Paschall: Tide, Vols set for first top-six matchup in series history

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee junior receiver Jalin Hyatt, who had two touchdown catches during Saturday’s 40-13 win at LSU, expressed confidence in his coaches and teammates entering this week’s challenge against Alabama.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee junior receiver Jalin Hyatt, who had two touchdown catches during Saturday’s 40-13 win at LSU, expressed confidence in his coaches and teammates entering this week’s challenge against Alabama.

Welcome back, Alabama-Tennessee football rivalry relevancy.

You've been gone for quite some time.

Tennessee's rapid ascension on the Southeastern Conference and national landscape was accompanied Saturday by its biggest exclamation point yet, as the No. 8 Volunteers traveled to No. 25 LSU and humbled the Tigers 40-13. The Vols moved up two spots in Sunday's Associated Press poll, setting up a Third Saturday in October in which both programs are among the top six teams for the first time in series history.

"As far as the approach from our guys, I expect it to be like it has been," Tennessee second-year coach Josh Heupel said Saturday after his Vols improved to 5-0 overall and 2-0 in SEC play. "Everybody understands the opponent that we have, and everybody knows who's coming to town and the opportunity that we have. I expect next Saturday to be an electric atmosphere.

"I can't imagine that it wouldn't be louder and more hostile than it was for Florida, and I look forward to that."

Alabama, which is No. 3 in the latest AP Top 25 behind Georgia and Ohio State, is a 7.5-point favorite against the Vols.

This will be the first Alabama-Tennessee matchup of undefeated teams since 1989, and who would have thought the Crimson Tide had to perform the heavy lifting to make that possible? Several hours after the dismantling in Baton Rouge, the Tide held off visiting Texas A&M 24-20.

"We're going to play a really good team next week on the road and certainly have to play a lot better to have any chance of being successful," Alabama coach Nick Saban said late Saturday night.

The Vols have yet to defeat a Saban-coached Tide, losing all 15 opportunities and 13 of them by double digits, but make no mistake, Tennessee can absolutely win this week. The biggest factor in the Vols' favor, even bigger than being inside Neyland Stadium, is that they are a fresh football team after their Oct. 1 open date, while this trip marks the seventh game in seven weeks for the Tide.

"We've got to keep doing what we're doing, and we have to treat every team the same," Vols senior edge rusher Byron Young said. "We can't say that one team is better, and we have to play our same game. Playing the same way against every team is how you beat teams, so we've got to go out there next week and do the same thing."

Said junior receiver Jalin Hyatt: "We have a big test next weekend, and we're ready for what we have to do. I'm confident in our guys and confident in our coaches. We just have to execute and do what we do."

More than 5,000 tickets went unsold for the 2018 Alabama-Tennessee game in Neyland, and the game two years ago was played amid strict attendance limitations due to the coronavirus outbreak. As of Sunday night, the cheapest ticket on StubHub to Saturday's sellout was $382.

***

Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young didn't play against the Aggies, but Saban said his junior quarterback wanted to get in the game late.

Former Dalton High School standout and Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs rushed 21 times for 154 yards Saturday and has 39 carries for 360 yards the past two weekends, which is a 9.2-yard average.

***

On Dec. 5, 2020, South Carolina's dismal 2-8 season ended with a 41-18 loss at Kentucky, with news breaking that night of Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner offering the coaching job to Oklahoma assistant Shane Beamer.

Beamer was quite emotional recalling those events and more after Saturday night's 24-14 triumph in Lexington, which marked his first SEC road win.

"I'll never forget Coach Tanner calling me and saying, 'Are you ready to do this?'" Beamer said after wiping away tears. "I told him, 'I've been waiting my whole life for you to say that.' When y'all asked me this week if some weeks are bigger than others, I lied to you.

"I told you this was another opportunity, but this was really big tonight for us in many ways."

***

Ole Miss and Mississippi State are a combined 11-1 after their respective routs of Vanderbilt and Arkansas.

This is the best start for the SEC's Magnolia State tandem since 2014, when the Rebels and Bulldogs were undefeated through six games.

***

With the college football season reaching the midway mark, the SEC continues to debate an eight- or nine-game conference scheduling model once Oklahoma and Texas join in 2025.

League commissioner Greg Sankey was in Baton Rouge and explained why it has taken so long.

"We were poised in Destin," he said of the spring meetings in Florida. "Those were my words, and I will hold myself accountable to my words. We were poised to make a decision, and we really were. We were actually going down the road, but then we stopped to think through things, and part of that is my role to introduce what else is out there.

"I thought in Destin that we would have some insight into the willingness to expand the playoff for the 2026 season, so that was a reason to wait a little bit, and you've seen another conference move to 16 members like we announced a year earlier. All of that has been helpful, and there may be something else that takes place."

Sankey does not want a repeat of the last expansion with Missouri and Texas A&M, when the league was revealing schedules within a 12-month cycle, but he does not consider this delay as any concern or surprise.

"I learned a lot during COVID," Sankey said. "I was pushed all the time on, 'When are you going to make a decision?' We took as long as we reasonably could, and it worked as well as it could have in that dynamic. I don't freak out about time structures, but we do have to use time wisely."

***

Georgia's 42-10 win over Auburn was the sixth straight by the Bulldogs over the Tigers in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, with the average score in this streak 30-10.

Saturday's outcome was Georgia's largest since the 38-0 shutout at Auburn in 2012.

"What does the score have to do with how we played?" Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said when asked about the 32-point margin. "It really doesn't to me. The stat line says we ran the ball great, but there were a lot of plays when we didn't block it right. Defensively, we talked about containing the quarterback, but we didn't exactly do that all the time.

"There is an immense amount of improvement that needs to happen to our team to get to the level that we need to."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.