Forgive Tennessee players if they weren’t sold on their ability to beat Alabama the past couple years. The Derek Dooley era might have eroded that confidence.
The Vols lost all three matchups to Alabama during Dooley’s tenure by exactly 31 points. Dooley famously said “we recruit, they draft,” when speaking of Alabama, essentially admitting that the Vols didn’t have the talent level to stick with the Tide during that time. Alabama was 25-5 during that time period, collecting two national titles in the process while cleaning up in recruiting at the same time.
The Vols were outmanned in Butch Jones’ first season, dropping a 45-10 blowout to an Alabama squad that finished 11-2. But last year the Vols did something they hadn’t done against Alabama since 2009 – compete. With then-backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs leading the surge, the Vols cut a 27-0 deficit down to 10 points in the third quarter before eventually falling 34-20 in Neyland Stadium.
That wasn’t the result the Vols ultimately wanted, but that helped spring the Vols to a 4-1 finish down the stretch and for the first time in the tenure of any of the current Vols, showed that UT was ready to at least compete with college football’s most consistently successful program of the past decade.
“Now, that is the standard we have set for ourselves,” linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said on Monday. “If we come back with anything less than a win, that is unacceptable. 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.”
That belief was likely shaken by three losses this season that saw the Vols blow 13+ point leads to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas. The win over Georgia was a much-needed reminder of the progress the Vols have made, however. While the close losses have strung, they, along with the win over UGA, have proven that UT should have the ability to play with anybody – even their juggernaut-level rival.
“I understand the importance of the rivalry,” said Butch Jones, who is preparing for his third matchup with Alabama. “This game means a lot to both institutions, both universities, our fan bases and our players. It means a lot. I have spoken about getting the rivalry back to making it relevant again and being in these football games for us. We are going to have to play great, mistake-free football to get the game into the fourth quarter. Once you get a game into the fourth quarter, as we all know, anything can happen. In terms of a couple of years ago, I think it’s just a complete building of our football program, and there is a belief in winning. There is also deserving to win, and it’s more than just wanting or hoping to win. It’s investing to win. It’s the belief that you’re going to win.
“We have a lot of competitive young players in our football program. A lot of our players now understand the investment that it takes to win football games. Having great practices just gives you an opportunity to perform on Saturday. Now, it’s taking the practice and applying it to the game field. Our seniors have been through a lot. They understand what it means to win. It’s a whole football mindset in terms of thinking we are going down there to win a football game. That is what it’s all about. Is it going to be a great challenge? Yes, but it’s all about being elite. We are working to be an elite football program and an elite football player. Everything goes into that term elite. Obviously, Alabama is elite, but I know our players are excited and looking forward to a great challenge and opportunity.”
So while the experts and the oddsmakers predict that Alabama will extend its eight-game winning streak over the Vols, Tennessee says their mentality for this matchup is different. There were no guarantees of victory as Jones and players met with the media on Monday, but they say there’s a genuine expectation of getting the W in Tuscaloosa.
Can they? Like Jones said, it’ll be a great challenge, but getting over the mental hurdle and truly expecting to win might be the first step in that journey.
“It’s our mentality,” said safety Brian Randolph, who has either played in or been on the sideline four times in this rivalry, who asked what’s different about this year. “We expect to win. 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.”
RTI contributor Sam McCahill assisted on this report.