The goalposts were gone, carried out of Neyland Stadium, marched through the streets and launched into the Tennessee River on what could be one of the wildest nights Knoxville has ever seen.
Left behind were an extensive collection of empty liquor bottles, destroyed sunglasses and the remnants of cigars everywhere. Most poetic was a tube of eucalyptus and spearmint stress relief hand cream left behind on the field – there was no need for that anymore after what happened. The cigar smoke was as thick as molasses as Tennessee fans finally celebrated a win over Nick Saban and his dominant Alabama Crimson Tide.
Tennessee 52, Alabama 49.
Fans rushed the field like they had waited their entire lives to. One young female fan ran up to a stunned Bru McCoy and kissed the Volunteers receiver right on the cheek before running away. It was Tennessee’s Victory Day moment giving Volunteers fans that long-awaited freedom from Saban’s tyrannical domination over the last 15 seasons. As fans jumped up and down at midfield, it was one big mix of cigar smoke, sweat and primal screams of jubilation as Alabama players and coaches quietly trudged off the field.
Tennessee fans were still stunned that it finally happened as much as they believed. As one inebriated fan loudly and profanely explained how awesome it was to be standing on the field after beating Alabama, he turned to his friend and said, “Let’s never leave.”
Fans eventually had to leave — there was celebrating to do out on the town, after all — but the memories from finally dispatching big, bad Alabama as “Rocky Top” and “Dixieland Delight” blared from the stadium speakers will never leave them. Well, at least the sober memories.
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Tennessee proved it is a damn good football team Saturday in a raucous environment that illustrated what makes college football so enthralling. There were plenty of wild moments and controversial calls that both fanbases will latch on to, but this wasn’t a fluky outcome. Tennessee looked like the real deal throughout the night and gave Alabama all it could handle from the minute the game kicked off. The Crimson Tide had no answer for the Hendon Hooker to Jalin Hyatt connection that torched the Alabama secondary for 207 yards and five touchdowns. That Tennessee looked so explosive and dominant on offense without star receiver Cedric Tillman should send shivers up every SEC defensive coordinator’s neck.
“They created a lot of mismatches,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “.We were trying to play nickel so they were trying to get their best receivers on safeties and they did it a couple of times and we gave up big plays.”
Tennessee is back. The Third Saturday in October rivalry is back.
Poor Tennessee fans suffered through so many bad moments in those last 15 seasons. They kept faithfully showing up to Neyland Stadium even as the product suffered. They watched the Phillip Fulmer era(s) end poorly. They got excited about Lane Kiffin, only to see him bolt after one season for USC. They suffered through three miserable seasons of Derek Dooley, who went 15-21 and 4-19 in SEC play. After Saturday’s game, Dooley, now an offensive analyst at Alabama, quietly ate a container of spaghetti and meatballs in the corner of the bowels of Neyland Stadium as ecstatic Tennessee fans celebrated a few feet away from him. Dooley never delivered a win like the one he witnessed Saturday that launched this Tennessee team into another stratosphere.
It took Josh Heupel, an unassuming offensive whiz kid, to exorcise the demons that tortured the program over the last decade-and-a-half. Tennessee’s fastball offense was so effective against Alabama and gives the Volunteers a chance to win any game and overcome its defensive liabilities. In less than two seasons Heupel has taken a program that looked left for dead after the failed Jeremy Pruitt era, and instead now has a Heisman favorite in Hooker and a realistic chance of making its first College Football Playoff. This Tennessee team is legitimate and will have as good a shot as anyone in the SEC in knocking off reigning national champion Georgia.
When was the last time any Vols fan could realistically say that? Could realistically dream of winning another national champion and not get made fun of by the rest of the SEC? It’s been a long, long time coming for Vols fans.
And that was worth celebrating in the biggest fashion possible on a Tennessee Saturday night.