TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Tennessee came close.
The overpowering aroma of victory cigar smoke that hovered from the Bryant-Denny Stadium stands Saturday evening signaled that the Volunteers didn't get the win across the finish line.
This time it was eighth-ranked Alabama denying Tennessee a big victory, as Derrick Henry's touchdown run with 2:24 left trumped Jalen Hurd's scoring gallop a little more than three minutes earlier and handed the Crimson Tide a 19-14 Southeastern Conference win.
"I thought our team showed some grit, some determination, some resiliency on the road against a very, very quality opponent, a top-10 opponent," Vols coach Butch Jones said.
"But at the University of Tennessee there are no moral victories."
The average margin of victory for Alabama (7-1, 4-1) in its previous eight wins against Tennessee was nearly 24 points, but the Vols never trailed by more than seven Saturday afternoon and took a 14-13 lead into the final five minutes.
The Tide hit on a couple of big passing plays to ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley on their 75-yard final drive, though, and the Alabama defense sealed the game with a strip-sack of Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs with less than 90 seconds left.
Alabama was a two-touchdown favorite.
"From previous years it feels a lot better, because we competed with them," Vols safety Brian Randolph said. "We showed them that we can compete. We've just got to finish. A loss is a loss. There's still a lot to look forward to.
"We have five games left, and we're not going to let Alabama beat us twice."
The Vols (3-4, 1-3) have four losses this season by a combined 17 points.
"Those four losses," Dobbs said, "we personally feel like we should have won all four of those games, but you can't dwell on that."
Tennessee lost by seven in overtime to Oklahoma and by one point at Florida after leading by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of those games, and the Vols fell to Arkansas by four. The margin between a losing record and perhaps an unblemished mark and the program's best season in at least eight years is that narrow.
"Nobody's going to feel sorry for us," Jones said. "We just have to pick up the pieces and go back to work. We see progress. I see progress. I know we're in a business where your progress is measured by wins and losses, but you step back, and I see the progress and how far we've come with this football program and this football team. We're getting closer."
Close doesn't cut it in the SEC, though it's clear Tennessee has made tangible strides in Jones' third season.
"We know (we're making progress)," linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "We watch the film, we review the film, we see the mistakes we make and we see our team getting better as the season goes on. The season isn't over. We can still finish strong and have one of the best records we've had here in a long time, and that's our goal."
Tennessee's offense started fast, churning out 114 yards on its first two possessions. The Vols came away with only seven points on those possessions, though, after Aaron Medley missed a 43-yard field-goal try.
Even after Medley missed two 51-yard kicks and the offense sputtered, the defense kept the Vols in the game, primarily by forcing field when the Tide twice ventured inside Tennessee's 15-yard line.
After Hurd completed a four-play touchdown drive, Tennessee's defense took the field with a chance to make the game-saving stop, but it wasn't to be.
"We've been in that position," Reeves-Maybin said. "We were expecting to come out on top. We all go out there on the field with confidence. We're not thinking about those past games when we go out on the field. We're just trying to go out and get stops."
Jones said the loss is especially "gut-wrenching" because of what the players, coaches and support staff invest during the week in winning on Saturdays, but the work can't stop just because Tennessee again fell short.
"Working hard doesn't guarantee you a win, but that's the only way we know how to play," running back Alvin Kamara said.
"Those guys in the locker room, they all have passion and they all want to be great. It's not going to be too hard to keep them going. We've just got to keep the same theme in the locker room: Work hard. We're going to get what we deserve."
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