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AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Alabama defensive back Jordan Battle, left, tackles Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker during Saturday night's meeting of longtime SEC rivals in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

A little more than nine minutes remained in Tennessee's eventual 52-24 loss at No. 4 Alabama on Saturday night. The Crimson Tide were about to ice the game, but the Volunteers' defensive line was making one last stand, twice denying Bama's battering ram running back Brian Robinson Jr. the end zone from close range.

Watching this from the press box, ESPN analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said of the toughness being shown by this outmanned, overmatched Tennessee team: "Back against the wall. They will not give up. They've gained so much respect."

There is a positive and negative aspect to those words, depending on how realistic you are about where you believe the Vols are in Josh Heupel's first season as head coach and where you think they should be.

Yes, the final score looked remarkably similar to the 14 straight losses to Alabama before this one, Nick Saban having never lost to the Vols during his 15 games against them as the Tide's coach.

After falling behind 14-7 in the opening quarter, after watching the Big Orange pull within 21-17 midway through the third period, Bama steadied itself, exerted its will and its talent advantage, and finally pulled away.

And if you're a Bama backer, you can reasonably argue the Vols' early advantages were at least partly the result of Tide miscues.

Or as Saban lamented at halftime, his team ahead 21-14: "We kept shooting ourselves in the foot."

Of course, there's one of these weekends every college football season. The ranked teams struggle. Everywhere. And so it had been throughout Saturday before unranked Tennessee took the Bryant-Denny Stadium field to face Alabama, what with No. 3 Oklahoma barely winning at Kansas, No. 7 Penn State losing at home to unranked Illinois in nine overtimes and No. 8 Oklahoma State falling at Iowa State.

Not that the first offensive possession for each team so much as hinted of possible trouble for the Tide. Tennessee went three and out. Bama took the ball down the field for a quick score.

After that, however, everything seemed to go the Vols' way. They swiftly tied it at 7-all. Then the Big Orange got a big bailout when the Tide inexplicably roughed kicker Paxton Brooks on fourth-and-28, which resulted in a go-ahead Vols score at 14-7.

Then, the Tide on the move again, the home team fumbled inside the Tennessee 10.

Halloween may still be a weekend away, but Bama's home field was quickly becoming a little shop of horrors for the Tide.

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AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Alabama wide receiver Slade Bolden, left, leaves Tennessee defensive back Theo Jackson (26) behind during the first half of Saturday night's matchup between the longtime SEC rivals in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

There may have even been a little bit of gamesmanship at play with the Vols, given last week's Injury-Gate against Ole Miss, as the Rebels' defensive players seemed to fall injured after every big offensive play in order to slow the Vols' fast pace.

Twice in the opening quarter, Vols defenders stayed on the turf after Bama first downs. Coincidence? Probably. But it certainly slowed the Tide's own rhythm. On one third-quarter play, the Vols even had two defenders down on the same play and both walked off without assistance. Perhaps imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Or perhaps the numerous Tennessee injuries and understandable fatigue because of the those injuries is finally taking its toll on the Vols' incredible shrinking roster.

In fact, even when Alabama went ahead 31-17 early in the fourth, here came Josh Heupel and his relentless offense once again. Two players after that Tide score, Hendon Hooker found Cedric Tillman down the sideline for a 70-yard touchdown strike, the Bama defender clearly not ready for the swiftness with which Tennessee ran the play after the previous snap.

This is why the Vols have been in every game they've played except at Florida. This is why they will soon no longer be viewed as prohibitive underdogs in these types of matchups against top-10 foes. The system is working, and well ahead of everyone's schedule save perhaps Heupel.

But there is also a reason why some still believe the Tide can reach the Southeastern Conference title game and possibly make the College Football Playoff.

And the biggest part of that reason is sophomore quarterback Bryce Young, who may actually be a better version of former Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was capable of beating you with both his feet and his arm.

So when the Vols pulled within 31-24, Young keyed the kind of offensive explosion that national title contenders display. With the help of a key interception, Bama outscored Tennessee 21-0 the rest of the way. It is that run of excellence when it was needed most that makes you wonder how much closer to toppling the Tide the Vols are today as opposed to so many other seasons.

But the words of McElroy shouldn't be dismissed as an empty compliment.

Now 4-4 this season with only a November date with Georgia looming as a certain loss the rest of the way, the Vols have gained so much respect.

If not quite ready to beat Bama, and probably not Georgia, Tennessee seems ready quicker than anyone expected to pull even or in front of the rest of the SEC. Given the coaching calamities that preceded Heupel's hiring, whatever respect they've earned through those efforts is richly earned.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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