TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — University of Alabama running back Josh Jacobs couldn’t help himself. Everyone knows that the tradition in the Third Saturday of October rivalry is for the winning side to break out victory cigars, which the Crimson Tide has done 11 straight times.
That included five straight losses for former Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who is now an Alabama analyst.
“We kind of joke with him about the situation,” Jacobs said. “He’s, you know, never smoked the cigar before. We’re trying to make that a goal of his.”
Jones should feel fortunate. When Lane Kiffin was hired as offensive coordinator, a colleague hung up a big poster of Rocky Block, the 12-10 victory in 2009, in his office.
But with the Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0 SEC) having won by an average score of 36-11 during the streak, there’s only been one close game since then, 19-14 in 2015.
Alabama went into that game ranked No. 8. This time it’s nearly a unanimous No. 1 that’s demolished its first seven opponents by an average score of 53.6-15.1.
“Alabama has a tremendous team,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “They are a complete football team.”
Pruitt knows well what that smoky locker room is like and the talent the Crimson Tide has assembled. As Nick Saban’s former director of player development (2007-9), defensive backs coach (2010-12), and defensive coordinator (2016-17), he helped recruit a lot of the players.
“After watching a couple games, I was afraid to look at the defense,” Pruitt said about watching the Crimson Tide’s game film. “They’ve got dominant players at all three levels, got playmakers that create turnovers. I’m sure there’s probably a little bit of differences, but it’ll be an attacking style defense that tries to put pressure on the quarterback.”
It’s going to be a little different for the Alabama players as well, although they’re used to it by now.
This will be the 15th time Saban is facing one of his former assistant coaches, and third time this season. He’s a perfect 14-0, including the overtime win against Kirby Smart and Georgia in the 2018 national championship game.
“We have a great relationship,” junior linebacker Mack Wilson said. “Me and him stay in touch pretty well. I always text him and congratulate him whenever they win or whatever. I feel like our relationship will always be there. I’m well bonded with his wife and his kids, so he’s more like a father figure to me. I look up to him. And obviously he’s a great coach.”
Also on the Volunteers sideline are numerous other former Alabama staffers including co-defensive coordinators Kevin Sherrer and Chris Rumph.
Sherrer was the Crimson Tide’s director of player development (2010-12) and Rumph was the defensive line coach (2011-13). Former Alabama analyst Chris Weinke is the running backs coach. Offensive line coach Will Friend was once a Crimson Tide guard.
“With going against him the last two years, I definitely know how good of a coach he is,” Jacobs said about Pruitt. “Seeing their team, seeing how they’re coming along and they’re rolling and they’re stringing everything together, I think it’s going to be tough. I know that their defense is going to be very disciplined, very few mistakes.”
In addition to the familiarity, Tennessee ending an 11-game losing streak in SEC play with a 30-24 victory over then-No. 21 Auburn last Saturday, 30-24, got the Crimson Tide’s attention.
So did UT Director of Athletics Phil Fulmer leading the Volunteers in singing, “We don’t give a damn about the whole state of Alabama, the whole state of Alabama, the whole state of Alabama” as part of the postgame celebration.
Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano had a career game, going 21-of-32 for 328 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions to be named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week.
For the season, he’s 166-for-264 (63 percent) for 1,129 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
However, the Volunteers (3-3, 1-2 SEC) are still statistically at or near the bottom of the league in all major offensive categories, and only slightly better defensively. Tennessee is 10th in rushing and total defense, 11th in scoring defense and ninth against the pass.
But you know what they say about statistics and rivalry games, which is why Wilson didn’t send Pruitt a message after the Auburn win and they won’t talk until after the game. Instead, he tweeted out: #TENNESSSEEHATEWEEK on Monday.