The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry is based on streaks. Since the series began in 1901, it has been rare for a team not to win several consecutive games. Yet neither team has dominated the other quite like Alabama has since 2007.
The Crimson Tide have won eight straight games against the Vols by a combined score of 283-95. The 2009 game (12-10 win for the Tide) was the only one ever in question. The streak would have ended at five games and a brash, young coach would have shocked the college football world with a monumental upset. Instead, a blocked field goal allowed the streak to continue.
That coach now dons crimson instead of orange. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin spent just more than a year trying to shake up the SEC establishment as head coach of the Vols. He used a microphone almost as much as a dry erase board. He wanted Tennessee to be noticed – immediately.
Kiffin publicly accused former Florida head coach Urban Meyer of cheating. He told former South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery he’d be pumping gas one day after he chose the Gamecocks over the Vols.
Everyone and everything was a target – except Nick Saban and Alabama. In 2009, Kiffin went into Alabama week without a whisper of antagonism toward Tuscaloosa. Leading up to the game, he claimed Alabama was the type of program he wanted Tennessee to be. He never tried to poke the bear. Of course, Kiffin was speaking the truth. Alabama was becoming a perennial national power. Tennessee was rebuilding after a losing season and firing Phillip Fulmer.
However, there may have been some gamesmanship in what Kiffin was saying. Kiffin knew his team was outmatched. Being overlooked was his best chance. That’s what seemed to happen.
Tennessee hung tough with Alabama, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation. Trailing 12-10, the Vols had a chance to win the game if they could just score three points on the Vols’ final drive.
Tennessee had all the momentum as it drove to the 27-yard-line with just more than 40 seconds left. That’s when Kiffin didn’t seem like Kiffin. Instead of trying to move further downfield for an easier field goal attempt or even a touchdown, Kiffin milked the clock.
Keep in mind, Terrence Cody had already blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter. Sure enough, “Mount” Cody blocked another. This one was from 44 yards. The Vols lost 12-10.
Kiffin was questioned after the game for his conservative approach on the final drive. Why wasn’t he the aggressive coach that fans had grown accustomed to seeing?
“The last thing I wanted to do was you go back and you throw the ball and you throw an interception,” Kiffin said after the game. “You don’t give your players a chance to win or they throw another flag and it’s holding penalty and your outside of field goal range. I wasn’t going to put it in the refs hands after what had gone on during that game.”
When he referenced the officials, that’s when the cocky Kiffin seemed to come out as if he had been caged for a week. When asked about the penalty discrepancy, Kiffin deadpanned.
“Very shocking to me,” he said flatly when asked about the officiating.
Kiffin had a point. The Vols were the least penalized team in the SEC. Yet they were called for eight penalties for 68 yards. Alabama was assessed only one penalty.
It easy to wonder if Saban was impressed with Kiffin on that day. Perhaps the seed was planted that would result in Kiffin’s hiring in January 2014. Saban looked as if he dodged a bullet after the game.
“That’s how fragile a season can be,” he said. “Make one mistake, and you have to go overcome it. I hope there are a lot of lessons for our team to learn from this.”
The Vols recovered that season in order to become bowl eligible at 6-6. Alabama went on to win the national title. Then, Kiffin bolted for Southern California in January. After an unsuccessful run at USC, he returned to the SEC at Saban’s behest.
For Tennessee faithful, the 2009 Alabama loss wasn’t a win, but it didn’t feel exactly like a loss either. The Vols lost against a better foe but held their own. That was almost worth bragging about considering the state of the program. Remember, Tennessee lost to Wyoming in Neyland Stadium the previous season.
Other than the 2009 game, Alabama has outscored Tennessee 271-85 during this most recent winning streak. The Vols have only led Alabama three times in the past eight games – never by more than a touchdown.
Butch Jones, true to his nature, has taken the same approach as Kiffin this week. He’s called the Crimson Tide “impressive” almost as much as he’s said “brick by brick” during his time in Knoxville.
The Vols won’t admit it but a two-point loss to Bama would be impressive as well, especially if Tennessee can line up for a makeable field goal in the final seconds. Just hope “Mount” Cody isn’t in attendance.