Conference football coach. Dooley knows, respects and appreciates history.
The Tennessee Volunteers football coach couldn’t have seemed much more appreciative of his first opportunity to coach against Alabama in one of college football’s most historically significant series.
“It’s an honor,” Dooley said. “A great honor.”
As is the case tonight, the Vols (2-4, 0-3) and Crimson Tide (6-1, 3-1) no longer always meet on the third Saturday in October, and this one looks like a mismatch. But it’s still a significant event to nearly everyone involved on both sides.
Coaches and players change, but the physicality doesn’t. The fabric on the uniform changes, but the colors don’t. NCAA law no longer allows the winning team to smoke victory cigars in the locker room, but the winning team’s fans still puff with pleasure.
The nation won’t stop and stare at this game for three hours today, but many people in the South still will. They might say they won’t, but they will.
“Growing up, you always know about the Third Saturday in October,” Dooley said. “This is always one of the great traditions in college football: Tennessee-Alabama. It’s what makes this place special. It’s what makes the SEC special.”
Several current and former Alabama players have come from Tennessee. Several current and former Tennessee players have come from Alabama.
The schools recruit dozens of the same players every year. Junior wide receiver Marquis Maze committed to UT before signing with Alabama. Freshman offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James committed to the Tide before signing with the Vols. Several others came close to switching, too.
“It means a lot to me,” Maze said of the rivalry. “By being recruited by [UT], and committed to them, it means a lot.”
UT defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Wilcox, was born and raised on the West Coast and ultimately played defensive back at Oregon. From there, he embarked on a coaching career that eventually landed him in Knoxville this winter.
“Growing up out West, I didn’t see a lot of SEC football ... but I did see this game,” Wilcox said. “But still, being here since February and seeing the way people talk about it, and the passion from the alumni and the fans and the kids on the team, wow. You can really see how much it means to everybody.
“I feel very fortunate to be here and get to be a part of this game. I’m not just saying that. That’s the truth.”
Wilcox can simply ask his own defensive line coach, former UT star defensive end Chuck Smith, about the pride on each side of this rivalry.
Smith played in the series and later became friends with several Alabama players and coaches. He even gave technique tips and motivational speeches to current Tide players before he became a college coach. “We despise each other, but it’s football hate. It’s not personal hate,” Smith said.
Smith said former Alabama star Cornelius Bennett — “the greatest linebacker in the history of the Southeastern Conference, in my opinion” — is one of his “very best friends.” Smith also befriended legendary former Tide quarterback Joe Namath when he worked with the New York Jets, and he said his “favorite player of all time” aside from former UT defensive end Reggie White is former Alabama end and linebacker Derrick Thomas.
“The hate isn’t that serious off the field,” Smith said.
What about on the field?
“Oh, it’s serious, baby,” Smith said. “Real [dang] serious.”
Even Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose week-to-week focus is legendary, conceded this is a “signature game” for alumni and fans on both sides of the border.
“There’s been some great games in this series through the years,” Saban said. “I think you can kind of throw out everything, from records and what happened last week and the first game of the year, all the stuff. This is big game for both teams, and they certainly have a very capable team.”
On the surface, most wouldn’t suggest the Vols were “capable” of topping the seventh-ranked Tide. But history suggests there’s always a chance. Both programs have pushed the opponent in this game when they weren’t supposed to, and both have slipped up and stunned the other.
Recently, the 2003 Tide — who won four games — pushed the 10-win Vols to five overtimes before falling at home in Tuscaloosa.
Seven-win UT lost 12-10 last season at undefeated, eventual national champion Alabama, and the Tide needed two blocked field goals in the fourth quarter — including one on the final play — to salvage the win.
“Just look back to last year,” said Alabama’s Barrett Jones, a sophomore guard from Memphis. “That was a hard-fought game. They almost gave us a loss. We have to be ready.”
Vols starting quarterback Matt Simms, who was at El Camino (Calif.) Community College last season, said video from last season’s UT-Alabama game didn’t hint which team lost six games and which won the national title.
“It looked like two evenly matched teams, not a decent team playing the best team in the country,” Simms said. “Hopefully this game will be the same way, but we’ll win this time. Hopefully we can go out there and give our fans another classic Tennessee-Alabama game.”