Tennessee has ruined what was once a rivalry

Marvin Westwestwords

Here’s how I see it …

Alabama appears much the same from year to year. So does Tennessee.

Jeremy Pruitt says the proverbial gap is closing. Numbers argue otherwise.

Jeremy says he is disappointed but not discouraged. Others are both and starting to dread the next coaching search.

Please God, not that. There is a budget crunch.

The Crimson Tide lost its most explosive player, Jaylen Waddle, on Saturday’s opening kickoff and won by 31. It was business as usual, 14 in a row, no sweat.

Receivers running loose made it look easy. There was minimum drama, no celebration, no threat to the goal posts. I’m not sure the winners even bothered with victory cigars. Ho hum.

Alabama won by 22 last October. Tua Tagovailoa was 11-of-12 for 155 yards before retiring with a second-quarter injury. What followed was a dropoff. Somebody else won the national championship.

Alabama defeated Tennessee by 37 in Coach Pruitt’s first season. There were valid explanations.

Alabama won by 38 in Butch Jones’ last time around. Do you see the pattern?

Incidentally, Butch got considerable camera time this time while congratulating Najee Harris. The tough running back had three touchdowns.

Sad, isn’t it, that the Volunteers are unable to hold up their share of what was once the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry. There were so many great games and wonderful memories – and maybe a few tall tales stretched in the general direction of incredibility.

The late, great Tom Siler handed down a delightful story from 1928. An Alabama fan with a fistful of folding money was going through the Tuscaloosa stands before the game, looking for bold suckers, offering to bet the Crimson Tide would score more touchdowns than Tennessee would get first downs.

He was still waving and taunting as Gene McEver took the opening kickoff 98 yards to the end zone. The cocky blowhard vanished in thin air.

During the time of Beattie Feathers, a young man took two pillows to the Tennessee-Alabama game on a cold, rainy afternoon.

When Feathers scored a touchdown, he ripped open the pillowcases, scattered the contents and yelled “Go Feathers, go!”

Fans were not amused to discover goose down hanging on their dampened Saturday finest.

I was at Legion Field in Birmingham, 1965, tie game, time running short, Alabama moving toward a winning field goal. Snake Stabler scrambled to the UT 4, got his team lined up, took the snap, spiked the ball and stopped the clock with six seconds remaining.

It took Snake and me a moment or two to realize that was fourth down.

I was in the old press box when third-string quarterback Bubba Wyche engineered a Vol victory. Defensive back Albert Dorsey celebrated his birthday by intercepting three passes.

I was present and paying attention when linebacker Steve Kiner rose in defense of Bear Bryant and loudly declared that Alabama players should be ashamed of themselves.

“Look over there at that poor old man. He looks pitiful. You sorry bastards have let him down.”

Alas and alas, most of the best stories are old.

Can you believe Nick Saban, as coach at Alabama, has never lost to Tennessee? Do you think he ever will? He’ll be 69 on Saturday. Surely there will come a time when he will get tired.

The all-time series record is now 38-57-7. There are other sobering numbers: 22-28-3 versus Auburn, 20-29 versus Florida, 23-25-2 versus Georgia. What this says is Tennessee isn’t anywhere close to what it used to be. I suppose you already knew that.

Say this for Jeremy Pruitt, he has some leadership ability. His team played smarter and harder against Alabama than the week before against Kentucky.

Pruitt is firm in his convictions. Some time ago, the coach concluded that Jarrett Guarantano gives his team the best chance of winning. Guarantano is tough. He did not melt into a pity puddle under hostile fan criticism. He rewarded Pruitt’s faith with a better-than-average performance. He threw some beautiful passes. He did not fumble or invite interceptions.

Jarrett was honored as Tennessee’s player of the game.

Alabama quarterback Mac Jones was better – 25 of 31 for 387 yards without Waddle. Tennessee’s defense contributed. Jones was generally unmolested. The secondary had problems. Defensive backs were sometimes somewhere else. Other times, when coverage was sound, Alabama receivers still caught the ball.

Pruitt did not earn a bonus as substitute defensive line coach. Enthusiasm may have been up but net results were similar – almost no heat on the QB, 20 carries by Harris but only one yard lost.

Defensive lineman Matthew Butler had an interesting summation: “We have to eliminate mistakes in the front, in the second level and in the back end. We have to play collectively as a unit. As far as physicality, toughness, persistence, we have to raise that level.”

That pretty much covers it.

What next?

Tennessee got the ship back on course in the second half of last season. This second half has danger zones. Arkansas is improving. Texas A&M has muscle. Going to Auburn is hazardous. Florida will be here at the end.

Thank goodness for Vanderbilt.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions at [email protected].

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