Tennessee defensive end LaTroy Lewis was raised in Akron, Ohio, and recalls a special Saturday of football each fall when he was a youth: Ohio State vs. Michigan.
“That’s what I was taught my whole life,” Lewis says, “and then I got down here in the South, and it was kind of like: ‘Is there any other game beside Tennessee and Alabama?’”
Not for longtime Tennessee fans there isn’t.
Alabama was the Vols’ biggest rival long before Florida or Georgia, and the rivalry resumes Saturday when No. 9-ranked UT plays the No. 1 Crimson Tide at 3:30 ET (TV: CBS) at Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee (5-1, 2-1 SEC) is coming off a 45-38 double-overtime loss last Saturday at Texas A&M. That loss snapped UT’s 11-game winning streak, tied for the fifth-longest streak in school history.
Meanwhile, Alabama (6-0, 3-0) won at Arkansas 49-30 and stretched its winning streak to 18 games, the longest streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Tide lost to Ole Miss on Sept. 19, 2015, but won its next 12 games and the national championship.
It was Alabama coach Nick Saban’s fourth national title since taking over as the Tide’s coach in 2007 – the same year the Tide began its current nine-game winning streak vs. the Vols.
Lewis, a fifth-year senior, has seen his team’s confidence grow under fourth-year coach Butch Jones, and it’s at a high level going into the Alabama game.
“I think our team confidence, as a whole, period, and just the dynamic of our team is a lot different than last year,” Lewis explains. “Yeah, I do think we’re a confident team. We played well against them last year, but then again, that was Team 119, and we do have a completely different dynamic to our team and we feel like we should fare well.”
In last year’s game in Tuscaloosa, the Vols took a 14-13 lead with 5 minutes, 49 seconds left to play on Jalen Hurd’s 12-yard touchdown run and Aaron Medley’s conversion kick.
Alabama got the winning touchdown with 2:24 left on a 14-yard touchdown run by Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
It was a loss that still stings the Vols.
“I think since the day I came in here, nobody’s really scared of Alabama or thought that we weren’t as good,” says Ethan Wolf, a junior tight end. “We’ve got a lot of pride in ourselves, and last year was kind of proving that.
“We were leading until the last series. It’s frustrating that we couldn’t pull that one out, but I think all the work that we’ve put in since that game, there’s definitely no fear or just feeling of not being good enough to beat Alabama by any means.”
Tennessee has shown little fear this season despite facing big deficits with an injury-riddled lineup.
The Vols trailed Florida 21-0 on Sept. 24 and rallied for a 38-28 victory at Neyland Stadium to break an 11-game losing streak to the Gators.
Tennessee trailed Georgia 17-0 on Oct. 1 and beat the Bulldogs 34-31 on Joshua Dobbs’ Hail Mary touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings at the end of the game.
Last Saturday, the Vols trailed Texas A&M 28-7 in the third quarter before tying it 35-35 on Dobbs’ 18-yard touchdown pass to Alvin Kamara with 41 seconds left in regulation. The orange magic ran out when Dobbs’ pass was intercepted in the end zone in the second overtime.
Tennessee gained 684 total yards but committed seven turnovers (five fumbles lost, two interceptions).
“Personally, what I do is take the positives away from the game,” Wolf says. “We all know the things we need to work on. They’re pretty clear, but understanding that we did a lot of good things (is important).
“We’re a really good football team, but just like any other game, [you] put it behind you and focus on the next one because in this conference, we’re going a week later and playing Alabama, so there’s no time to think about the game the week before whether it’s a win or loss.
“You’ve got to go into this week and fix the deficiencies as a player and as a team.”
The Vols still have their goal of winning the SEC East intact with the head-to-head tiebreaker over Florida and Georgia.
However, they can’t rely on another big rally to beat Alabama, which is second in the SEC in total defense (292.5 yards allowed per game) and leads the SEC in scoring (44.8 points per game).
“I think this is the best Alabama team we’ve faced since we’ve been here,” Jones says. “They’ve all been very, very talented teams. Not to take anything away from those teams. I have a lot of respect for Coach Saban, a lot of respect for what’s going on there. They’re disciplined. They bring it every game.
“Their program, every game is important because everywhere they go they’re Alabama, and that’s something we’ve talked to our players now where we’re in, is we’ve created a reputation for ourselves now and everyone respects Tennessee and our football program and our players, and that’s a great responsibility to play your best week in and week out, and not everyone can do that.”
Lewis can handle it. He says the Alabama game is special to him.
“It excites me,” Lewis said. “I think a lot of times people get intimidated by certain teams. For us, it’s just another nameless, faceless opponent, and we’ve got to come in, prepare, and we’ve got to go out and play and execute just like any other game.”
Three matchups to watch
Kamara vs. Tide
Alabama knew all about the 5-foot-10, 215-pound Kamara long before his huge game against Texas A&M, when he set a UT record with 312 all-purpose yards on 30 touches.
