This is what The Third Saturday in October is all about.
It was true in 2003 when the Vols survived five overtimes to break Bama hearts, and it was true again today where survival was the key word, regardless of who was ranked where. That five overtime game we came out on the right end of, but I remember thinking that day that both teams had a lot to be proud of and were just a part of something really special. And I feel the same way today, even on the wrong end of the outcome: that was special.
There's already some chatter among our rivals that we're happy to have another moral victory. Let's make it clear right now: anyone whose dominant emotion at the end of that game was "happiness" is not a Tennessee fan. This hurts. A lot. Sixty minutes and one play away from beating our biggest rival on their home field with them ranked number one and in our new coach's first season? Think about how euphoric you would've felt if Daniel Lincoln made that kick. Then think about how you feel now. We're not happy.
But very soon, we might be.
I tip my cap to Alabama - and especially to their kicker - because they did what they had to do to win. Teams that win games like this one today are teams that go on to win National Championships.
But can't we say that the only difference between Tennessee and Alabama today was their kicker?
Mark Ingram outrushed Montario Hardesty, but Jonathan Crompton outplayed Greg McElroy. The Joneses - Julio and Gerald - each had seven catches. Each team had only one turnover, and neither was particularly adept at scoring touchdowns: the Vols got one, Bama got zero.
The Vols won the total yardage battle with two great defenses on the field 341-256, won time of possession by four and a half minutes, and the only stat you can decidedly favor Alabama in is penalties, with the Vols committing eight and the Tide only one.
That, and the kickers.
Postgame comments from Lane Kiffin suggest that Lincoln had re-injured his quad, costing him distance (short on the 47 yarder) and trajectory (blocked kicks x2). Leigh Tiffin went four for four, including kicks from 50 and 49 yards away. Daniel Lincoln went one for four, with two blocks. That's the difference in the ballgame.
(Note: Alabama has great defensive tackles and we did a poor job preventing penetration on the final kick. I know we're all eager to take our built-up hatred of Jonathan Crompton and turn it on Daniel Lincoln - and he certainly bears plenty of responsibility - but not everything wrong with that last kick was his fault).
So the difference between Tennessee and the number one team in the country is two points and two blocked field goals.
This hurts. It'll hurt tomorrow.
But Monday, the entire Tennessee family - players, coaches, administration, fans, boosters, and Smokey - needs to get past it. Because after seven games and two toe-to-toe showdowns with the best teams in the country, the Vols aren't just hoping that we'll be a good team one day soon anymore, and won't just be satisfied with being close - the Vols have a chance to be a good team right now.
Tennessee isn't among the most talented teams in the country right now, especially on offense. And even a strong finish of five straight wins and a January 1 bowl doesn't promise great success in 2010 (see: Ole Miss '09, Georgia '08). But we might be better than we thought we would be, sooner than we thought we'd be it. We might be good now, not later. The best chance to prove it will present itself Saturday night in Knoxville.
Lane Kiffin and the SuperStaff have proved they can recruit, and proved they can put together great gameplans on both sides of the ball. This is the week we'll find out how well Kiffin can manage his team.
This season can end one of two ways. The Vols are going to be an emotionally vulnerable team next Saturday, playing a Top 25 South Carolina team with a very good defense, and playing in the dog-eat-dog SEC means you have to be ready every single week regardless of opponent. The Vols are a team that's had to eat four tough losses, each of them coming down to a handful of frustrating moments that, had they gone the other way, could've turned 3-4 into 5-2 or even 6-1. We've been good enough to be right there all season, but have come up short more often than not.
After awhile - and especially after today - losses like this take their toll, and it becomes harder to prepare for the next challenge. If the Vols feel sorry for themselves, look back instead of look forward and don't continue to improve, this season can still end at 6-6 - or worse - and frustration will be its dominant emotion.
But if Kiffin takes care of his team this week and has them ready to play Saturday night against South Carolina, and throughout the remainder of the season...this team isn't just game enough to win the rest of them, they're good enough. And while 6-6 or worse would be frustrating, 8-4 and January 1 would give this team a chance to finish with an exclamation point - not just to point towards the future, but to finish the present the right way, as a definitively good football team. This season still has an opportunity to finish the right way, and ultimately end as one the entire Tennessee family calls successful. This team can be celebrating on January 1 or drowing their sorrows in Shreveport. Kiffin must make sure this week that the Vols are ready to finish the right way.
There's a ton involved with this game that will have to be hashed out in the next seven days - including the solid performance turned in by Jonathan Crompton against one of the nation's best defenses - and I think we'll find more to like when this stops hurting so much. The Vols have decimated Georgia and served notice to Florida and Alabama that they're going to be a factor. The future looks good...but the present still can too.