TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama's 19-14 topping of Tennessee on Saturday afternoon inside Bryant-Denny Stadium marked a ninth consecutive series victory for the Crimson Tide, but this one felt different for the winning players.
Alabama didn't just beat Tennessee but a good Tennessee. Seven of the Tides's previous eight wins over the Volunteers had come by double figures, including four consecutive routs by 30 or more points from 2010 to '13.
"They should have been 6-0 coming in here," Alabama senior inside linebacker Reggie Ragland said of the Vols. "They had some letdowns in some games. They were up big on Oklahoma, and they should have been 6-0. This game was hyped up, but it should have been blown up even more. They've got a heck of a team."
Said junior outside linebacker Ryan Anderson: "They should have beaten Florida. They beat Georgia. This is a good Tennessee team. Their record doesn't show it."
It was Anderson who made the clinching play that allowed most of the 101,821 fans in the sold-out stadium to exhale with relief. With a little more than a minute remaining and Tennessee facing second-and-24 at its 21-yard line, Anderson slammed into Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs, causing a fumble that defensive end A'Shawn Robinson returned 9 yards to the Tennessee 4.
With Tennessee owning just one timeout, No. 8 Alabama was able to line up in victory formation and secure a 7-1 record entering its lone off week this season.
"We didn't have a lot of energy today," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "We didn't have a lot of jumping up and down. We had a lot of walking around and dead-legged guys. We tried to back off our Monday practices knowing that this stretch of games that we had — Georgia, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Tennessee — was going to be really tough after four straight weeks before.
"I think our players tried but were mentally and physically tired today, and it says a lot about them that they were able to overcome that and compete in the game and do what they had to do to win."
Anderson's play came moments after Derrick Henry scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 14-yard run with 2:24 remaining. Henry's score capped an eight-play, 71-yard drive that followed a four-play, 75-yard drive by Tennessee that gave the Vols a 14-13 lead.
ArDarius Stewart had an acrobatic 29-yard catch and Calvin Ridley a 15-yard reception to help set up Henry's deciding score.
"They weren't perfect balls, but ArDarius and Calvin made some huge plays," Alabama quarterback Jake Coker said. "We should have scored a lot more. Tennessee did a great job, but I think we just shot ourselves in the foot too much."
Coker said he did not feel tired or heavy-legged, adding that he thought the Tide's struggles were more mental than physical. He overcame a second-quarter interception to finish 21-of-27 for 247 yards, with Stewart (six catches for 114 yards), Ridley (6-62) and tight end O.J. Howard (7-55) combining on 19 receptions.
Henry rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries but remains confused as far as the Tide playing much better this season on the road.
"I don't know why it is, but we haven't played a complete game at home yet," he said.
Though there were differing views as to why Alabama faltered on occasion Saturday, there was the unanimous thought that this Tennessee team was noticeably better than its recent predecessors who were easily dispatched. Saban called the Vols a "really good team," and his players, especially the veterans, were quick to agree.
"Butch Jones has done a great job there," senior center Ryan Kelly said. "I've known Coach Jones since he recruited me when he was at Cincinnati, and I can't say enough about the guy and the character he has. He has really turned that team around. He brought a lot of pressure today and did a good job of disrupting some of our runs."
Just not enough to keep Alabama from extending its series streak to nine.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.