Forget golf balls and mustard bottles: Alabama football vs. Tennessee deserves our attention | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Sometimes, the lowest-hanging fruit, even if it’s an orange, isn’t the sweetest.

The chaotic finish to the Vols’ loss against Ole Miss has brought out plenty of mockery of the Tennessee fan base, and many Alabama fans have been more than willing to throw their share of abuse. That dates back to the days before social media, before many homes in the mountainous country that the two states share even had radios unless they couldn’t function without the "Grand Ole Opry" and the broadcast of the third Saturday in October.

Even as an older generation that remembers Bear versus the General for SEC dominance dwindles, there are other, more vivid memories. There was the 1981 field-storming in Neyland, a far more spontaneous explosion than what occurred last Saturday. There was Peyton Manning leading the band after a Tennessee victory at Legion Field, Alabama kicker Philip Doyle shooting down (with an index finger) the UT sideline in 1990, the bitter Phil Fulmer Wars. 

On Monday, Alabama coach Nick Saban declined a chance to take a shot at the portion of the Tennessee fan base that was overwhelmed by Saturday Night Fervor.

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"I don't think that's my question to really answer,” Saban said. “I've said this before: We're in the entertainment business. There's a lot of people that come to the games. They've got a lot of passion and excitement for what they do. Hopefully as institutions and fans, we'll always do that in a positive way. I mean, I've still got a big bruise on my arm here from what happened after the Texas A&M game. I can always look at that as a reminder of what it feels like to be in that situation and motivate myself to try to do a better job with our players."

That doesn’t mean there won’t be verbal wars in the future. If ex-Vol coach Jeremy Pruitt follows through with a scorched-earth strategy over his firing, people in Knoxville won’t forget Pruitt’s roots. 

There is no question that Saban’s long dominance of the Vols has taken much edge off the series. Any current undergraduate at either school has to have been a serious kindergarten-age college football fan to remember the last Tennessee win. That’s become so engrained that Alabama is a 26.5-point favorite in a game that doesn’t appear that one-sided. Lane Kiffin (how does his name keep coming up in every SEC storyline?) coached a Tennessee team to the final seconds. Butch Jones took Alabama into the fourth quarter in 2015. It can’t be that impossible, even as Josh Heupel takes his first turn.

“It’s a huge opponent,” Heupel said. “They’re a really good football team and it’s a rivalry game, one that our guys and staff will be extremely excited about being ready for and going down to Tuscaloosa and competing against a really good football team.

“It starts with their quarterback. He’s a super-efficient playmaker. He’s got dynamic playmakers around him. Defensively, obviously front to back they’re really good. They’re athletic, have the ability to rush the passer. They can do that with pressures and can do that with just their front four. They’ve got good cover guys on the back end. It’s a big test for us and one that we’re excited about.” 

The point isn’t what happened in Neyland Stadium last week. No one condones it and the SEC office has addressed it. Taunting is tempting, especially in a series wrapped in swear words and cigar smoke. But the best moments have been on the field, and that may happen again Saturday night. 

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt