Whatever happened at halftime Saturday night for this edition of the Third Saturday in October will grow in legend. In reality, Saban flipped a lackluster tie and potential Volunteers' upset into another Alabama romp in a 37-6 victory. "Coach Saban got on our butts," receiver Darius Hanks said after a 6-6 halftime tie. "That's all I can say, really. He jumped our butts about it and told us we had to come out, our whole season depended on this game and we had to get a 'W.'"
Funny thing, though. When Saban got there, "he didn't bust up nothing," said Courtney Upshaw. Demonstrating terrific leadership, receiver Marquis Maze already had taken over, reminding his teammates how poorly they played in a somnambulant 6-6 first half. As Dont'a Hightower said, "Sometimes Coach Saban doesn't need to say anything."
Saban, however, said it wasn't a fiery halftime speech that made the difference. "It really wasn't explosive," he said. "The players were emotional and they responded on their own. I challenged them to make a decision about who you are and where your passion and enthusiasm comes from. We didn't have any of that in the first half, anywhere. But we did in the second half."
"The No. 1 thing I told them in the locker room was that we don't have a game for two weeks, that we get to rest up and heal up," Saban said. "We will take some days off. I am not big on prepping too long. That's when guys get bored."
"We just made the decision at halftime," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I said, 'Look, these guys are playing middle of the field closed, eight-man front every snap, overloading the box to the tight end side,' and I said, 'You've got to throw the ball. You've got to throw the ball on first down.' "We did it, and we had success. We did a good job of throwing them and catching them, made some big plays and I think that opened up the game for us a little bit. Then we were able to run it a little better after that as well."
All told, Tennessee was held to 155 yards of total offense and five first downs to the Tide’s 435 and 21. McCarron’s 284 passing yards surpassed his previous season high by almost 50 yards. Any frissons of doubt that might have existed in halftime locker rooms regarding next week’s rankings were dispelled. And reverberating around the emptying stands of Bryant-Denny, a single chant that had nothing to do with the hour of football that had just been played: "L-S-U! L-S-U! L-S-U!"
UA linebacker Nico Johnson indicated that Poole's 100-yard performance against UA last year was not lost on the defense. Johnson added five stops. "He was really good. He runs hard. We couldn't stop him as much in the first half. We prided ourselves during the week because last year. He got 100 (yards) on us," Johnson said. "We got off to a slow start in the first half, but we came back in the second half with a lot of intensity and better focus. We tried to contain him better, but he kept working hard and kept going."
"It was a little lackluster in the first half, which was a little concerning," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "There was a concern going into the game, and something we tried to fight all week in terms of guys being focused on what's happening right now and not being concerned about the future. "And challenging them to play and have respect for the team that they're playing."
On their first possession of the second half, Alabama drove the ball 75 yards in just five plays for a touchdown. McCarron lead the charge, going 4-of-4 for 73 yards, capping the drive with a two-yard rush around the right end for the touchdown. "He was upset that he threw a pick early, but we told him not to worry about it, and that we had his back," Richardson said. "He came right back in and scored a touchdown. In the second half, that’s how we respond and we have to be relentless."
WHY ALABAMA WON: Because in the end, the Alabama defense is still the Alabama defense. Sure, the Vols got more push up front and more done on the ground than expected--those 61 first-half yards represented more than the Tide had given up in their first three SEC games combined. And Matt Simms was able to make the occasional play through the first 30 minutes, despite his expectedly ugly final line (8-of-17, 58 yards, 0 TDs, 1 pick). But the Volunteers' second-half possessions went like this: three plays, punt; four plays, turnover on downs; three plays, punt; three plays, punt; one play, interception; one play, fumble recovery; four plays, turnover on downs. For the Tide defense for the half, that's infinity more turnovers forced (two) than first downs allowed (zero). When the night was over, despite the "strong" start, the Vols had gained all of 154 total yards. How good is the Tide defense? The team played its worst game overall in weeks--and still won by 31
"The biggest lesson is we’re a really average team when we don’t play to the standard of excellence that we set for ourselves and that’s what happened tonight," offensive lineman Barrett Jones said. "We came out and we didn’t execute and that made us average."
Tied at six, the halftime speaking lineup included more than coach Nick Saban. Wide receiver Marquis Maze was among the vocal players in the locker room. Whatever was said, it worked. The three-touchdown third quarter put the game out of reach. "I saw something different in all of us," receiver Darius Hanks said. "We all had the look like we wanted the game and we wanted to take the SEC, and this is just the road."
"We had a ton of ball left and we lost our spunk," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "That was disappointing to see. We did what we said we weren't going to do and that's get affected if something bad happens in the game, and we lost our fight. "When you lose your fight against a great football team, what happened in the second half is what is going to happen."
1. The Tennessee team that plays in the first half is not the same one that comes out of the locker room after intermission. UT has now been outscored 104-63 in the final two quarters this season. "When things go bad, guys are just, 'Not again,'" Vol tailback Tauren Poole said. "We can't have that. As a young football team, we can't have that. Things are not going to go your way every game. That's just the way it is. You're going to have bad breaks. It's the way you move through those bad breaks that kind of defines a football team. Right now, we're not a very good football team when things go bad. That's on leadership, and that's on guys like myself."
There is nothing good about any loss to Alabama, especially not the second consecutive 31 point beating. It was almost exactly the same thing that happened last year, when the Vols trailed 13-10 at halftime and then got destroyed by big plays in the second half. The difference this time was the Vols didn't just break one big play in the first half, as Tauren Poole did in Knoxville last year. Tennessee wasn't tied with Bama at halftime because they were lucky. The Vols played toe-to-toe with Alabama for thirty minutes. And then the second half came, and what everyone wearing orange was worried about came to life again in a real quick hurry.
So who's better? Alabama or LSU? "It doesn't matter what I think," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said Saturday night after a 37-6 loss to the second-ranked Crimson Tide. "It doesn't really matter who's better. It only matters who's going to play better for 3½ hours."