By JOHN ZENOR
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Tennessee Volunteers don’t think facing “the red team” sounds particularly scary.
That’s what some Volunteers players have taken to calling the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in an effort to negate the intimidation factor for today’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“When teams hear that name or when they come to play against them, they’re mentally beat already when they step on the field due to the fact they’re the No. 1 team,” Tennessee wide receiver Alton “Pig” Howard said. “I’ll give them credit, but we’ve got warriors on our team as well.”
Nobody has really challenged Alabama this season except for No. 13 Texas A&M.
The Vols (4-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) aren’t being given much of a chance by oddsmakers either. They’re four-touchdown underdogs despite coming off a 23-21 win over then-No. 11 South Carolina and an overtime loss to then-No. 7 Georgia.
Alabama (7-0, 4-0) has outscored its last five opponents by a combined score of 201-16, including last weekend’s 52-0 victory over Arkansas, another rebuilding SEC team.
The Tide also has owned this border rivalry lately, winning the last six meetings by an average of 23 points.
Vols coach Butch Jones downplayed the references to Alabama as the “red team.”
“No big deal,” Jones said.
The Tide, meanwhile, is trying to match the seven-game winning streak Tennessee produced from 1995-2001 that is the longest any team has produced against Alabama.
The Vols have built up some swagger going into this one, thanks to the recent success and Jones. Plus, anything seems possible after five ranked SEC teams fell last weekend with Alabama and Missouri remaining comfortably above the fray.
Tennessee center James Stone said an upset “would be incredible for this team.” It wouldn’t be as big of a stunner as it seemed before the South Carolina game, though.
One tradition in this game is the winners get victory cigars. It still caught Alabama safety Landon Collins by surprise when he was handed a stogey as a freshman last season.
“I’m like, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’” Collins said. “They said, ‘You’re supposed to smoke it.’ I was like, I’ll just keep it as a souvenir as my first win. That’s what I did.”
Here are five things to watch in this game that has frequently been played on the Third Saturday in October:
HOT RUNNING BACKS: Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake have been rolling lately, combining for 648 yards in the last three SEC games. Tennessee counters with Rajion Neal and a formidable offensive line. Neal has run for 100-plus yards in two of the last three games, but was limited to 42 yards by Florida and Oregon. “This is probably the best overall offensive line we’ve had to play against this year,” Tide coach Nick Saban said.
CONFIDENT VOLS: Tennessee is hoping that ending a 19-game skid against ranked teams will lead to a renewed confidence going into this one. The Vols have lost nine straight SEC road games. “I feel like there’s just a whole new confidence level on this football team as opposed to previous years,” Stone said. “Everybody just has a different mentality.”
RELEVANT RIVALRY: Jones appreciates “this great rivalry” and the significance of it to both schools and fan bases. But he says the Vols need to start beating some of their rivals to make the games relevant again.
MEASURING STICK: This game will provide a just-for-fun barometer of how Alabama stacks up with Oregon, in case those teams play for a national title. There’s really no comparison in styles, and perhaps in how Tennessee’s defense is playing since that 59-14 loss. “We’ve improved, there’s no question about that,” Vols defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “In comparing us to the Oregon game, Oregon gives you a lot of problems. Their tempo and the things that they do, we didn’t handle very well. We’ve grown. We’ve moved on.”
JUST FOR KICKS: Some veterans remember the 2009 game, when Alabama continued on its road to a national championship only with Terrence Cody’s two blocked field goals in the fourth quarter. Tide quarterback AJ McCarron’s view was obstructed but he remembers the “crazy moment.” ”I heard everyone cheer and thought something must have gone right and then watched the replay,” McCarron said. “It was a great moment for our school and it led to the first national championship in a long time.”