"I thought we did this because it was fun."
My wife said that at halftime Saturday night, while we were attempting to squeeze into our seats in Section M at Neyland Stadium. Alabama had badly outplayed the homestanding Vols in the first half, with the exception of one long run, and yet had a mere 13-10 lead to show for it. The UT fans — who already watched 4 losses in 6 games and were downright apologetic about their team (the guy next to me said, "We're terrible") — suddenly turned vitriolic, egged by the student section chanting "F*CK YOU BAMA!"
"I thought we came to these games to have fun," she said.
We soaked in the derisive cheering a few seconds.
"Not this game," I said.
As it turned out, Tennessee fans' attempt to rile up their own team with their derisive chanting may have riled up the visitors instead. For the first time all season — except for, perhaps, the first half vs. Florida — Alabama played like the dominating defending champs from a year ago: four consecutive scoring drives that turned a close game into a blowout and sent those same fans scurrying for the exits long before the first chorus of "Rammer Jammer."
Now, every assessment of this game, naturally, has to be tempered with the follow phrase: Tennessee is terrible. It's the single worst Tennessee team of my lifetime, and I really have no idea how it happened. Saturday I read in the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Alabama in 2010 outweighed Tennessee in 2010 by an average of 21 pounds per man at every position and did a legitimate double-take: the same program of Fred Weary, Albert Haynesworth and John Henderson ... and we outweigh them that badly? It's hard to believe, but that's how thin times are on The Hill.
Having said that, the second half at Neyland underscores what's been the difference between the last two seasons and this one for Nick Saban's team: the '08-'09 Alabama team played with a "(BLEEP) YOU" intensity that set them apart from just about every other team on the schedule. Nick Saban used the word "dominate," and the team wielded it like a club. That's been missing so far in 2010. It wasn't missing Saturday night in Knoxville; 'Bama even tacked on a completely meaningless touchdown with 8 minutes to play in the fourth, just to drive home the point. (Bleep) you.
I don't know what the future holds for this Alabama team. It's about to take a week off at the most opportune time on the schedule, with three ranked teams remaining on the schedule (including the current BCS No. 1). I don't know if Alabama's got another trip to Atlanta (or beyond) in it.
I do know this: the team that played with the kind of mentality on display Saturday night in Knoxville is good enough to beat anyone in the country.
Some other thoughts:
— I'm going to disagree with OTS' assessment of Saturday a slight amount: Alabama did not play "poorly" in the first half, as he says: maybe it wasn't great, but the offense was moving the ball up and down the field, only it couldn't cash in opportunities (three FG attempts in the first half vs. 2 punts). As for his assertion that Tennessee "gashed" 'Bama with its run game, other than Tauren Poole's 59-yard touchdown run (which was a case of Alabama slanting away from the spot where UT was running, the only time all night we were really out of position), Tennessee's longest rushing gain was a 15-yard Poole run before half (with the defense playing back to protect vs. the pass).
— OTS is spot-on in his assessment, however, about the vertical passing game, which made a shocking cameo early and often Saturday night. It was obvious why this was possible: Tennessee spent most of the night with about 19 people in the box, selling out to stop the run. One expert on CSS referred to the defensive scheme as a "Eagle Over," in which both guards and the center are "covered" by a defensive lineman, and the ends play wide. It allows the linebackers to still play the flats, while helping against the run. But it leaves the corners perilously vulnerable against the deep ball, as we saw.
— Marcell Dareus affected the game last night more than he has in some time. His ankle is obviously still bothering him, but he still managed to affect the quarterback, and finished with a few tackles, as well.
— I'm no band expert, but you don't have to be to appreciate the "Pride of the Southland" and its circle drill. That was pretty cool.
— Stacey attempted to keep track of the number of times the UT band played "Rocky Top" Saturday night. Final count: 23. Although there's some dispute about whether the "playback" (when they play it through a second time) counts as a separate playing. Talk amongst yourselves.
— I hate to nag the offensive line, which played excellent Saturday, but there was a moment late in the second quarter that just killed me: Greg McElroy threw a jailbreak screen pass to Marquis Maze, a beautiful design that earned a first down and would've earned a touchdown had not William Vlachos been careening down the field, 10 yards in front of Maze, not touching a soul. I have no earthly idea what he was doing.
— UT fans have a much better sense of humor about the whole "13 men on the field" thing than I probably would. Seriously, had that happened to me, I don't know if I'd be over it, even now.
— Watching McElroy skip off the field to the cheers of the 'Bama fans still in the building Saturday night was fun. "They don't hate me this week! Woooooo!!!!"
— If we learned nothing else during the latter part of the 1990s, we should've learned that it's important to savor every win vs. Tennessee, even a weakened Tennessee team that looks ready to start winter workouts, possibly tomorrow. The Vols most definitely won't stay down like this for very long.
And that's OK. Because Alabama and Tennessee is more fun when both teams are good (well ... maybe not fun).