A Jim Valvano quote in a simple frame hangs at eye level, straight in front of my desk: “Never give up; never, ever give up.”
The late basketball coach said it when he was fighting for his life but it is a good morning tonic for those with no more than modest talent who never learned to enjoy losing. It is especially appropriate for underdogs.
Tennessee versus Alabama in football? There is hope in the arena. The Vols have finally qualified in the same weight class. Alabama was not all that hot Saturday night. That’s how it sometimes is when your Heisman Trophy hero has a hurt shoulder and your very talented substitute quarterback looks like a substitute quarterback.
If I keep hearing “We’ll beat ’em if they play like that,” I’ll begin to think, long about Wednesday, that it could happen. Most who fill Neyland Stadium to overflowing will do what they can. Count on loud.
Alabama has many advantages. Nick Saban has been proclaimed the greatest coach of all time. He has elite assistants, analysts and support staff, some recycled experts funded by previous employers.
He has superstar Bryce Young, all-American linebacker Will Anderson, coach-on-the-field Henry To’o To’o, strong safety Jordan Battle, very fast running back Jahmyr Gibbs and other superior players from remarkable recruiting roundups, year after year.
Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen, 6-5 and 314, is the very special offensive tackle. Emil Ekiyor, offensive guard, has not allowed and does not intend to allow a sack.
National championships are in neat formations for all to see.
There is a convincing how-to-do-it record, 58-38-7, against once fierce foe Tennessee. Alas, the Crimson Tide has won 15 in a row in that rivalry. Fourteen were before Josh Heupel.
Nine times in that little hot streak, Alabama scored more than 40. Last year in Tuscaloosa was 52. Worst was 58, near downtown Knoxville, in 2018.
Several games were exciting. Tennessee didn’t quit. The score was 12-10 in 2009. The Vols got close but Mount Cody was too big to kick over.
That was the field goal game. Leigh Tiffin kicked four for Alabama points. Daniel Lincoln hit one, missed one and had two blocked by Terrence Cody. The second was the last play of the game.
Alabama, as often is the case, was the No. 1 team in the country. Tennessee gained most of a hundred yards more than the Tide. Tennessee couldn’t or didn’t block Cody on the decisive play.
Cody downplayed his accomplishment.
“I just reached my arm up. That’s how I got it. I knocked the blocker onto his back.”
So, football is a game of inches? Some have been routs.
In 2017, Alabama was “only” three touchdowns ahead at halftime and Saban was unhappy. The coach felt some better when the ending was 45-7. Alabama outgained Tennessee 604-108 with offensive reserves playing most of the second half.
The Vols did snap a streak of 12-plus quarters without a touchdown. Linebacker Daniel Bituli intercepted a Tua Tagovailoa pass and ran 97 yards. Despite that embarrassment, the Tide smoked celebratory cigars.
Tennessee, not much later, fired coach Butch Jones. He joined Saban’s rehabilitation program. We don’t know if he became another Alabama advantage, whether he provided inside information or just went along for the ride. He allegedly used some of his UT severance pay to buy the next two boxes of Cuban cigars. He smoked one for show. Smoke got in his eyes.
Indeed, the Tide rolled on. It won 58-21 the next year when Jeremy Pruitt was Tennessee coach. Saban didn’t do his former defensive coordinator any favors. Could be Nick recognized there was no way to help Jeremy. His offensive concept was far behind the times. If he was guilty of mass dishonesty and still couldn’t win, what else was there to do?
Coming Saturday is a rare Tennessee opportunity to reverse the flow. The Vols are better than they have been in several years. Alabama is not quite as good as it usually is. That doesn’t promise anything but it is encouraging.
Alabama’s adventure with Texas A&M was a close call. Alabama’s concept was conservative, “just don’t lose the game.”
Defense saved the night.
Options were trimmed from plays to help sub QB Jalen Milroe but he was inconsistent. He ran very well, was effective on slant passes, lost two fumbles and one pick and gave a few deer-in-the-headlights looks. Milroe threw for three TDs and 111 yards.
Saban said “So something in the passing game needs to get better.”
With assistance from LSU players and coaches, Tennessee romped. The Tigers made enough mistakes to lose two games. Strange that, even with more heat on the quarterback, the Vols’ porous pass defense yielded 300 yards. Vol run defense was much improved. Vol offense was some degree of great.
Summation: Paul Finebaum says what happens next is biggest game at Neyland since 1998.
Alabama was favored by a touchdown a few hours ago. The point spread will run up or down based on whether Young returns as Tide quarterback and how much is invested in which team.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org