KNOXVILLE – There will be connections all over the field when Tennessee and No. 1 Alabama square off on Saturday.
They start at the top. Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley worked under Alabama head coach Nick Saban for seven years at LSU (2000-04) and with the Miami Dolphins (2005-06).
Tennessee (3-3, 0-3 SEC) defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri served as the linebackers coach and the assistant head coach for the Tide from 2009-11. When Sunseri left, former Tennessee assistant Lance Thompson returned to Alabama, where he previously worked in 2007-08, to take his spot.
None of those coaches are as connected as Sunseri is to Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri. As the last name indicates, the two are father and son, and it’s been an emotional week for them both as they prepare to face each other for the first time.
“Let me just say this to everybody here: It's been very, very hard this whole week, especially for both of us," Sal Sunseri said after practice on Wednesday. "Emotionally for the family it's been very tough. I didn't think it would be this hard. But we're both going to be professionals about it. We're both going to do what we have to do and we're going to go out there and try to play our best football."
The younger Sunseri has blossomed in Alabama’s secondary. He was used mainly on special teams in 2011, but he has become a regular fixture on defense for the Crimson Tide (6-0, 3-0 SEC) this season with 22 tackles and two interceptions.
He reflected his dad’s thoughts when asked about what it will be like to be on opposite sidelines from his dad.
"Very, very tough," Vinnie Sunseri said via the Birmingham News on Monday. "A lot of mixed emotions. Hard. Hard, hard, hard. I'm getting a lot of calls from the family saying good luck to me, but I know they're just giving the same, exact advice to my dad. It's tough. It's really tough."
Perhaps the person in the toughest position is Roxann Sunseri, wife of Sal and mother of Vinnie. She has another son, Tino, who is the quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh. She’s used to having to split her attention, but this week will he the hardest challenge with Sal and Vinnie facing each other head to head.
"I don't know if she is coming to the game on Saturday,” Sal Sunseri said. “To be honest with you, I don't really want her to come. The game is going to be on TV, she needs to be at home, relaxing. That is what I think. She is a strong woman and she will make her own choice. She will do what she needs to do."
Tennessee defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore will be the only player that has seen the field as a player from both sidelines. He began his career at Alabama in 2009 as a redshirt, appeared in 11 games as a reserve in 2010, and then left for a year at Gulf Coast (Miss.) Community College before landing with the Vols.
The redshirt junior, who has been credited with 10 tackles and three sacks this season, had less than flattering things to say about his former school and coach
“I kind of regret going to Alabama, I ain’t going to lie to you,” Sentimore said. “I’m not the type that likes (Alabama coach Nick Saban). Well I like him, but I don’t want to be under him. Some players, he’ll see you in the hallway and just walk right past you like he don’t see you … I don’t like stuff like that. I’m not going to lie to you – I want this game more than any other game. I want to beat Saban.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.