The win boosts seventh-ranked Tennessee to 6-1 overall and 2-1 in Southeastern Conference play. The loss drops Bama to 5-3 and 2-3 in league play.
The Vols were favored by 11 but lost three turnovers to Alabama's zero. That kept Tennessee in arrears most of the afternoon, even though the Big Orange outgained the Tide 359 yards to 211 and limited the visitors to just 3 of 15 on third-down conversions.
As was the case in last season's 6-3 loss to the Tide, Tennessee stopped itself for much of the game. The Vols had the ball in Alabama territory five times in the first half, yet parlayed these advances into just three points, thanks to three interceptions and a missed 46-yard field goal.
In addition, UT missed out on two potential touchdowns when Jonathan Hefney twice was tackled at the end of long returns by Tide punter P.J. Fitzgerald. The Vols wound up getting nothing out of the first return (a 32-yarder) and three points out of the second (a 40-yarder).
Trailing 13-6 entering the final quarter, however, Tennessee finally got its act together.
Quarterback Erik Ainge had thrown three first-half interceptions by impatiently trying to force throws that weren't open. It was reminiscent of his play in 2005, when he completed just 45.5 percent with more interceptions than touchdowns.
Ainge found his patience and his rhythm in the final 15 minutes, however, using short throws to pick apart the Tide with surgical precision.
He hit four of five passes on a seven-play drive that ended with a 27-yard James Wilhoit field goal, narrowing the gap to 13-9. Ainge then completed six of seven passes on a nine-play, 70-yard TD march. This one ended when Arian Foster dived over from the 1-yard line, giving the Vols their first lead of the day (16-13) with 3:28 to play.
"In that situation, it's human nature that you don't want to get beat deep … don't want to give up the big one," Ainge said. "They (Bama defensive backs) were a little softer in their coverage and not playing quite as tight and aggressive as they had been, so we were able to spread ‘em out and dump it off pretty quick. They were trying to jump those routes early."
The Vol quarterback noted that Alabama used some defensive tricks it hadn't shown previously this season. Still, he said his first two interceptions were "poorly thrown balls, neither of which should've happened. It took me a little longer to get settled down than I would've liked."
Teammates noticed. One said Ainge is a much better QB when he is cool, calm and collected.
"When he's real excited, sometimes he goes right and sometimes he goes wrong," junior receiver Robert Meachem said. "But when he's calm, we can all see what happens. We score touchdowns."
Meachem suggested taking steps to calm Ainge during the pre-game Vol Walk because "when he's excited, you never know what he's going to do."
Asked about Ainge's big finish after the rocky start, Fulmer noted that the junior quarterback "has been bouncing back since he got here. He's a fairly poised young man, and his maturity is starting to show.
"I think he'll look at the film of the first half and see there were a lot of opportunities to lay the ball off or go to the other side. But the greatest thing is that you don't play well and you still win. And, at the end, he helped us win the ball game."
So did Tennessee's defense. With a lead to protect, it forced a three-and-out. Bama's defense forced a three-and-out, as well, but the Tide's last possession died due to sacks by end Antonio Reynolds and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Ainge completed 11 of 16 passes for 114 yards in the final quarter, finishing with 30 completions in a career-high 46 attempts for 302 yards. He did so despite little help from his ground game. Foster finished with 34 net yards on 11 carries. Starting tailback LaMarcus Coker added just 12 yards on five carries and Montario Hardesty nine yards on two carries.
Bret Smith led all UT receivers with 95 yards on seven catches. Robert Meachem added 87 yards on six grabs and Foster 42 yards on five receptions.
Mayo paced the Vol defensive effort with 12 stops, including three tackles for loss. Ainge may have made the biggest stop of the game, however. After throwing a second-quarter interception, he bumped Bama's Simeon Castille out of bounds at the Vol 8-yard line after a 68-yard return. The Tide wound up settling for a field goal and a 6-3 lead.
Asked what he was thinking as he saw Castille intercept and race along the East sidelines, Ainge quipped, "No way I'm gonna catch him but I'm gonna try. And I did. He must've had to make somebody miss or something."
That kind of determination and perseverance paid dividends for all of the Vols, not just Ainge. Fulmer credited the come-from-behind win to "guts and toughness."
And a healthy dose of patience.