Hope For the Best: Tennessee edition

I think I speak for all Bama fans when I say go to Hell, Tennessee - John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

Hate. Tennessee. Here's why you should...

"In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it's impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them.... I destroy them."Orson Scott CardEnder's Game

Hate. That simmering, gut-twisting, pressure-building opiate of the wronged and cast-off. It's a complex emotion, one scorned in the annals of common Christian upbringing, lauded by those who understand the true power of the Dark Side. Hate is alternately a fuel, a salve, a poison. It is all of these things, and it leaves a wretched taste in one's mouth and a dark stain on one's soul that can drive men to do the most dastardly things...

Such is the relationship between many SEC rivals, who over the ages, have engaged in heated combat, physical and verbal, both on the gridiron and off. But there is no other rivalry in which the pure, unadulterated hate overwhelms the impassioned followers more than the annual historic meeting of the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers. The relationship between the Tide and Vols demonstrates the full potential of hate, a template, if you will, for all those who would like to harness that hatred for mutual benefit...or mutual destruction.

The above quote be damned, there is simply nothing one could love about Tennessee. Yes, they lowdown. Yes, they dirty. They are, indeed, some snitches. They are an enemy well-worthy of disgust and disdain, having sunk their swords deep into the collective guts of the Tide during the Fulmer years and in eras past. But the wound has not been mortal, never been great enough to finish off the Tide. In the current epoch, the crimson giant has awakened to lord its new reign over all of college football, including its previous oppressor to the north.

Outsiders will never understand this rivalry. It is not Michigan-Ohio State. It is not the Red River Rivalry. It is not the Iron Bowl. There is no sibling familiarity or shared experience to provide the common ground of understanding. There is no inkling of love lost between the programs. They are not our fellow statesmen, our brothers and sisters simply born under the wrong logo. No, while the players themselves may see Tennessee as simply the next opponent, those who follow the Tide know that at the core of this long-running rivalry beats a heart set into perpetual motion by one resounding, instinctual emotion: hate.

It is appropriate that the Tide has a chance to run their current streak to seven wins this year, as the series itself has been infamously streaky throughout its history. In the middle of the 20th century, from 1940 through 1960, the Vols were firmly in command of the series under legendary Vol coach General Robert Neyland, namesake of the stadium in Knoxville and the primary architect of Tennessee's legend. Over those two decades, the Tide won a single game in 1954, with the series resulting in a tie twice in that same duration.

Coach Paul Bryant elevated the rivalry during the span of his career, seeing his first action against Tennessee as a player before taking the helm for the Tide after "mama called" in 1958. Bryant's status as a Vol slayer was legendary, as a player and coach: he is even credited with playing one of the greatest games of his career against the Vols with a broken shin bone in the 1935 meeting. With this legend in tow, after returning to Bama as coach, Bryant made it a priority to once again restore Bama's place in the rivalry, though those results were not immediate. Bryant lost his first game to the Vols in 1958, tied in '59, and lost again in 1960. That last loss was the only one Bama sustained on the year, making the sting of defeat that much more pronounced.

However, glory dawned anew for the Tide in the rivalry with Tennessee in 1961, when Bryant's juggernaut destroyed the Vols, allowing the them a single field goal on their first possession before routing them by a score of 34-3. The Tide was stellar in the winning effort, giving up only 38 yards rushing and 23 yards passing. It was in this year that a long-time tradition began: the infamous post-game cigars. Bryant was so proud of his men in that 1961 game that he procured for each player an Alabama ring. Long time trainer (And UT alum) Jim Goostree had a gift of his own to bestow: a cigar for each player on the winning team. Despite the PC atmosphere of today's game, that tradition continues to this day as a legacy to be enjoyed by ever Bama player at least once in his career.

