Sweet emotion for Fulmer, Volunteers
A number of highly ranked teams had close calls, but none had a more emotional win than Tennessee's over Alabama, writes Ivan Maisel.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Of all the highly ranked teams that avoided upsets Saturday, none had a more emotional victory than No. 7 Tennessee's 16-13 win over Alabama.
No. 5 Texas came back in the snow at Nebraska. No. 10 Notre Dame escaped against UCLA. No. 11 California took a Hail Mary punch from Washington and came back to win in overtime.
But they don't write books about the rivalry between Longhorns and the Huskers. The Irish and the Bruins are still better known for basketball games. The Golden Bears and the Huskies don't have a rivalry that caught fire in the Coolidge Administration and never cooled.
Alabama and Tennessee may be in different divisions of the SEC, but there's no other game in the conference where the winners play for victory cigars.
This one meant a little more, which is how Vol quarterback Erik Ainge did his greatest Carl Lewis imitation and ran down Tide corner Simeon Castille in the second quarter. Castille raced down the sideline with an interception that Ainge threw him at the Alabama 32. Ainge, starting from near midfield, angled toward the pylon and got just enough of Castille to nudge him out of bounds at the Tennessee 8.
Asked what he thought as Castille took off, Ainge said, "No way I'm gonna catch him. But I'm gonna try I knew I was going to go as hard as I could."
Ainge overcame three first-half interceptions and came back to complete 17-of-25 passes in the second half. He finished with 302 yards and led the offense to 10 fourth-quarter points.
But the biggest play Ainge made was a tackle. Alabama pushed the ball to the 1, but Crimson Tide coach Mike Shula chose to kick the field goal on fourth down. Those four points loomed large in a three-point loss.
"Did I make too big an emphasis on these games?" offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, a Birmingham native, wondered. "Regardless of what happens, he'll sit down with his children and he'll remember this. We had a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Alabama in Neyland Stadium before 100,000-plus people. I talked to him a little bit about that before the game. Maybe too much," Cutcliffe said with a chuckle. "I think maybe I just need to coach him."
Twice in the first half, Alabama had a first-and-goal, and the Crimson Tide came away with field goals on both drives. Alabama scored its only touchdown late in the third quarter when sophomore quarterback John Parker Wilson threw deep into triple coverage. Somehow, wide receiver D.J. Hall came down with the pass for a 40-yard gain to the Tennessee 12.
That would be it for Alabama. In the fourth quarter, the Tennessee defense held Alabama to 34 total yards and prevented the Tide from moving past its own 41.
The Volunteers moved their record to 6-1, 2-1, and kept the heat on SEC East leader Florida. A year ago, when Tennessee went 5-6, the most painful of those losses came in Tuscaloosa, where the Vols fell 6-3. Coach Phillip Fulmer revamped his staff and challenged his players.
"This is a sweet victory," Fulmer said. "We fought back to respectability. We're back in the top 10. We're playing good, solid football. We won two big games against top 10 opponents [California and Georgia] at the time. We lost a heartbreaker here to a fine Florida team. We earned respectability. Now, could we handle success?"
The Crimson Tide fell to 5-3, 2-3, and took themselves out of the SEC West race. Alabama likely returns to Tennessee in December, either to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis or the Music City Bowl in Nashville. You can bet that the memory of this trip to the Volunteer State will remain with the Tide until December and beyond.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.