Tennessee had one mission in mind when it trekked to Tuscaloosa for the first time under Butch Jones in 2013, and it didn't involve anything to do with winning. The Vols simply braced for the ensuing turbulence.
"When we went down two years ago, it was almost like survive," left tackle Kyler Kerbyson said of the game. "It wasn't the same. We were losing a lot more then. It had almost become the usual thing to lose.""
That first trip ended in an ugly 45-10 loss in which a freshman named Josh Dobbs came off the bench to go 5-of-12 for 75 yards for his first action of the season. The Vols expected the worst and got it in a large dose. But for all of Tennessee's development in talent and scheme since that first road trip to face the Crimson Tide two seasons ago, the most obvious change is in the mentality of Vols.
No longer do Tennessee players prepare to line up against one of the most prestigious programs in the country and expect to lose. Back-to-back top five recruiting classes and climbing out from the rubble of five losing seasons since the 2006 season when the Vols last beat Alabama has made Team 119 believe it can, not only be compettive, but snatch a victory Saturday.
"That is the standard we have set for ourselves. If we come back with anything less than a win, that is unacceptable," linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "In previous years, we didn't know where our talents matched up or we didn't know how to win games, but we have won games here. We are just trying to keep building our program and keep building the standards and expectations."
The quiet confidence shines in how Tennessee's players say the words. After three heartbreaking losses to begin the season, Tennessee finally found itself on the other side of a double-digit comeback win over then-No. 19 Georgia to restore some confidence in a team that finally believes it matches up competitively in the Third Saturday in October.
"It's our mentality. We expect to win," safety Brian Randolph said. "We know we're talented. They're probably just as talented, but I feel like we've been through it all this year. We've been through the losses. We finally got a good win on our shoulders. We all like the feeling of [winning], so we're just trying to get it again."
Butch Jones touched this week on how difficult it is to prepare for Alabama on the field, when mimicking the Tide's strength, speed and depth is almost impossible for most teams across the country. But the mental preperation that goes into pracitcing to face a national title contender may be just as important when prepping to face a team that has dominated the series for eight consecutive wins.
"It is huge in that you can't look at them any different than what they are," Kerbyson said. "You're studying a guy. You're not studying 'Alabama', the one that's won championships and has beat us for [eight] years in a row. You're studying that guy that's lining up across from you and what you can do to beat him, so you've got to get a lot more specific when you play in these type of games."
That type of focus can undoubtedly be tough, and it serves as an interesting case study for programs on the brink of jumping pegs from proverbial punching bag to potential upset. With back-to-back top five recruiting classes under their belt and a signature win over then-No. 19 rival Georgia, the Vols seem to believe they are just as human as the bluechips they'll be lining up against Saturday afternoon.
"When you watch film and you see a wideout make a catch or you see an offensive lineman make a block, you're thinking, 'All right, If they can do it, I can do it for sure,'" Kerbyson said. "You're saying it's possible. It's not impossible to do. Everyone tries to say that it's impossible to beat the Tide, but it's not. They're regular guys out there just like everyone else."