“The Tennessee game is certainly a signature game,” head coach Nick Saban said. “There have been some great games in this series throughout the years. I think you can kind of throw out everything.”
The story line is almost identical to last year, as the Tide comes into the game as one of the top teams in the country, while Tennessee finds itself struggling. One of the most glaring similarities to the game is the time in which it falls. Tennessee will be Alabama’s eighth straight game without a bye, something that played a huge factor in last year’s near loss to the Volunteers.
“We are probably a just little bit more bumped up right now,” Saban said on Monday. “But, I don’t think that’s from not having a bye week, I just think that’s from playing a pretty physical game.”
Junior running back Mark Ingram said the team is in good shape and will be ready to go in top form this week.
“I think everybody feels good,” Ingram said. “ Everybody wants to go out and practice hard this week, play a good game and get to the bye week so we can reestablish ourselves, refocus and get ready for the second stretch.”
Just as in any in any rivalry game, you can pretty much throw aside stats when the Tide takes on the Vols. On paper, it would appear that Alabama will have no problem on Saturday. However, as last year proved, nothing can be taken for granted.
“Tennessee, they are going to bring their ‘A’ game,” junior defensive lineman Marcell Dareus said. “It doesn’t matter what their record is, how their season is going. They are going to bring their ‘A’ game, and they are going to show us that they are here to play.”
One thing is for certain: no matter how much the Tide players would like to forget last season’s near loss, the game will stick in their minds for quite some time. Ingram remembers the near disaster when his fumble almost cost the Tide a win as a stepping-stone in order to improve himself.
“I try to forget about that play,” Ingram said. “ It was a big play in the game, it just helped me learn. I think I grew up a lot from that last play.”
Dooley adds deeper dimension to rivalry.
Not quite everything has stayed the same in the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry from last season, though. If things around Knoxville seem a little less noisy, it is probably because they are. Since replacing Lane Kiffin as the Tennessee head coach, Derek Dooley has quietly been working on turning the Vols into a contender again in the SEC.
Dooley, who coached under Saban while at LSU, brings an added wrinkle to the rivalry. Saban said despite having to compete, he still holds friendships with Dooley as well as other coaches he has coached with.
“You have personal relationships with people, and you have professional relationships,” Saban said. “You have to compete against them, but that doesn’t mean you have to dislike them. I do talk to Derek on occasion, and I think he has done a fantastic job up there.”
Having coached with Dooley, Saban knows very well about what strengths Dooley brings to the table and what makes him a successful college coach.
“Well, I think first of all he is a very bright guy,” Saban said. “He is a student of all parts of the game. He isn’t one of those guys you just thought he was one a position coach on offense or a one position coach on defense, he looked at the big picture all the time.”
Saban said that while dealing with coaching a team in your first year is difficult, Dooley is making improvements at Tennessee.
“In my experiences, that first year is very difficult in terms of your staff, everybody getting on board, getting the players to buy in,” Saban said. “I think you can see by the way they have played they have done that.”
Saban also said that Dooley posses the tool needed to help turn Tennessee around.
“I think he has got all the right stuff to be a very successful college coach,” Saban said. “He sees the big picture of issues and problems you have to deal with in a program, and he is a good recruiter.”
Ties of the Tide
Saban is not the only person tied into the rivalry with Tennessee. Many of the Tide players have former Tennessee connections.
Offensive lineman Barrett Jones is a native of Memphis and said that the game holds a special meaning to him.
“It’s a great rivalry, especially being from Tennessee,” Jones said. “It’s a game that I have personally been to for many years before I became a part of it.”
Despite being from Tennessee, Jones said he has not had to deal with being criticized harshly back home for choosing to play at Alabama.
“It is really not as much as you think,” Jones said. “I do have a lot friends who go to Tennessee and they give me a hard time, so it’s going to be a lot of fun to go up there.”
Another player with Tennessee connections is junior wide receiver Marquis Maze, who was a former Tennessee commit before deciding to attend Alabama.
“Being recruited by them and having been committed, it means a lot,” Maze said.
Maze said he decided to switch commitment mainly in part because of Saban and feels really good about his decision.
“I feel pretty good about it; I cant complain,” Maze said. “I won a national championship here.”
No matter what their situation, all Tide players know the magnitude of Saturday’s game.
“It is a rivalry that not only means a lot to us as players but to our fans,” senior quarterback Greg McElroy said. “It is a game that we are just really looking forward to.”