Kamara, a junior from Norcross, Georgia, was one of the nation’s top top three running backs in the 2013 recruiting class when he signed with Alabama, but fell behind Henry and Altee Tenpenny on the depth chart and redshirted in 2013.
His stay in Tuscaloosa was rocky. Kamara hurt his knee in preseason, missed a week of practices before the LSU game for what Saban called “behavioral issues,” and was suspended for the Sugar Bowl.
Kamara left Alabama in January 2014 and transferred to Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, where he rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 touchdowns in nine games. He came to Tennessee as a four- and five-star JUCO prospect and has played up to the billing.
Last season, Kamara was the Vols’ second leading rusher (698 yards, seven touchdowns) and second-leading receiver (34 catches, 291 yards, three touchdowns).
Voted a team captain for the 2016 season, Kamara is UT’s third-leading rusher (292 yards) behind Dobbs (324 yards, five touchdowns) and Jalen Hurd (407 yards, two touchdowns). Kamara is averaging 5.2 yards per carry with Hurd and Dobbs both at 4.0 yards per carry.
“Just getting here and being able to mature and develop as a person first and foremost, I feel like that’s more important than a lot of things on the field,” Kamara said Monday.
“It’s a lot of things that are bigger than the game. I feel like when you do things like that off the field, when you’re a good person off the field, it rewards you on the field.”
Hurd missed the Texas A&M game due to injury and was questionable for Alabama early in the week.
With Hurd out, Kamara rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, caught eight passes for 161 yards and a touchdown, and had 24 return yards.
“Everybody on this team, we all work like we’re the No. 1 guy,” Kamara said. “With Jalen being out, getting him back this week is going to be big. I knew I had to work and John Kelly (89 rushing yards, one TD) knew he had to work, and that’s what we did.”
Kiffin vs. Shoop
Saban probably won’t be the most disliked guy on the Alabama sideline Saturday.
That distinction goes to Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the former Vols head coach (2009) whose back-door exit for USC after one season in Knoxville still stings.
No doubt Kiffin is an offensive mastermind, and he goes up against UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who’s thought to be an up-and-coming defensive guru with head coaching potential.
Kiffin took a shot at the Vols with this August 1 tweet – “Tennessee loaded with top-level recruits – but they’re leaving the state” – and linked it to an article detailing in-state prospects leaving Tennessee.
Among them are Oak Ridge High School receiver Tee Higgins and Knoxville Catholic receiver Amari Rodgers, the son of former UT quarterback Tee Martin. Both are going to Clemson, although Higgins was once committed to the Vols at one time.
Shoop will have his hands full with the Tide, which gained 517 yards against Arkansas and ranks fourth in the SEC in total offense (489.8 yards per game).
“They’re explosive on offense and have playmakers all over the field,” Jones said. “They have a big, imposing offensive line. They’ve done a great job of protecting (freshman quarterback) Jalen Hurts.”
UT’s defense is in patchwork mode, too, without starting linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. and cornerback Cam Sutton, three of its top four defenders. Reeves-Maybin and Sutton are out indefinitely.
Tennessee now will be without starting senior defensive tackle Danny O’Brien, who was dismissed from the team Monday night for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
O’Brien was taken off the field on a stretcher during the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss at Texas A&M. After having an examination at a local hospital, O’Brien flew back to Knoxville with the team.
UT’s press release on Monday mentioned O’Brien’s dismissal said it was unrelated to O’Brien’s injury on Saturday and “however, should he require any additional care it will be provided by the University of Tennessee.”
The Vols gave up 592 total yards against Texas A&M. Freshman Trayveon Williams ran for 217 yards and a touchdown and Trevor Knight threw for 239 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 110 yards and three touchdowns.
Allen vs. Barnett
They aren’t going up against each other, but UT junior Derek Barnett and Alabama senior Jonathan Allen are two of the best defensive ends in the nation.
There will be plenty of comparisons between the two during Saturday’s game.
Allen was projected a first-round NFL draft pick this year, but graded second round by the NFL draft advisory committee and opted to play another season with the Tide. He had the team-high 12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss for the 2015 championship team.
This year, Allen has four sacks (tied for ninth in the SEC) and 4.5 tackles for loss. He’s the team’s fourth-leading tackler and a consensus All-American.
Barnett has played his way into conversations about top ends in the country.
Against Texas A&M, Barnett had a sack, a tackle for loss, and two quarterback hurries – the first resulting in Todd Kelly Jr. intercepting a pass by Knight on the Aggies’ first possession.
Perhaps his most impressive plays came when he covered a Texas A&M wide receiver, batted down the pass, and made a downfield tackle on the next play.
“(Barnett) did a great job of executing the assignment (on the pass deflection),” Jones said. “That’s the thing we’ve challenged Derek with and he’s done a tremendous job with.
“Obviously he’s a gifted pass rusher and gifted football player, but also being a complete defensive player and defensive end is being able to drop and fire his own schemes, and he’s really proven he’s been able to do that.”
