Alabama Coach Nick Saban talks about finishing. That definitely has to be the case when the Crimson Tide goes to Tennessee Saturday for a matchup of top ten teams.
Tennessee has been Jekyl and Hyde this year, and Hyde in the second half has been effective enough to get the Vols to a 5-1 record, the only loss coming in double overtime last weekend at undefeated Texas A&M. And even in that game Tennessee, ranked ninth in the nation, was extraordinary in the second half.
Over the years, the Volunteers have featured great tailbacks and great quarterbacks. Now UT is making a name with its comebacks.Tennessee has been outscored by 98-58 in the first halves of games, but the Vols have outscored their opponents by 145-62 in the second half, including a 90-28 edge in the fourth quarter. UT has trailed five of its six opponents by double digits.
The Vols trailed Appalachian State by 13-3 in the third quarter and won 20-13 in overtime. UT was behind Virginia Tech 14-0 in the second quarter and won 45-24. Against Florida, it was a 21-0 Gators lead in the second quarter and Tennessee won 38-28. Georgia led by 17-0 in the second quarter, before Tennessee pulled it out with a last-play Hail Mary, 34-31. Last week the Vols trailed Texas A&M 28-7 in the third quarter and fought back to tie the game in regulation, only to lose by 45-38 in double overtime.
Alabama is next to face the fast-closing Volunteers as the Crimson Tide goes to Knoxville Saturday for a CBS telecast beginning at 3:30 p.m. EDT (2:30 central time). Bama, 6-0 and ranked first in the nation, is coming off a 49-30 win over 16th ranked Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban admitted he is concerned in facing the come-from-behind Vols. “I’m always concerned about our team,” Saban said. “I don’t know if anybody noticed, but I wasn’t the happiest camper in the second half or after the game (at Arkansas).”
Saban was seen in heated conversation with Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt during the game, and even at the end of the 19-point win he ripped off his headset and had words with defensive players as he made his way to a handshake with Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema.
“We didn’t control the game,” Saban said. “You have to keep the ball and you have to control the game. Sometimes you win, but did you really control the game?
“I don’t think we really controlled the game in the second half. We had the ball for only 17 plays in the second half. That’s not something we can do in the future and continue to win. We’re just not going to do it. It’s not going to happen that way, not when you play good teams.’
“We can’t relax in games; we can’t have lapses in the game. We talk about ‘no scoreboard, keep playing.’ When you relax, you let the momentum of the game change and that’s hard to get back. And the way people score points now, there have been numerous games where people were ahead by 21 points and end up losing the game. I think for everybody on the team to understand that, whether you play on special teams, offense or defense, is really important.
“Forget about winning the game. You’re either in control of the game or you’re not. And if you don’t stay in control of the game and you give the other team a lot of opportunities to gain the momentum in the game that they need to get back in the game and maybe come back and have a chance to beat you."
One best not blink against Tennessee. The Vols have scored 25 offensive touchdowns this year and the average drive time on those TDs has been 1:59.
Tennessee’s two most important come-from-behind wins, against SEC East rivals Florida and Georgia, came about in different ways. After trailing by 21-0 against Florida in the first half, the Vols dominated in coming back for a convincing win. At Georgia the next week, Tennessee seemed to be dead after giving up a touchdown pass to the Bulldogs with just seconds to play. But on a Hail Mary, Juan Jennings pulling in a 43-yard pass from Joshua Dobbs as time ran out, UT pulled out a 34-31 win in Athens.
That play had Saban talking about defending the Hail Mary.
“Everybody has a philosophy for how to do it,” Saban said. “ We try to man-match them. We have certain guys that play the ball, we have certain guys that box out. I’ve lost games on this before.
“I don’t think this is a play that anybody can take for granted, which is sometimes hard to get the players sold on, that they really have to be able to execute the play, that it is a play that can make a big difference in the game. I tell our players chapter and verse, every game that this has been an issue.
“We won a game at LSU (29-25 over Kentucky in 2001), the Bluegrass Miracle, the same kind of thing. They’d already dumped the Gatorade on the coach.
“It’s not a play you can take for granted. I think a lot of people assume that it’s a low-percentage play, they’re not going to complete the ball. But when you don’t execute and do things correctly, you give them every opportunity to get the ball.
“We do practice it on Thursdays. We practice it during scrimmages, we practice it in the preseason. We practice it every week.
“And there are also plays that come off of that. People have hook and ladder, they have different other plays that also have to be practiced and defended.”
Tennessee had won 11 consecutive games going back to last year’s Alabama game in Tuscaloosa before falling to Texas A&M last Saturday. In 2015 Bama pulled out a 19-14 win with ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley making key receptions in a game-winning drive that ended with a 14-yard TD run by Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.