Paschall: Was this Saban’s last time to savor a win over the Vols in Bryant-Denny?

Crimson Tide photos / Alabama football coach Nick Saban waves to celebrating fans following Saturday's 34-20 comeback triumph over Tennessee inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Crimson Tide photos / Alabama football coach Nick Saban waves to celebrating fans following Saturday's 34-20 comeback triumph over Tennessee inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

As someone who has watched countless Nick Saban news conferences and frequently speaks to him on the Southeastern Conference’s weekly teleconference, I didn’t require too much time this season to detect that this is one of his favorite Alabama football teams.

Early Saturday evening, I got to witness it.

With the haze of cigar smoke having long descended from the celebrating spectators inside Bryant-Denny Stadium down to the playing surface, Saban shook hands with Tennessee coach Josh Heupel following the Crimson Tide’s 34-20 victory, did his interview with CBS television, and then raced to the student section to thank fans.

“He was running,” quarterback Jalen Milroe said with a smile after racing behind Saban to share in the fun. “I’ve never seen him run like that. He must have been happy.”

Alabama has reached its open date with a 7-1 overall record that includes a 5-0 mark in SEC play and a No. 9 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll. I’ve written in this space before that this is not the typical Saban-coached Bama that opens a season with a neutral-site rout of Michigan, Southern California or Florida State and then cruises through its conference contests.

This year’s Crimson Tide suffered a 10-point home loss to Texas in their second game, and Saturday marked their third league win when trailing at halftime.

“I love it. It’s been great,” Saban said Saturday night. “The challenges are great, and I enjoy coaching this team. That’s not to say that they’ve taken years off my life, but I’m OK with that.”

Could you imagine Saban offering that “years off my life” part when he began racking up national championships in 2009 like it was credit card debt? Oops, bad analogy for an $11 million man.

Yet when Saban was scurrying around Bryant-Denny thanking his crimson-clad supporters, it registered that this might be the final time anybody witnesses such a scene following the Third Saturday in October. Next year’s game has been scheduled for Knoxville, but there are no guarantees under the league’s potential format change that the two longtime rivals will play in 2025.

Nor are there any guarantees that Saban, who turns 72 next week, will choose to still be coaching the next time Tennessee travels to Tuscaloosa, whenever that may be.

***

After enjoying the victory cigar that accompanies wins over Tennessee, Milroe decided to shower before meeting with the media.

“I don’t like being stinky,” Milroe said. “That’s my pet peeve.”

***

Tennessee, which dropped from No. 17 to No. 21 in the latest AP poll, opened Sunday as a 3.5-point favorite for this Saturday night’s test at Kentucky.

The Volunteers would be 7-0 if not for allowing 26 consecutive points at Florida and 27 straight at Alabama, but those are rather gargantuan “ifs.” Three of Tennessee’s next four challenges are at Kentucky, at Missouri and home against Georgia, and the Vols insist they are in the right frame of mind moving forward.

“This team has great confidence,” quarterback Joe Milton III said. “These guys come in no matter if we lose or win every day with the same energy. They push me, and I push these guys, but they also come in there because they believe in themselves.”

Said Heupel: “I don’t think it’s a confidence issue. I don’t believe that.”

***

Heupel was asked a question about the officiating after Saturday’s game and stayed quiet for nearly 15 seconds.

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin saw a clip of that Sunday and headed to social media.

“I love this reaction!!” Kiffin posted on X. “Been in that same press conference in orange in that situation. I know that feeling.”

***

Kiffin’s Rebels won 28-21 at Auburn on Saturday night, providing Ole Miss consecutive triumphs over the Tigers for the first time since the 1951-52 seasons.

The Rebels limited Auburn to 275 yards after holding Arkansas to 286 in their previous game on Oct. 7. Ole Miss had not held two straight SEC foes under 300 yards since limiting Tennessee and LSU late in the 2009 season.

Former Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding is in his first season in Oxford with that same role, and he is earning $1.9 million.

“We’re seeing it pay off,” Kiffin said. “It was a big investment that was made, but I think everybody is happy with that.”

***

Bo Nix compiled a 21-13 record as Auburn’s quarterback from 2019 through his injury-shortened 2021 season, defeating Alabama at home, LSU on the road and Oregon at a neutral site.

Nix was far from perfect — he was even replaced by T.J. Finley during a 2021 escape of Georgia State — but his departure to Oregon following the 2021 season may have produced the most negative impact on an SEC program in the short history of the NCAA transfer portal. Auburn’s quarterback play has been wretched since, with the Tigers having averaged 90.8 passing yards a game in their last eight matchups against Power Five opponents dating to last season.

Auburn first-year coach Hugh Freeze has used two transfer quarterbacks through its 3-4 start, but neither Robby Ashford (Oregon) nor Payton Thorne (Michigan State) is producing.

“Everybody is up for evaluation,” Freeze said, “and it should be with the numbers we’re putting up.”

***

Arkansas, which averaged 2.9 yards per play during Saturday’s dreadful 7-3 loss to visiting Mississippi State, fired offensive coordinator Dan Enos on Sunday. Receivers coach Kenny Guiton will call the plays for the 2-6 Razorbacks when they head to Florida on Nov. 4.

***

At a time when Arkansas and Auburn are struggling to move the football, LSU can’t seem to be stopped.

Sure, a 62-0 win over Army isn’t the best barometer, but Brian Kelly’s Tigers have surpassed 500 yards in seven straight games.

***

When Shane Beamer’s South Carolina Gamecocks were losing 34-12 at Missouri on Saturday to fall to 2-5 this season, we all knew something was afoot.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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