In the ensuing decade, Bama dominated, winning every game from 1961-1966, save for a tie in 1965. The years 1967-1970 were dark ones, as the Vols once again held sway over the rivalry. However, Bryant and the Tide reasserted their dominance in the 1970s, stringing together a series of victories from 1971 through 1981 that has been unmatched throughout the history of the series. Each team would seize control for a brief moment, two or three years, until Bama put together another streak between 1986 and 1994, with the 1993 tie being the only glimmer of hope for the Vol faithful. Tennessee went on another run from '95 to '01, and after exchanging the upper hand for a few years, Bama seems entrenched in yet another impressive streak of victories over the hated rival to the north.

Generations of Tide fans have been driven to the depths of hatred when it comes to the Vols and their various incarnations. Most of us grew up hating Tennessee without ever really knowing precisely why: just because our parents hated them, because they were successful when the Tide was not, because of, well...orange. But make no mistake, this is no Hatfields-McCoys type of get-down. That feud is child's play when compared to the throbbing artery of hatred that unites the Tide and the Vols through posterity. The hate between the two schools is more pure, distilled and filtered through the charred remains of decades of stabbed backs and broken hearts, like so much sour-mash whiskey.

All hyperbole aside, at least in football terms, the two teams couldn't be more different: Alabama is at the pinnacle of college football excellence while the Vols have enjoyed a prolonged slide to the depths of mediocrity. Despite the current disparity, past contests have featured two of the best teams in the country playing for something bigger than a simple W or L. The game is a border war, the manifestation of philosophical friction between two ways of life that are so disparate despite their relatively close geographical proximity.

While the root of this hatred stems from a time before many of us can remember, there have been numerous instances of flame-stoking in recent years. The '09 game, when an undefeated season seemed all but lost for Bama, only to see that fortune change at the hands of Terrence Cody in his "Rocky Block" moment. While Derek Dooley had the sense and decency not to poke the bear with trash talk, former coaches Lane Kiffin did everything he could do to further the flow of hatred between the two long-warring parties.

And then there's Phillip Fulmer. The Great Pumpkin himself, a former Tennessee player in whom the hatred of Alabama runs deep. Fulmer was the single biggest accelerant in the recent flash-fire following not only his relative success on the field against Bama during his tenure as head coach of the Vols, but his two-bit NCAA snitchery. There are those among the Crimson Tide faithful who would let that fact go, but among many of the Tide's most devout, that ember of pure disgust continues to burn deeply when it comes to Fulmer. He remains a Krispy Kreme-engorged monument to everything fans of the Tide despise about the orange-clad heathens to the north. If donut glaze were gasoline, many amongst the Crimson Tide's most ardent followers would be all too pleased to strike the match that burns Fulmer in effigy.

In recent memory, the game hasn't been much of a rivalry in the traditional sense. The hatred has remained, but Nick Saban's Crimson Tide has owned the Vols, putting up a six game winning streak in which many of the contests were not even remotely contested. This week, writer Cecil Hurt proclaimed the Vols "0-for-Saban," and even the most dedicated fan of Tennessee couldn't help but admit frustration at the fact that the Vols have never unseated Saban's Tide. The closest game in that duration was the "Rocky Block" game, but even that seeming moral victory ripped the still-beating heart from the breasts of Vol Nation in a scene reminiscent of all too many Sunday morning kung fu movies, the Tide's victory more like a contrived, cold-calculated rope-a-dope move by Our Dark Lord to send Vol pain levels into overdrive.

Does Tennessee have what it takes to knock off the Tide and reassert itself in this rivalry? Can the Vols reclaim some semblance of pride with a win Saturday? Or will the Tide see their streak run to seven straight? Is there any hope of an upset for the Vols? Or will they be licking their wounds on a northbound bus back to Knoxville following the conclusion of this Saturday's game? Let's look at the particulars in a little more depth, shall we?

  • I can't believe that I'm saying this a mere one year removed from the debacle that was Tennessee football under Derek Dooley, but the Vols have an offensive line that would be the envy of many other SEC teams. With several All-SEC performers across the veteran front, Tennessee will line up one of the top lines in the SEC on Saturday, as many would agree they are definitely a top three unit. The tackles Ju'Wuan James and Antonio Richardson are likely NFL draft picks, and the line as a whole is equivalent to, or possibly greater than, the line that played against the Tide in the A&M game. In that game, though the Tide largely held the Aggie running game in check, they were scorched through the air in a way that does not occur often. In this game, the running game is the Vols' weapon of choice, and behind a stout and talented offensive line, bruising senior running back Rajion Neal has had a good bit of success this year. Along with back-up junior tailback Marlin Lane, the Vols have fielded the nation's 37th ranked rushing attack despite playing against a tough schedule (Oregon, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida). Make no mistake, if the Vols come into Bryant Denny with full hearts (#believe...lulz) and play a turnover-free, ground-attack style of football game, it could be a lot closer than many of us in the Crimson Tide Nation would like to admit. Unlike in past years, when the Vols didn't have the first-string talent to match Bama, at least this Tennessee's current offense can narrow the talent gap considerably and direct a focused attack on the Crimson Tide's vaunted defense.
  • Has Nick Saban adequately adapted his defense to handle the spread? Much was made in previous years about the Tide's difficulty in coping with spread attacks, citing the lack of fast-twitch pass rushers and lighter-framed front seven players in defending against more nimble offenses. Recent history would indicate Saban has made that adjustment, placing a recruiting premium on quicker, lighter defensive ends and rangy, fast linebackers. While Tennessee's version of the spread is not A&M-lite, they do have enough talent and the scheme to effectively stretch Bama's defense out of single-back, single-tight end sets. The Vol attack is not a stealthy one, as everyone in the stadium Saturday will likely expect a run-first scheme by Tennessee. To be effective in that mode of operation, a team must have offensive line talent and running back talent. Check, and check. But the thread that ties it all together is a quarterback that can take advantage of mismatches in the moment, adapt and run a little zone read, and take advantage of play-action opportunities caused by the success of, or dedication to, the running game. That, unfortunately for Vols fans, will be the problem against Alabama. Alabama's defense is predicated on giving an offense a lot of different looks, creating a din of confusion that the quarterback must sort out on a short clock. And that's before the snap of the ball, when they really bring the pain. Vol QB Justin Worley is not bereft of quarterback talent, but he has done nothing to date to demonstrate he has the capability of improvising, running through his progressions efficiently or stretching the field with the vertical passing game on a consistent basis. He is workman-like but not tremendously effective, though the emergence of WR deep threat freshman Marquez North throughout the course of the season has helped in regard to the passing game. Still, for this Saturday, there is little doubt that the Vol passing game will continue to struggle against a solidified Bama defensive backfield that, even after losing safety Vinny Sunseri against Arkansas, will bring more talent to the game than the Vols have likely faced this season. Worley has shown a propensity to make mistakes when flustered, or when he is forced to read a defense and run through his progressions. He is mistake-prone when the offensive script breaks down, and it is that factor that could make for a long day against a defense the likes of which Bama will field Saturday. While the Vol running game may have some success, it will not win the game for them. For the Vols to have a chance, Worley will need to do something he's not done before, and that is make plays and deal with the designed adversity the Tide defensive scheme will put before him.
