Bama, 8-0 overall and 5-0 in SEC play, dominated statistically – outgaining the Vols 366 to 173 in total yards, keeping the ball 35:32 to 24:28 and piling up 23 first downs to UT's 10. Figuratively speaking, the Vols (3-5 overall, 1-4 SEC) finished the fight with a bloody nose and one eye swollen shut.
Basically, Alabama beat Tennessee in every area except effort. As Vol defensive end Robert Ayers noted, "We played our butts off."
Unfortunately for Tennessee, a strong effort couldn't offset a weak showing by the offense. The Vols managed just 36 rushing yards on 21 carries. Their longest run was a 12-yard scramble by quarterback Nick Stephens.
"I don't know where our running game has gone," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "That's disappointing as can be."
The much-anticipated use of superstar safety Eric Berry on offense and in the return game was disappointing, as well. He caught one pass for three yards as a flanker and ran back two kickoffs for 32 yards.
Fulmer said Tennessee had "four or five " plays in a package designed to get Berry the ball, adding: "We'll continue to try and do that along the way. He's a dynamic player."
Most of the dynamic players in this game were wearing white uniforms trimmed in crimson, however. Roy Upchurch (86 yards on 14 carries) and Glen Coffee (78 yards on 19 carries) ran well. John Parker Wilson (17 of 24 for 188 yards) threw effectively when necessary. Freshman sensation Julio Jones (6 catches for 103 yards) tormented the Vol secondary.
Tennessee got decent games from Stephens (16 of 28 passing for 137 yards) and receiver Josh Briscoe (four catches for 46 yards and a touchdown). For the most part, however, the offense was a no-show, managing just 61 net yards after intermission.
"I'm obviously very disappointed in the second half of our play," Fulmer said. "The team did prepare well during the course of the week and the first half more than held their own. We had more plays (32 to 29) and more time of possession (16:06 to 13:54), which was a big deal."
Tennessee did not lose a turnover but was penalized seven times for 60 yards and twice failed to capitalize on golden opportunities to turn the Tide in its favor.
Trailing 3-0, the Vols got a huge break when Bama's Javier Arenas fumbled a Britton Colquitt punt after taking a big hit from Tennessee's LaMarcus Thompson. The Vols' Dennis Rogan recovered at the Tide 5-yard line.
Left tackle Chris Scott was flagged for a false start on first-and-goal from the 5, however, and Tennessee wound up losing nine yards on three plays before settling for a 31-yard Daniel Lincoln field goal that tied the score.
"That was our opportunity right there to really make something happen," Fulmer said, adding that a touchdown there "would've given us great momentum."
The Vols got another big special-teams break in the second quarter. With Bama leading 6-3, Montario Hardesty partially blocked a P.J. Fitzgerald punt, giving Tennessee possession at the Tide 32-yard line. Three plays lost three yards, however, then Lincoln missed a 51-yard kick.
Seemingly spurred by the reprieve, Alabama promptly marched 66 yards in six plays to go up 13-3.
Tennessee advanced to a third-and-one at the Tide 14-yard line on its ensuing possession, then sustained an illegal-formation penalty. An offensive pass interference call against Lucas Taylor nullified a 10-yard completion to the Tide 9-yard line and Lincoln subsequently missed a 43-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
Although the Vols were down just 13-3 at the break, they easily could've had a 13-all tie or even a 17-13 lead.
Tennessee continued to hurt itself with crucial mistakes in the second half. Briscoe caught a crucial third-down pass for an apparent first down but lost a yard when he tried to cut back, forcing Tennessee to punt on fourth and one.
Moments later, the Vol defense allowed Bama to escape a second-and-17 hole on a 12-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that boosted the Tide lead to 22-3.
Bama's next possession saw a roughing-the-passer penalty on Demonte Bolden help fuel an 80-yard drive that widened the gap to 29-3 early in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee rallied at this point, scoring on a 10-yard screen pass to Briscoe with 7:26 remaining, then forcing a punt on Bama's ensuing possession. The Vols were offsides on the punt, however, enabling the Tide to reclaim possession and run out the clock.
Tennessee's rash of mistakes would've been costly against an average team. Against a quality team like Bama, they were devastating.
"It's really frustrating. It's like a dam that's going to break," Fulmer said, symbolically poking his finger into imaginary holes. "It (trouble) keeps coming somewhere else."
Tennessee might have kept the score closer if not for two questionable penalties. The offensive interference call against Taylor – the contact appeared incidental – cost the Vols three points and perhaps seven.
"When you're playing that much man-to-man – and you've got guys battling for position and battling for releases – you could call something all the time," Fulmer said. "It must've been flagrant. It BETTER have been flagrant or we'll call (the SEC office) and go through the channels."
An even bigger call went against Tennessee with the Vols trailing 16-3 in the third quarter. Berry's 47-yard TD return of a Tide fumble was disallowed when officials ruled Bama tailback Mark Ingram was already down when the ball popped out.
"We didn't get much help," Fulmer said, adding: "I didn't think the ball was dead, either."
"They'll be at work tomorrow," he said. "We'll get 'em back up. We'll go play South Carolina and work like heck to get that win."