Sports

Tennessee Over Alabama Is Why God Invented College Football

Tennessee Volunteers fans tear down the goal post.
In Knoxville, beating Alabama was half party, half exorcism. Donald Page/Getty Images

No sport does rivalry like college football. In part, it’s just a function of passion. The sport’s regionalism means that rivalry games are more like family disputes. But it is also a matter of timing. With the occasional postseason exception, a college football rivalry comes about once a year—not twice like in the NFL or college basketball, not a handful of times like in the NHL or NBA, and certainly not the better part of 20 times, as in Major League Baseball. In this sport, you get one shot per year at the school you despise the most, and if you miss it, you get to stew for approximately 52 weeks.

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This passage of time means the sport can claim something else as its own: the rivalry drought. Tennessee and Alabama have played every October since 1928, save for a one-year World War II interruption. Both have had their dominant periods, but neither has enjoyed anything like what the Crimson Tide have been doing to the Volunteers since 2007, the year Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. Of all of the programs to have their existences crushed by Saban’s reign, Tennessee has arguably had it the worst. Entering Saturday, Saban’s Tide were 15-for-15 against the Vols, winning by a 26-point average margin. The Third Saturday in October (capital letters intended) has been a recurring funeral in Knoxville.

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So, Saturday was something much greater than one big win. Tennessee beat Alabama 52-49, capitalizing on a last-minute missed field goal by the Tide and ripping off 45 yards in 13 seconds to set up a game-winning kick of their own. This one went through, the Vols moved to 6-0 and a top-5 ranking in the polls come Sunday, and we’ll see how much of Knoxville is left standing when all of the dust settles by, say, next Thursday.

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Tennessee’s victory is a lot of things. It is a formal return to power for a program that won the national championship in 1998 and stayed good into the 2000s but has been a mess for the last decade and change. Tennessee was in total shambles as recently as 22 months ago, when the program fired failing coach Jeremy Pruitt amid bad play and an oncoming NCAA investigation. It is also a shakeup in the College Football Playoff picture, because Tennessee now needs to be considered a serious candidate to play in it. It is a massive boon to Tennessee’s head shop economy, too. It’s Third Saturday tradition to light up a victory cigar, but Tennesseeans hadn’t tasted one of those in a decade and a half. One fan I know waited in line after the game to get one, having been too scared to tempt fate by purchasing one pregame.

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And that, really, is what Tennessee’s win is really about. College football is America’s most Sisyphean sport. You could spend your entire life dreaming about your program getting to the mountaintop—the figurative one, not Rocky Top in Tennessee—and unless you root for one of a small handful of programs, you’ll never get salvation. Such is life in a game with 131 teams in the top classification, about 15 of which are playing a different sport than the rest. Tennessee has often been on the good side of that divide, and beating Alabama means the Vols are back in rare air. It would be cool if they kept winning, but their fans already won. When a mob of orange carried the goalposts out of the stadium on Saturday night, that was that. The first thing the winning coach, Josh Heupel, said after the game was, “This is college football at its best.” Even winning the national championship on a Monday night in January, in some sterile NFL stadium, would not be quite the same as what happened Saturday.

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Validation in college football doesn’t really come from winning national titles. It can’t, or fans of 115 or so teams would have nothing to care about year after year. Instead, it comes from two things: beating the team you hate the most, and having the time of your life with your friends. That’s what Tennessee provided on Saturday. If you’ve ever rooted for a woebegone athletic organization and wondered what the best thing you were hoping for could look like, then wonder no more. It looks like Tennessee 52, Bama 49.

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You only get to snap a 15-game losing streak against your rival once. (At least, only once every so often, you would hope.) That catharsis is hard to replicate, and it’s why moments like the one Tennessee just had are so appealing. But style points count too, and the way Tennessee went about dispatching the Tide was also incredibly satisfying. These sorts of breakthroughs can come about in different ways. Last November, Michigan got up after years on the mat and body-slammed Ohio State, the rival that had dominated the Wolverines for so many years. It was an ass-kicking from start to finish, and the fun was watching how seamlessly a plan came together after so many failures.

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What Tennessee did was much sloppier but, in its way, an even more rollicking time. The Volunteers started on fire and had leads of both 21-7 and 28-10 in the first half, but they misstepped enough times that it seemed unlikely they’d be able to hang on. With the game tied with eight minutes left, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (who’s now the leading Heisman Trophy contender) botched an exchange with his running back and fumbled away a freebie touchdown to Bama linebacker Dallas Turner. On the ensuing drive, Hooker threw an interception in the Alabama end zone that Kool-Aid McKinstry returned into Tennessee territory, appearing to more or less ice the game. A penalty nullified it, and Tennessee survived. Bama kicker Will Reichard still had a 50-yard field goal attempt to kill the Vols a few minutes later, and Tennessee again hung on just barely when he sent the kick wide.

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By the hair on their chins was the only fitting way for Tennessee to pull it off. After all, Heupel’s team plays like its hair is on fire. The coach favors a lightning pace, wherein Tennessee basically sprints to the line after every play. When the ball is snapped, the Vols will either run the defense over with a punishing line or have Hooker throw a bazooka deep to one of his talented receivers. In this game, Jalin Hyatt became a legend by catching five of those balls for touchdowns. He lived behind Alabama’s secondary on the game’s biggest plays.

Winning through the air was Tennessee’s hallmark in the 1990s, when Peyton Manning was just one of a succession of great passers to come through Knoxville. Hooker is the latest, and there’s no overstating how many people he brought peace with his performance on Saturday. For a long time, the Volunteers have been in the wilderness. They have shuffled through coaches, trying and failing to find one who could capably succeed the legendary Phillip Fulmer—who, to be fair, played his own role in that failure, having hired the last guy. Rooting for Tennessee became an angsty experience, and rooting for Tennessee during games against Alabama became a lifeless one.

Saturday was a renewal. It means that Tennessee matters again in the highest echelon of the sport. And while nobody in Knoxville will be smiling if the season falls apart in the weeks ahead, the thing that tormented Tennessee the most is finally gone, and that might mean more than anything. In college football, championships are nice, but nothing is more essential than an exorcism.

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