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Tennessee football coach Butch Jones led his team to a near-upset of Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, but the Volunteers came up short for the ninth straight game in the rivalry series. The Vols have lost four games this season by a combined 17 points.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — "Our time will come."

Tennessee football coach Butch Jones spoke those words not once but twice at the close of the Volunteers' ninth straight loss to Alabama early Saturday evening, this 19-14 defeat the first single-digit loss to the Crimson Tide since 2009.

Jones certainly had reasons to see a brighter future on this surprisingly humid autumn day. The Big Orange led the nation's No. 8 team 14-13 with 5:49 to play. Led it in the belly of the beast that is Bama's Bryant-Denny Stadium. Led it despite missing three field goals. Led it at least partly because the Crimson Tide, playing their eighth game in eight weeks, uncharacteristically dropped three would-be interceptions after returning three interceptions for touchdowns a week earlier at Texas A&M.

Said Tide head coach Nick Saban: "We were tired out there today, and we didn't look really quick or fast. We didn't have a lot of energy like we usually do, and I think that's due to playing eight games in a row."

But in the end, Bama did what Bama has almost always seemed to do under Saban. The game on the line, its tenuous playoff hopes hanging by a thread, it not only scored the game-winning touchdown 2:24 from the finish, it crushed the UT offense on its final drive, forcing quarterback Josh Dobbs to cough up the ball at his 4-yard line, which sealed the outcome.

"The best thing I can say," Saban continued in his assessment of his players, "is that you really have to respect a team that finds a way to win and makes plays when they have to make plays."

There are those in Big Orange Nation who will say the Vols are the exact opposite of that. Up 14-13 late, they lost. Down 19-14, they got one first down, then turned the ball over to secure a ninth straight loss to the Tide, the second-longest run of futility for UT in the 98-game series.

Yet this time the Vols were close. So close. Close enough to know that if they play as they did in those four gut-wrenching losses to Arkansas, Bama, Florida and Oklahoma by a combined 17 points, or in that inspiring comeback win against Georgia, well, to borrow the words of senior offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson: "We're now in a five-game playoff. I don't want to lose another game in a Tennessee uniform. We're there. We're right there."

But getting there and kicking the door down, as Bum Phillips once preached, are different things.

For all the good done by the Vols this day, Bama did drop three interceptions that could have turned a late escape into an early rout. There's also the reality that Alabama turned it up a notch when necessary, while UT could not.

Does that mean the Big Orange isn't improving under Jones? Of course not. But the receiving stars of Bama's winning drive, ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley, are a sophomore and freshman. Forty-nine of the 87 players on the Bama roster are freshmen or sophomores, and another top-three class is surely on the way.

So even though the Vols get the Tide in Neyland Stadium next season, and Bama will be on its third starting quarterback in three years, there is no guarantee the elephants' winning streak is on the last of its nine lives.

"They do a great job with the quarterback (Dobbs), the quarterback runs, the runners that they have and the personnel that they have," Saban said of UT. "It's always a big win for us, no matter what the score."

But if you're a UT fan, the score keeps ending up all wrong, even if the margin moved mightily in the right direction on Saturday.

"I thought our strength and conditioning program showed tonight what we're building and what we're becoming," Jones said. "I thought our players really stepped up against a senior- and junior-dominated team."

And the Vols did. They earned a fourth-quarter lead against a top-10 team playing on its home turf. They had the ball back with 2:24 to go when a touchdown would have won it.

Said Kerbyson of that late lead, a drive capped by the indomitable Jalen Hurd's confident high-stepping run to the end zone from 12 yards out: "I think we got them a little tired."

A little tired. A little nervous. A little vulnerable.

But in the end, only a little bit. In the end, Alabama won yet again. In the end, the Tide heads into an off week with a 7-1 record that will allow the Crimson Nation to spend much time calculating the best way to leapfrog at least a few of the seven undefeated teams above Bama in the rankings while fending off the four perfect squads below it.

Every Southeastern Conference team other than undefeated, fifth-ranked LSU should have such concerns.

"We can't let Alabama beat us twice," said UT senior defensive back Brian Randolph, meaning the Vols need to swiftly put this loss behind them, lest they fall to 3-5 overall and 1-4 in the SEC after facing Kentucky on Halloween night. "We got to make people see the bigger picture."

The bigger picture seems to show a much-improved Tennessee football team.

But the biggest picture also seems to show the same old scene at the top of the SEC, one painted crimson and white and introduced by a thundering "Rooolllllll Tide!"

"Our time will come," Jones said, more than once.

And it surely will.

Whether it's capable of coming as long as Lord Saban roams the Bama sideline is another matter.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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