Considering the 15 point (or thereabouts) spread on this game in Las Vegas, not many people were expecting such an exciting game as was had in the 12 - 10 loss by the Tennessee Volunteers to the Alabama Crimson Tide. The grand story on the win was the three failed field goal attempts - one a short kick by Daniel Lincoln and two blocks by Terrence Cody - but hidden under that story is that this game was so evenly played by both teams.
Tennessee fans had reason to worry at the end of the first half. The score was only 9-3, but Alabama had held onto the ball for about 17 minutes of clock time and had already rung 43 plays on offense to Tennessee's 25. Alabama has made a living out of dragging teams through the mud in the first half and rolling over their wearied defenses in the second, and the trend was pointed squarely in that direction. But in the third quarter, Tennessee didn't lay down. Instead, Tennessee held the ball for 10:27 of the 15 total minutes in the third, buying their defense some rest and keeping Alabama off the scoreboard for the quarter to set up a monumental fourth quarter and game finish.
And the finish didn't disappoint.
It appeared as though Alabama would hide away with their fourth field goal of the night. With only a few minutes left, the Vols needed two scores to win, and nobody was scoring against the Alabama defense. Yet the league's most beleaguered quarterback, Jonathan Crompton, put together two fourth-quarter drives to make a final-second finish happen. The first came by way of a touchdown pass to Gerald Jones - the first TD scored against the Alabama defense in three games. The second came after a beautiful onsides kick where Dennis Rogan blocked out Julio Jones, allowing Tennessee to recover. After driving to field goal range again, only Tennessee's woes on special teams mattered in the game, as the third failed field goal in a row enabled a 2-point win for the Tide.
Right now, thoughts of couldashouldawoulda have to be circling through the heads of Vols fans like buzzards over carrion. With a two-point game differential, it's easy to point to the poor field goal play (which was not all Lincoln's fault) as the difference in the game. That was, for sure, as Tennessee outgained Alabama on offense (341 yards to 256 yards), outplayed them on offensive plays (72 plays to 59), outplayed them in turnovers (2 to 1 counting the onsides kick) while only conceding the penalty situation (8 UT penalties accepted to 1 on Alabama). But all those numbers point to only one thing: this game was close.
For years now, we've been pining for a time where both Tennessee and Alabama were relevant in the national conversation at the same time coming into this game, and it appears we may be on our way. Tennessee, earlier in the season, played close to Florida in the Swamp. Now they played on par with Alabama in Bryant-Denny. All signs point to Tennessee becoming a topic of conversation for a long time, right alongside Florida and Alabama. It may take another year yet, as attrition of the fifth-year seniors that have done so much for the team this year may set the team back a bit, but there's no reason to believe it won't happen.
A hearty congratulations goes out to the Tide, who played a tough, disciplined game from start to finish and made the special teams battle count. There is no moral victory for Tennessee tonight. This wasn't a case of playing closer than they should have; this was giving one away. To the #1 team in the country. On their turf.
We have ourselves a series, ladies and gents.