And it's probably even more of a surprise that Alabama Head Coach Dennis Franchione thinks that his players like being on the road.
The Crimson Tide heads to Knoxville this weekend to take on Tennessee in a game that will be nationally telecast by ESPN. Kickoff will be about 7:45 p.m. EDT (6:45 p.m. CDT). It will be the 13th time in the 85-game series that both teams have come into the game with a national ranking. Tennessee with a 4-2 record, including a 1-2 mark in Southeastern Conference games, is ranked 16th in this week's Associated Press poll, while Alabama, with a 5-2 record including 2-1 SEC mark, is ranked 19th.
Alabama holds a 42-33-7 lead in the series, but Tennessee has won the last seven games, the longest winning streak any team has ever had on Bama. In the 38 games that have been played in Knoxville, Alabama holds the slimmest of margins. Bama has won 19 games, Tennessee has won 18 and one game ended in a tie. Alabama's most recent victory over the Vols, a 17-14 decision, came in 1994 in Knoxville.
In his regular Tuesday press briefing, Franchione said, "I think our players like being on the road because it forces them to go deeper into what I call ‘the zone.' " He said that while Alabama follows the same routine whether playing at home or on the road insofar as checking into a motel, having meetings, etc., that the players understand the importance of "focus and concentration and communication" in games on the road.
Franchione noted that when Alabama plays a home game, "the crowd noise provides a boost." He said that while Alabama's fans make their presence known in road games, "they can be neutralized by a group seven or eight times as large."
The Tide head coach said, "It's an exciting week. It's always exciting to play in a rivalry game. It's what coaches and players are looking for in every season. This is certainly one of those games."
A week ago much was made of Franchione saying he had circled the Mississippi game on his calendar a year ago, on the Sunday following Bama's Saturday loss to the Rebels. Tuesday Franchione said, "I haven't had to circle this game. Everybody circled it for me. I know it's a big game to our fans as well as our players and should be a great football game."
Having circled the Mississippi game on his calendar obviously didn't hurt Bama last week. The Tide rolled to a 42-7 decision over the Rebels. Meanwhile, as has been the case for a number of years, Tennessee had an open date the week before the Alabama game.
Franchione said, "We're catching a good football team with a week off. Tennessee has probably gotten a little healthier, refreshed, and had some extra time to prepare for us." The Vols' last game was an 18-13 loss at Georgia, the week after Georgia had kicked a last-minute field goal to defeat Alabama, 27-25, in Tuscaloosa.
Both Alabama and Tennessee had to play Georgia without their first team quarterbacks. Tyler Watts was out of the game for Bama, while Casey Clausen missed the action for Tennessee. Both are considered likely to be back this week.
"Tyler practiced Sunday," Franchione said. "I think he is on course to play." If Watts, who sprained a foot against Southern Miss and reinjured it against Mississippi, does not play, redshirt freshman Brodie Croyle will go for Alabama. Clausen suffered an undisclosed shoulder injury in Tennessee's six-overtime win over Arkansas. If he is unable to play freshman James Banks will quarterback the Vols.
Franchione said, "Clausen is an outstanding quarterback and I'm sure that if he is unable to play then the other guys will be far more prepared to play now. Whoever they put back there will do a good job for them."
As for Croyle, Franchione said, "I don't think there's too much that bothers him. He's grown up around Alabama football and relishes the opportunities. He's still learning, but he's doing a great job."
Franchione called Tennessee "a very solid team." He noted that while the Vols lost their defensive line from last year that the replacements were playing well. He said the linebackers are solid and that the secondary is "as fine as there is." Offensively he said Tennessee always has a good offensive line, that Jason Witten is an excellent tight end, and that the Vols have great receivers, headed by Kelley Washington. Finally, he said, the Tennessee kicking game "is always a strength."
The Tide coach said his team must "be prepared to handle a very hostile situation." He said Bama would have to establish its running game in order to achieve balance in its offense. He said, "If they know what you are going to do, they are pretty good on defense."
Franchione said this week Alabama would have some practice work with speakers blaring crowd noise, a normal procedure in preparation for road games.