Alabama, 6-0 overall and 4-0 in Southeastern Conference games, defeated a struggling Mississippi team, 13-10, in Oxford Saturday. This week Bama hosts Tennessee at Bryant-Denny Stadium in a game that will be nationally telecast by CBS. Tennessee, 3-2 overall and 2-2 in SEC games, is coming off an open week.
Although Alabama holds a slight lead in the all-time series against Tennessee, Bama winning 43 times, the Vols taking 37 wins, and seven games ending in ties, Tennessee has dominated of late with 10 wins in the past 11 games. The intensity of the rivalry was not helped when it was revealed by the NCAA that Tennessee Head Coach Philip Fulmer had been a secret witness against Alabama. After publicly denying any role in the investigation of Alabama football, it was revealed that Fulmer had conspired with Tom Culpepper (recently found by a jury to have damaged former Alabama Assistant Coach Ronnie Cottrell to the tune of $30 million) to provide information harmful to Bama to the NCAA.
Crimson Tide Coach Mike Shula recognizes the tradition in the Alabama-Tennessee game. "It's always a bigger game for our players and our program," he said Sunday in his weekly teleconference with sportswriters. "For us right now there is even more at stake because we are 6-0."
He said, "This has always been a big rivalry. When you get to Alabama as a coach or a student-athlete, you quickly learn about the Alabama-Tennessee game. In my opinion, it's two great football programs. You find out a lot about yourself in this game. Tickets are hard to get and there is more electricity in the stadium. You know a lot about yourself after you have played in a game like this."
Shula said, "We know there is a lot of great talent on Tennessee's football team. We're going to have to be at our best. We've got to play a lot better than we did Saturday. Tennessee looks pretty good to us. Their quarterback (Rick Clausen) is making plays. They are so talented up front on both the offensive and defensive lines. They lost their fine cornerback (Jason Allen, injured in a loss to Georgia and out for the year), but they had a week off to get ready for us and to get their other guys well."
Shula added that it's not much of a sticking point that Alabama hasn't won this game in a while in the state of Alabama (since 1991). As he has often pointed out, this year's Alabama team is different than those others, and so is Tennessee's.
Shula's first game as coach against Tennessee was one that Bama let get away. Alabama failed to get a first down in a short yardage situation that would have allowed the Crimson Tide to run out the clock. Then the Vols scored late to tie the game, Bama missed a game-winning field goal. And then in five overtimes, Tennessee was a 51-43 winner.
"There was nothing left in anyone's tank," Shula said. "Emotion. Energy. Everything was left on the field. It was disappointing to watch our guys play as hard as they did and come up short. But that's what games are about. You see it every week. You have to come up every week and make those plays to win."
Alabama may have been fortunate to win against Ole Miss Saturday, but Shula could see that Bama did, indeed, make the plays to win.
"Obviously it was an exciting win, a big win," Shula said. "It was exciting to see Jamie Christensen come in and kick the winning field goal at the end of the game. It was exciting to see the two-minute drive. We work on it every day. You never know when you're going to need it, but we did Saturday."
Alabama's Saturday last play win was one of a handful of college games around the nation decided on the last play or near the end of the game. Shula was asked about the role of good luck in such games.
"Anytime you win there is good fortune somewhere," Shula said. "Each and every week you talk to your players about one play might make the difference, that you don't know which play it will be. Against Florida we had the batted ball that went our way. But if you don't have good fortune, you have to keep playing hard and good things can happen."
There was much discussion of Alabama's receiving corps Sunday. Saturday night Shula visited with Tyrone Prothro, who remains hospitalized at DCH Regional Medical Center two weeks after having had surgery on his season-ending broken leg. Shula said Prothro was in good spirits, but could give no new information on why he has remained hospitalized so long or when he might be released.
Shula also did not yet have an update on D.J. Hall, who suffered a lower back injury against Mississippi Saturday.
Keith Brown had his best day as an Alabama wide receiver with six receptions for 79 yards. Shula said, "Keith did a really good job. He made some catches as an outside receiver. He made some big catches inside. He's really starting to come into his own. He's got to play like that every week and practice like that every week. He's really got the deep speed, but he has to catch the inside balls, too."
One surprise was that senior Matt Miller was utilized frequently at wide receiver against the Rebels. He is best known as Alabama's holder on placekicks but also a regular on several special teams, and sees little action on offense. But he was used ahead of scholarshipped receivers Marcus McKnight and Will Oakley. Shula said, "Matt Miller is an experienced guy. He does a lot of things for us. We can plug him in a lot of different ways. We feel anyone we put on the field we have to put into position to make plays. Matt Miller is not Tyrone Prothro, but there are things he can do to help us win."
Shula said, "Offensively, we've got to play better. If we don't it will be a concern. We didn't in the first half. We didn't finish some drives. We had a couple of turnovers. We've got to correct some things we didn't do yesterday."
Alabama's final drive went to the Mississippi 14-yard line. Shula was asked how close he hoped to get for a final field goal try. He said, "We were thinking 30 or inside. That was the comfort zone for us. If we hadn ‘t gotten there, the 35; he's got the range."
Shula said that Alabama's offensive inefficiency was not the result of any one thing, but rather some good play by Ole Miss and some mistakes by Alabama. He said, "Sometimes when you come off a bye week, the speed of the game gets to you. It was good to come out in the second half and get the touchdown and then that last drive."