"Everyone was so excited, being nice to me and saying, 'Oh, great win,' " Ainge recalled earlier this week. "I was like, 'I didn't play that good.' ''
That was beside the point, of course. When Bama is the opponent, posting a W is far more important than posting impressive stats. Ainge learned that lesson in October of 2004.
"Winning that game is so important to people around here," he said.
That point was underscored in 2005, when the Vols DIDN'T win. Ainge watched from the bench that fall as Rick Clausen quarterbacked the Vols in a 6-3 loss at Tuscaloosa. That game probably sealed the doom of offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, receivers coach Pat Washington and offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens – all of whom departed at season's end.
Ainge was behind center again last year vs. the Tide but he struggled through a horrendous first half, throwing three interceptions in the game's opening 30 minutes.
"That was probably the most difficulty I've had – the first half of the Alabama game," he conceded. "That was probably the hardest half of football I had. I just had one of those halves."
Ainge bounced back from the awful start, however, to finish 28 of 46 for 302 yards as the Vols rallied to win 16-13.
"It was a fun game," he recalled, "although I didn't play particularly well the first half. We came back in the second half and were able to win the game on the last drive of the fourth quarter. Those games are always fun."
Winning is a lot of fun, even when you throw two interceptions (as he did in '04) and three interceptions (as he did in '06) along the way. Perhaps if Ainge had played better, though, the Vols could've won by stronger margins than 17-13 and 16-13.
"Obviously, you'd like for it to be different than that but this game is usually close," Ainge said. "My freshman and junior year when we won and my sophomore year when we lost it was in the fourth quarter and could've gone the other way all three games.
"We made the plays two years and they made the plays one year."
Ainge has a spectacular ratio of touchdowns (12) to interceptions (3) this fall. If he continues to keep the ball out of enemy hands, Tennessee has an excellent chance to topple the Tide. If he shows the same level of ball security he did in his previous meetings with Bama, however, the Vols may be hard pressed to win.