Mild ‘em up: Tennessee, Alabama prepare for his or her greatest battle of the 21st century

Mild ‘em up: Tennessee, Alabama prepare for his or her greatest battle of the 21st century

The cigars are waiting, tucked in humidors and desk drawers and glove compartments and pockets all over Knoxville.

They’re a tradition for the Third Saturday in October, the annual, perpetual, don’t-agenda-your-marriage ceremony-this-weekend date of the Alabama-Tennessee sport. Begun in 1961 when an Alabama coach passed out smokes to have a wonderful time the Tide’s first victory over Tennessee since 1954, cigars are in actuality the considered — and aromatic — signal of victory in a contest that dates encourage to 1901.

After a decade of mid-90s to mid-00s dominance, Tennessee hasn’t smoked a victory cigar since Sever Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, a 15-yr bustle of futility during which Tennessee utterly managed to catch within 20 parts of Alabama two situations.

That changed into then. Right here is now. Tennessee is at closing as correct as its followers continuously take into accout it is miles, a No. 6-ranked group riding a large-start offense, led by a Heisman-contending quarterback, guided by a coach who’s years sooner than agenda in his portray to advance the Vols to national relevance.

“Right here is why you advance to Tennessee and want to be on this league,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel acknowledged Monday. “Our avid gamers have earned the right kind to catch up to now and play for this … This can obviously be an large take a look at for us, but our avid gamers are in actuality mad.”

“Josh has done an prominent job there. Their offense could per chance per chance be one in every of basically the most explosive, if no longer basically the most explosive, in the country,” Alabama head coach Sever Saban acknowledged Monday. “Right here is a terribly, in actuality correct group, a staunch instruct for us.”

Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker could be the utterly quarterback Alabama has confronted since knocking Quinn Ewers out of the Texas sport earlier this season. Ewers changed into in the course of selecting apart the Alabama secondary when he exited the sport, and Hooker, possessing a transient liberate and zero-interception accuracy, has the flexibility to own the the same.

Hooker stretches the field — his 10.2 yards per strive ranks first in the SEC and third in the nation — and he’s basically the most fitted passer, by completion percentage, in the convention. As a bunch, Tennessee’s rapidly-strike offense has saved three ranked groups on their heels, forcing them to play from on the encourage of almost from the soar. The Vols have scored first in four of their five victories. Tennessee’s scoring-by-truckloads contrivance will take a look at Alabama like no other group the third-ranked Tide have confronted this yr.

“Their offense spreads folks out and so they rob large profit in spreading the ball round to all their skill avid gamers,” Saban acknowledged. “They rob quite loads of photographs, and so they convert quite loads of photographs.”

Alabama comes into the weekend 6-0, but utterly after eking out closing-2nd victories over Texas and Texas A&M. Defending Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Younger’s availability and sturdiness live in some doubt following a shoulder agonize two weeks ago that saved him out of the A&M sport. Saban changed into, as expected, noncommittal about Younger’s set on Monday.

“We’ll scrutinize how the week progresses,” he acknowledged. “I don’t have an replace a long way more than that.”

On the opposite facet of the ball, Alabama’s historically smothering protection has veered onerous into bend-and-almost-destroy territory in the closing two video games, a newfound vulnerability that has Volunteer followers salivating over what Hooker could per chance perchance well own.

Hendon Hooker is leading Tennessee to new heights. (Donald Page/Getty Images)

Hendon Hooker is main Tennessee to new heights. (Donald Page/Getty Photos)

“We don’t wish to own the leisure unprecedented,” Heupel acknowledged. “We now have gotten to own the identical earlier at a in actuality high stage.” That’s … create of the definition of “unprecedented,” but Heupel is doing his utterly to manage expectations.

He’s potentially the utterly one in the upper Knoxville home who is. This weekend would be basically the most hyped Third Saturday in the 21st century. This yr is the first time Alabama and Tennessee have met as unbeatens since 1989, and both “Faculty GameDay” and “SEC Nation” will be broadcasting from Knoxville. After atmosphere early traces favoring Alabama by as powerful as 16.5, oddsmakers have caught up with Tennessee; Alabama is now favored by utterly 7.5.

A minimal of publicly, the Vols are cautious no longer to rob pleasure in any of Sever Saban’s rat poison, the empty self assurance of pregame hype. “Being complacent is a unfriendly part in any field that you simply’re in,” Hooker acknowledged. “Persevering with to push forward and persevere thru compliments or disasters … continuing to own your job and focal point for your goal is the main part.”

“The expectations we should always always be fascinated by are our bask in expectations,” Heupel acknowledged. “The rationale our children have gotten higher is that they’ve persisted to originate, and paid attention to things that topic … The outside noise has no touching on how we play.”

Reach Saturday, that outside noise — in the 101,915-seat Neyland Stadium — will be inconceivable to brush aside. Vol followers are ready to illuminate these cigars, and at lengthy closing, in actuality feel they’ve obtained a possibility to own exactly that. This yr, for the first time in a quarter-century, Tennessee-Alabama could per chance perchance have your whole smoke.

Nick Saban will need to motivate his Tide to higher levels this weekend. (\Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Sever Saban will wish to encourage his Tide to elevated ranges this weekend. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Photos)

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Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.