KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Nick Saban has turned the “Third Saturday in October” rivalry back to Alabama’s favor, and left Phillip Fulmer with yet another ugly loss to explain to Tennessee’s many disgruntled fans.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide cruised to a 29-9 win over the Volunteers on Saturday night for its first back-to-back victories since 1991-92.
“This is a great rivalry with great tradition with two outstanding universities, and I’m really proud of the way our players played,” Saban said.
While Alabama (8-0, 5-0, Southeastern Conference) remained in the heart of the national championship race, Tennessee’s season grew sorrier. A lopsided loss to a bitter rival will only increase the pressure on Fulmer, who’s been a prime target for critics and disgruntled Vols fans this season.
This was a rivalry he dominated early in his career, winning seven straight 1995-2001. Alabama has won three out of the last four contests, and Saban owns a 4-1 record against the Vols (3-5, 1-4).
“It’s just a special rivalry and a special game to all of us involved in it in different ways. I’ll be back up tomorrow. I’m not down. I just got a lot on my mind right now,” Fulmer said.
Alabama, the SEC’s best rushing team, went to the air in the first half, gaining 117 yards compared to 32 on the ground.
Alabama started its final first-half drive on the Tennessee 34 after Daniel Lincoln missed a 51-yard field goal attempt. John Parker Wilson didn’t miss on the drive, completing passes of 19 and 35 yards to Julio Jones and a 4-yarder to Glen Coffee.
On fourth-and-1 at the 3, Coffee punched the ball into the end zone to give the Crimson Tide a 13-3 lead with 2:41 before halftime. Alabama is 5-for-5 on fourth down attempts this season.
Tennessee drove to the Alabama 14, but back-to-back penalties for illegal formation and pass interference pushed the Vols back 20 yards, and Lincoln missed a 43-yard field goal attempt to close the half.
“Them missing a field goal before the half was a real momentum thing,” Saban said.
After that, it was all Alabama for two quarters as the trademark Tide rushing game returned.
Roy Upchurch ran 35 yards of a 79-yard drive before Wilson drove the ball 1-yard for a touchdown to put Alabama up 22-3 with 6:25 in the third quarter. Wilson missed a 2-point conversion pass to Nick Walker.
Upchurch ran for much of the subsequent Crimson Tide drive and scored on a 4-yard run to make it a 29-3 game with 9:43 left. He finished with 86 yards rushing.
Alabama outgained Tennessee 366-173, and finished with 178 yards rushing. Jones caught six passes for a career-high 103 yards, and Wilson finished 17-for-24 for 188 yards.
The Vols’ defense gave Tennessee plenty of chances to stay in the game, limiting Alabama to its lowest first-quarter score of the season with six points. The Crimson Tide has outscored opponents 101-6 in the first 15 minutes.
Tennessee stopped Alabama twice just outside the red zone and once inside. Leigh Tiffin kicked field goals of 39, 43 and 30 yards.
“We didn’t start off the way we’ve been starting off,” Wilson said. “We kind of got behind and had to come back and score in the second half, and I think we did a really good job.”
But the Vols struggled to put together drives, reverting back to the inept offense which has plagued them much of the season. Tennessee went three-and-out seven times in 11 drives and missed two field goal tries.
The closest Tennessee got to the end zone in the first half was when Dennis Rogan recovered Javier Arenas’ fumbled punt return at the Alabama 5, but the Vols went backward 9 yards on the drive. Daniel Lincoln kicked a 31-yard field goal to tied the game at 3 with 6:28 in the first quarter.
Two Alabama pass interference penalties kept a Tennessee drive alive in the fourth quarter, and Nick Stephens found Josh Briscoe on a 10-yard pass to make it 29-9 with 7:26 left, well after the game was already out of reach.
Stephens finished 16-for-28 for 137 yards.
“I felt like we had every chance in the world coming into the second half the way our defense was playing. We stopped ourselves like we have in past weeks,” Stephens said.