  • The Vols' defensive struggles against Oregon have been well-documented, to the tune of 687 yards of total offense levied by the Ducks earlier this year. The Tennessee defense, when viewed across the entirety of the season thus far, is the 76th ranked unit nationally. But when one backs out those gaudy stats posted by the Ducks, Tennessee's defensive production is good enough for 37th nationally. Does that mean they'll be able to hold a potent Tide offense in check? Probably not. Defensive coordinator John Jancek runs a decent defense out of the 4-3, with size and experience throughout his roster. Linebacker AJ Johnson is not unlike Bama's initialed enforcer CJ Mosely: an elite, fast, sideline-to-sideline backer who typically leads his team in tackles. The Vols have good size in the interior of the defensive line, including 6'8" 351 Cody-clone Daniel McCullers. Tennessee sports seniors at both end positions in Marlon Walls and Corey Vereen, giving them a veteran presence along the line. All that said, the Vols have shown an inability to stop running backs this year, giving up several 100 yard rushers, including Mike Davis of South Carolina. Even with fair-to-middlin' offensive line play by Bama, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake should have a field day on Saturday (unless the Vols learn to tackle once again this weekend.) And as we've seen throughout the development of Bama QB AJ McCarron, when the running game thrives, Bama's passing game takes flight. A well-oiled offensive machine this week will be the best preparation for what awaits the Tide after the bye in LSU, as at this point, neither defense has proven that it can routinely stop high-powered offenses.
  • The Vols do have a few wildcards in this year's hand, and they've shown that they're not hesitant to use them thus far. Pig Howard is an all-around athlete in the vein of David Palmer or Reggie Bush, an electric playmaker who has the ability to score from any part of the field. The Vols lean heavily on his skill set, employing him in the slot in the passing game and as a runner on fly sweeps and screens to open up defenses and create misdirection. The Vols will get him the ball as often as they can, and he is a threat no matter how he comes by the football. A defense can defend against schemes, but it's far more difficult to defend God-given talent, as demonstrated regularly by Johnny Manziel. Alabama has shown a propensity to struggle defensively against super-human playmakers in recent memory, and Howard has the explosiveness to take advantage of any opening the Tide defense may present, if properly employed. Because of his speed, elusiveness and play-making ability, you can count on Kirby Smart prepping his defense to keep Howard in their sights on every down. The question is, can the Tide execute against one of the more freakish play-makers they'll face this year?
  • Injuries. I've talked about injuries enough this year to make one think I'm getting paid by the word. But it is a true concern for Bama and its quest for a third consecutive BCS championship. That concern was materialized last week early in the game against Arkansas, when Bama's Sunseri, the QB of the secondary, was felled with a season-ending knee injury. In this case, the loss is a great one, but not one from which the Tide cannot recover due to superior depth in the defensive backfield. However, any transition comes with concern, and the loss of Sunseri must at least be mentioned as such, in this game and beyond. His ability and leadership will be missed, but if this week's tweets are any indication, safeties Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins and Geno Smith are ready step into the breach and load the cannon. The real concern at this point revolves around further injuires. Though they lowdown and dirty, I wouldn't accuse Tennessee players of cheap-shotting their opponents for the sake of injury. That's just not kosher, and I think even Tennessee wouldn't stoop to that level. But the fact of the matter is that everywhere the Vols have gone this year, they've left a trail of walking wounded behind them, whether by the affixment of bad mojo or their physicality on both sides of the ball. Bama has seen the title hopes of its fellow SEC contenders dashed by the rash of injuries. Teams like Georgia and Florida are mere shells of their early season selves, and all it would take is a cruel turn of fate to render the same results for the Tide. Young men think themselves bullet-proof, but Sunseri's injury is evidence that a season can end, for an individual and sometimes a team, with a single, unfortunate accident while playing even the most inadequate opponent.

So here we sit, roughly 24 hours from the showdown with a despised rival in Tennessee. Let your Sith rage flow, channel it towards anything orange with reckless abandon. Let it erupt like a crimson river of magma flowing down over Rocky Top. Revel in it, do not shrink back from your guttural reaction to that which we were born to despise. After all, it is your birthright as a Gump, and one only lives to see so many chapters in the novel that is Bama-Tennessee.

Will this match-up be a replay of '09, when an undermanned but gritty Vol team entered Bryant Denny and gave the Tide the scare of its life? Or will this passage in the storied history of the rival mirror the last two? Is the hate invested in the rivalry still salient after all these years of mediocrity on the part of the Vols? (Of course it is...)

Above all, prepare for the worst...but hope for the best.

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