Alabama's Nick Saban appreciates passion of Tennessee rivalry

Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) runs for yardage in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. Alabama won 58-21. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Alabama has won a record 87 consecutive football games against unranked foes, reflecting Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban's ability to take nothing for granted.

That certainly includes Tennessee, which annually commands Saban's respect regardless of where the Volunteers stand in their rebuilding efforts. This season's Tennessee team under second-year coach Jeremy Pruitt will carry a 2-4 record into Tuscaloosa on Saturday night, and the Vols can expect to encounter a No. 1 team playing as if it was winless.

"The Tennessee game is always a big rivalry game that means a lot to a lot of people in Alabama," Saban said Monday in a news conference. "It really means a lot to us, and it really means a lot to me. Rivalry games are interesting to the fans, and there are a lot of fans who have a lot of passion about their schools.

"When you play in rivalry games, I think that passion actually heightens, and hopefully that will be the case with our players. There is a lot of significance to this game for so many of us. This has always been a big game for Alabama folks."

Alabama opened Sunday as a 35.5-point favorite to claim its 13th consecutive triumph in this colorful series. The Crimson Tide won the past three meetings by 39, 38 and 37 points, with last season's 58-21 thumping in Knoxville marking the first time a program had defeated Tennessee a 12th straight time.

The Tide topped Tennessee 11 years in a row under Paul "Bear" Bryant from 1971 to 1981, and Florida matched that feat from 2005 to 2015 with a trio of coaches - Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain.

Saban experienced this rivalry's passion at halftime last year, when a Tennessee fan upset with the 42-14 deficit threw a cup of ice as he headed into the visiting locker room.

"The ice doesn't bother me at all," Saban said afterward. "I'd rather have somebody upset when we're playing on the road than happy about the circumstances."

Alabama's ownership of Tennessee under Saban began in 2007, when his first Tide team stunned the Vols 41-17 in Bryant-Denny Stadium. That Alabama team wound up 7-6 with a win in the Independence Bowl, while Tennessee that year won the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference and racked up 10 wins.

The Crimson Tide rolled again in 2008, drubbing Phillip Fulmer's final team 29-9 in Neyland Stadium, but this year's game marks the 10th anniversary of Alabama's 12-10 escape in 2009 that was preserved when Terrence Cody blocked Daniel Lincoln's 44-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.

Saban was asked Monday what he remembered before and after Cody's block of Lincoln's kick.

"That play was really significant in terms of that team and what that team was able to accomplish," he said. "My thoughts before the kick were that we had not played very well in the game. My thoughts afterward were that it was a great play by a lot of players, because I'm not sure if Julio (Jones) or somebody else would have blocked that kick if he didn't block it.

"Sometimes in rivalry games you have those tough tests, and you've got to be ready for them. We were very fortunate that day to be able to come out on top."

Alabama also had a close call with Tennessee in 2015, prevailing 19-14, but 10 of the Tide's recent 12 wins over the Vols have transpired by at least two touchdowns.

Last year's 58-point outburst by the Tide was the largest by an opponent against Tennessee in Knoxville since Sewanee rolled to a 68-0 win in 1918. In that season, a majority of Tennessee's top players were needed for military service in World War I.

Following last year's game, Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs III said, "Coach Saban has a very positive record against Tennessee, and that was the first thing he said this week - he wanted to keep it that way."

On Monday, Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa told reporters that he understands this rivalry is important to a lot of people - "It's a big deal. It's almost like Auburn-Alabama," he said - but admitted he didn't know much about its history having grown up in Hawaii.

Tagovailoa has experienced the tradition of the Alabama-Tennessee winner smoking cigars in the locker room. He just doesn't understand it.

"It's hard for me to sometimes breathe," Tagovailoa said with a smile. "It's not an environment you really want anyone in after a game you win."

Tide tidbits

Junior receiver DeVonta Smith will miss the first half of Saturday's contest as the result of his ejection for retaliating from a punch last weekend by Texas A&M safety Leon O'Neal. ... Graduate transfer Landon Dickerson made his second start of the season at center against the Aggies and did not allow a sack, hurry or quarterback pressure in his 67 snaps. ... Alabama's home game next week against Arkansas will be televised by ESPN with a 7 p.m. EDT kickoff.

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.