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Tennessee brushes past 15 years of Alabama smoke in triumphant, program-reviving rivalry win

Tennessee brushes past 15 years of Alabama smoke in triumphant, program-reviving rivalry win thumbnail

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The memory was a year old for Tennessee wide receiver Jalin Hyatt. A mere year? Around Rocky Top, they had been waiting around for 15 damn years to beat Alabama. But being a relative newcomer to the rivalry, Hyatt already had his motivation stored deep in his heart, beneath that orange No. 11 jersey.

Last October, Tennessee accepted its latest whipping in this rivalry, a 52-24 loss to Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium. In the waning moments, it was smell Hyatt remembered.

“It was the fourth quarter, 3 or 4 minutes, left,” Hyatt recalled. “You could already smell the smoke. They lit it before we even ended the game. When you have a feeling like that, you want to bounce back from that.”

No. 6 Tennessee more than bounced back. It charged the arc of its program beating No. 3 Alabama, 52-49, and scoring more points on the Crimson Tide defense than any team since 1907. The Volunteers stayed undefeated with legitimate College Football Playoff dreams dancing in their heads. Chase McGrath’s walk-off 40-yard field goal unleashed a stream of fans from the stands who had waited a decade and a half to light up the hated Tide on the scoreboard and then light up a stogie in celebration.

Most of all, Tennessee ended its 15-game losing streak to Alabama, releasing a torrent of possibilities. Humanity enveloped the floor of Neyland Stadium. That and smoke. Lots and lots of smoke.

The cigar tradition started in 1961 when a former Alabama trainer, who had been at Tennessee as well, said he’d dance naked if the Tide won for the first time 1954. Alabama did exactly that, and the trainer followed with his unclothed mamba, accompanied by a cigar.

“I smoked it slow, and it was damn good,” said Tennessee coach Josh Heupel only 21 months after taking the job and resurrecting a program burned by alleged NCAA violations and the firing of Jeremy Pruitt. “It was great night, man.”

Postgame nudity was about the only thing missing from a contest that featured 84 passes, 61 first downs and 1,136 yards. Tennessee scored 28 points on its first 22 snaps, then didn’t score again for next 24. Alabama figured something out. Ah, let’s cut the crap. Bryce Young figured out the Vols. Two weeks after injuring his right throwing shoulder against Arkansas, Young was a magnificent 35 of 52 for 455 yards and two touchdowns.

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He’s back, folks. He just wasn’t enough. Nick Saban had to be seething. His usually buttoned-up team committed a program-record 17 penalties. Alabama entered the game fourth-worst nationally in penalty yards. The party that had avoided this place for years was on. The revelers didn’t see the locker room that had its own vibe.

“Heupel’s on his fourth cigar right now,” Tennessee WR Grant Frerking said. “You want to talk about they’re going to sign to a lifetime contract? … You want to see what leadership and culture does? This is his second season.”

The real time evaluation was laying there like the ball Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker fumbled that was waiting for a scoop and score by Bama defender Dallas Turner. That gave Alabama its last lead at 49-42 with 7: 49 remaining. Tennessee had the last puff, scoring the final 10 points.

The heroes were lined up at the postgame podium as a symbol of modern college football. Two transfers had huge impacts: Hooker (Virginia Tech) and his five touchdown passes — all to Hyatt — and McGrath (USC) with his game-winning field goal as time expired.

Without them, Tennessee wouldn’t have won this night. Without them, the soft-spoken Heupel wouldn’t have his own revenge story.

“I probably got a better sense [of the rivalry] last year walking off the field seeing the smoke in the stands, ” Heupel said. “Understanding the magnitude a little bit. This is the first game I heard about when I got here.”

Neither secondary was worth a cigarette butt Saturday. Hooker and Young both made Heisman Trophy statements against defensive backfields that looked like they were grabbing at air half the time. That or you can choose to believe Hyatt and Hooker put themselves squarely in the Heisman race. Hooker threw to Hyatt eight times. Hyatt caught six, five for touchdowns, including the 13-yard score that tied it 49-49 with 3: 26 left.

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“I black out when I’m on the field,” Hyatt said afterward. “The only thing I’m worried about is the ball. Where is the ball at?”

On this night, it was coming from Hooker, who victimized an Alabama secondary that has looked disturbingly shaky at times this season.

“Hendon kind of controlled the game for us,” said Heupel in perhaps the understatement of the year.

Hooker might as well control the program. The fumble was a huge blemish. So was his first interception in more than 200 throws. But in a battle with the reigning Heisman winner, Saturday might have been Hooker’s Stiff Arm moment.

“He’s the Heisman frontrunner now, and he won’t touch a cigar in there,” said Frerking, gesturing to the locker room. “He said, ‘Yeah, I have to protect my brand.’ That’s forward thinking, man. It’s surreal.”

In the end, the lead changed hands twice. The game was tied four times. Alabama both scored its most points in a loss and gave up the most points in the series, which dates back to its start in 1901.

You almost knew what was going to happen when usually reliable Bama kicker Will Reichard missed from 50 yards with 15 seconds left — his third miss in two weeks. That gave Hooker just enough time. He hit Ramel Keyton for 18 yards, and Bru McCoy got open for a tough catch at the Alabama 23.

Following timeouts by both teams, McGrath stepped up to hit a knuckler that may or may not have been tipped. Alabama star defensive lineman Byron Young raised his entire 6-foot-3, 292-pound frame in front of McGrath’s 6-foot, 198-pound body.

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It wasn’t enough. Young turned, looked and watched the ball go through. He grabbed his helmet with both hands in disbelief and dropped to his right knee. He was then enveloped by a portion of the 101,000.

A crowd that once threw golf balls at Lane Kiffin, threw a party.

“I call him ‘Big Foot,'” said McGrath’s teammate, defensive back Tamarion McDonald. “On the sideline we all said, ‘Game over.'”

Actually, it’s just begun for Tennessee. You want to talk about redemption? McGrath earlier missed an extra point that looked it was going to be the difference in the game. His last game-winning kick was four years ago for USC against Texas.

“I absolutely smoked a cigar. It was such an awesome memory,” he said. 

Tennessee still has to go to Georgia on Nov. 5. Alabama certainly isn’t out of it with a chance to run the table, win the SEC West and play for the SEC title. If you game this thing out, Saturday’s result left open the possibility of all three SEC teams getting into the CFP.

But that’s looking way too far ahead and ignoring the magnificent presence of Saturday night on Rocky Top. What was left in a last-second, three-point win was a wondrous realization: After 15 long years, the smoke had finally cleared.

“This is college football absolutely as good as it gets,” Heupel said.

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