This one feels a bit like the Tennessee-Kentucky basketball rivalry through the mid-90’s. The Cats, fueled by Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, and Nazr Mohammed among others, won the NCAA Tournament in 1996, lost in the title game in 1997, and won it again in 1998. During a stretch of 11 straight wins over Tennessee, Kentucky won in Thompson-Boling by 20 in 1995, then by 40 in 1996. You’d show up to these games with that 1% hope, then watch a dunk contest unfold for as long as you could stand it, consoling yourself that at least you could say you watched a championship team and, in Walker’s case, a three-time NBA All-Star.
The last time Alabama was in Knoxville, it wasn’t just the final margin (49-10). The Vols, still ranked ninth and in every championship chase after a double overtime loss at Texas A&M, were scattered, smothered, and covered by Alabama’s defense under Jeremy Pruitt: 2.59 yards per play for Dobbs, Hurd, Kamara, etc. Much has changed since then, for the Vols and Pruitt. Last year in Tuscaloosa was even worse – 2.35 yards per play – but that was to be expected given the state of the Vols this time a year ago.
I don’t think anyone expects the outcome to change this year. But is this going to turn into a dunk contest again, where we say, “Oh well, at least we can say we saw Tua play in Neyland”? Or can the Vols show signs of life?
There are a handful of things that would be tangible progress against this bunch:
- Alabama doesn’t score a touchdown on its opening drive
- Tua throws an interception
- Tua throws a pass in the fourth quarter
- Alabama scores 38 points or less
But beyond that, I think a good goal for Tennessee – aside from keeping Jarrett Guarantano alive – is to leave this game still feeling good about its chances the rest of the way home. That happened four years ago against Alabama in Knoxville, when the Tide raced to a 27-0 lead before Josh Dobbs started writing his legend in an eventual 34-20 Alabama win. This one should be less about individual ascension and more about the entire team continuing to pull in the same direction.
And against this bunch, we’d better pull real hard.
This could end up in the conversation for the best team Tennessee has ever faced. The Tide are currently playing in the 99.4 percentile in S&P+. The aforementioned 2016 Tide finished the year at 99.8%; 2012 Alabama at 99.3%. The Vols faced both LSU (99.3%) and Alabama (99.1%) in 2011. Tim Tebow’s 2008 Gators were at 99.5%; Danny Wuerffel’s 1996 Gators were at 99.2%.
Two years ago at Rocky Top Talk, we ranked the best teams Tennessee has beaten in S&P+. 2001 Florida topped that list at 98.9%. All this to say, this Bama team is operating at a rare level…and this Tennessee team is trying to make its way into their atmosphere, but just getting off the ground. The history major in me is curious to see the Tide.
Tua might also be the fourth Heisman winner the Vols have faced in the last five years. We saw Baker Mayfield two years before he won it and Marcus Mariota the year before. The Vols last faced a Heisman winner in the same season with Derrick Henry in 2015. Much the same with Mark Ingram in 2009, they almost pulled the upset. The last Heisman winner Tennessee beat: Eddie George in 1995. Chris Weinke was famously inactive when the Vols beat Florida State to win the BCS title.
But on the list of the best quarterbacks Tennessee has ever faced – Mariota, Tebow, Wuerffel, plus future NFL standouts like McNabb – what Tua is doing right now stands out. Averaging 14.3 yards per attempt is just stupid. So is a 21-0 TD-INT ratio. Stop it. This is high school stuff. It’s up to the Vols to not look like a high school team out there.
Back in Thompson-Boling in the 90’s, Kentucky came back to Knoxville in 1997, and the Vols were game. Tennessee lost by just ten. We left that game feeling hopeful, and though it took another season to get there, the Vols swept Kentucky in 1999 and took a major step forward under Jerry Green. Sometimes progress looks like a 10-point loss. I don’t know exactly what number would represent progress tomorrow, but I do believe it’s available beyond just the outcome. Stay healthy and stay alive, of course. But after two years of throwing completely ineffective punches against Alabama, perhaps Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols can land one or two in there, and leave their own mark on this game.
We might get to see something historic in this Alabama team and its quarterback. Will we also see progress from Tennessee?