Barnett’s five sacks this season is tied for third in the SEC behind Auburn’s Carl Lawson (six) and LSU’s Arden Key (seven). Barnett has 25 career sacks –22 coming against SEC competition – and 42.5 tackles for loss – 33.5 against the SEC.
5 things to watch
Hurts and Dobbs
Hurts, a true freshman from Channelview, Texas, won the starting quarterback’s job during fall camp – beating out junior Cooper Bateman – and has done nothing to lose his grip on No. 1.
Hurts is sixth in the SEC with 1,242 passing yards, one spot behind Dobbs (1,433). However, he is completing 63.8 percent of his passes and has nine touchdowns with two interceptions, compared to Dobbs’ 58.3 percent passing, 14 TDs and eight interceptions.
The two have comparable rushing statistics.
Dobbs is 15th in the SEC in rushing (324 yards, 4.0-yard average, five touchdowns).
Last Saturday, Dobbs completed 28 of 47 passes for 398 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions. He rushed for 57 yards on 17 carries.
Hurts is 18th in the SEC in rushing (296 yards, 4.8-yard average, five touchdowns). He completed 13 of 17 passes for 253 yards with two touchdowns and one interception against Arkansas.
“Hurts has done a tremendous job of really managing their offense,” Jones says. “His running ability adds a whole other element to their offense.”
Alabama always has good tailbacks. Always.
Heisman Trophy winner Henry is gone – now playing for the Titans – but sophomore Damian Harris, freshman Joshua Jacobs and sophomore Bo Scarbrough have taken over the rushing load.
Harris leads the team with 478 rushing yards (one touchdown) and is averaging 8.7 yards per carry. Jacobs is second with 307 yards (three touchdowns) and is averaging 8.3 yards per carry.
Scarbrough has 194 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry, and four rushing TDs, the high for Tide backs.
Last Saturday, Harris rushed for 122 yards on 13 carries (9.4-yard average), and Jacobs had 57 yards on three carries (19-yard average), bolstered by a 56-yard run.
Harris also had two catches for 60 yards, including a 56-yarder for touchdown from Hurts. Harris has seven catches for 81 yards this season.
UT fumbles, penalties
While the Vols showed grit and resolve against the Aggies, they also bumbled away their chance to win the game.
They won’t beat Bama with another game like.
Tennessee’s six fumbles (five lost) gives the team 21 fumbles this season, the most for any team during Jones’ three-plus years as coach. The Vols got away with fumbles in their first five games – they lost only three of their first 15 – but the ball didn’t bounce their way at College Station, Texas.
“Sometimes when I look at the turnovers, it’s individuals fighting for extra yards,” Jones says. “It’s individuals trying to make plays, and sometimes that’s going to happen with the style of play and the effort, but we do have to get that corrected.”
Plus, several of the Vols’ lost turnovers came during potential touchdown drives – including Kamara getting stripped and losing a fumble at the Aggies’ 7 after a 53-yard pass play from Dobbs.
Alabama leads the nation with nine defensive touchdowns this season.
The Tide got two against Arkansas when Tim Williams returned a fumble 23 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and Minkah Fitzpatrick returned an interception 100 yards in the fourth quarter.
“Alabama is very opportunistic and they do a great job of hunting the football with the way they strip (the football),” Jones said.
Tennessee also was penalized 12 times for 84 yards against Texas A&M. The Vols have more penalties (40) than any team in the SEC (Florida is next with 38) and ranks tied for 29th in the country among most penalized teams, according to ESPN statistics.
Tennessee’s secondary has more than one wide receiver to worry about Saturday.
NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein put together his list of college receivers generating the most interest from scouts and those who were expected to post big seasons in 2016, and topping the list was Alabama sophomore Calvin Ridley – even though he’s not draft eligible next year.
Zierlein wrote of the Ridley, a 2015 freshman All-American: “Alabama has another Amari Cooper, but I think version 2.0 might be faster.”
Ridley leads the Tide in catches (34), receiving yards (412) and TD catches (four).
Senior ArDarius Stewart was the SEC’s leader in receiving yards (203), yards per game (101.5), and TD catches (three) going into the third game against Ole Miss when he suffered a sprained knee.
Stewart has returned and led the Tide against Arkansas with five catches for 120 yards, both career-highs. In four games, Stewart has 18 catches for 328 yards (18-yard average) and three touchdowns.
Alabama starting linebacker Reuben Foster and starting OG Alphonse Taylor suffered concussions vs. Arkansas and missed Monday’s practice.
Foster, a 6-1, 240-pound senior, leads Alabama in tackles with 37 and has 2.5 tackles for loss. Junior Rashaan Evans replaced Foster in the third.
Taylor didn’t play in the second half against Arkansas and was replaced by Lester Cotton.
“We have a couple of guys who’ll be out today (Monday), probably,” Saban told reporters in Tuscaloosa. “Hopefully they’ll be back (Tuesday). We’re a little banged up after this (Arkansas) game. Not serious things, but things that may require another day of rest for several guys including Reuben Foster and Alphonse Taylor.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.