Alabama 6, Tennessee 3
It wasn't the traditional third Saturday in October, and the extra week gave Alabama football fans seven more days to build up even more dislike for Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer. The Crimson Tide had waited nearly two years for Fulmer to return here, after it was revealed he helped informants turn in Alabama's football program for multiple NCAA rules violations.
While the No. 5 Crimson Tide's 6-3 victory Saturday probably won't erase all those bitter memories, Alabama fans couldn't have scripted a better method for their revenge than what transpired in the final 5 minutes 8 seconds.
In what was one of the most bizarre endings in one of college football's most storied rivalries, Tennessee fullback Cory Anderson was two yards shy of running into the north end zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium for the game's first touchdown, which would have put the No. 17 Volunteers ahead 9-3. Instead, free safety Roman Harper jarred the football loose from Anderson with a vicious tackle, and the football bounced through the back of the end zone for a touchback with 5:08 to play.
Alabama (7-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) took over at its 20-yard line and quickly faced third down and nine. Quarterback Brodie Croyle threw deep down the left sideline for wide receiver D.J. Hall, who beat cornerback Antonio Gaines for a 43-yard gain to the Tennessee 36 with 3:40 left. The Crimson Tide then ran the ball five consecutive plays to set up a potential winning field goal. After the Volunteers (3-3, 2-3) used their last timeout with 1:01 to play, Croyle sneaked the football to the middle of the field.
Sophomore Jamie Christensen, a former place kicker at the Naval Academy Prep School, then booted a 34-yard field goal into a sea of red and white in the south end zone, giving the Crimson Tide a 6-3 lead with 13 seconds remaining. Holder Matt Miller and snapper Drew Lane lifted Christensen into the air and ran him off the field, as the sellout crowd of 80,018 cheered wildly.
Linebacker DeMeco Ryans intercepted Erik Ainge's desperation pass near midfield on the final play of the game. After shaking hands with Alabama Coach Mike Shula, Fulmer met his wife, Vicky, on the field, and they were escorted to the locker room by 10 state troopers.
"To beat them the way we beat them, you really couldn't ask for a better ending," Croyle said. "This is part of our steps. This was one of the biggest steps, if not the biggest, because we'd had so many problems with Tennessee. It kind of settles the score."
If nothing else, Alabama solidified its return to national prominence. After enduring two of its most tumultuous seasons in its storied history, when the Crimson Tide was placed on five years' NCAA probation, lost 15 of 25 games and went through three head coaches during a five-month span, it is 7-0 for the first time since 1996. Alabama is tied for the best record in the SEC with No. 4 Georgia and is No. 5 in the Bowl Championship Series standings.
"A lot of things are going our way," Ryans said. "In the last couple of years, one of their guys probably would have picked up that football for a touchdown. That's just how things have changed for us. This lets people know we're going to do something special and we're a special team."
But Alabama's return to its former glory wouldn't have been complete without beating the Volunteers and particularly Fulmer, who had beaten the Crimson Tide in nine of the past 10 games and had never lost to it in six games in Alabama.
"It's a big win because it keeps us undefeated and keeps everything out in front of us," Shula said. "There's so much attention paid to this game for a number of reasons, because it's a rivalry and the things that have happened the last couple of years. I think the most important thing is the game is for bragging rights. This year, anyway, it's our time to brag."
For four hours on the first crisp Saturday of autumn, the Crimson Tide finally began to look ahead to its promising future, instead of back at its muddy past.
"These kids have been through a lot," Shula said. "When everything around them was changing, they were the constant. Our guys hung in there again until the end. When everything looked like it was going against us, and when it seemed nothing was going our way, we found a way to make plays."