KNOXVILLE – As if there was any doubt that it’s Tennessee-Alabama week, things got a little personal on Wednesday afternoon on UT’s campus.
Somebody, presumably an Alabama fan, painted The Rock, a University of Tennessee landmark, in crimson with a pro-Alabama message on it.
Crazier things have been done in the name of SEC rivalries, but consider the attack on The Rock another sign that Tennessee and Alabama are getting ready for their 96th all-time meeting, a series the Tide leads 50-38-7.
Another sign? The Vols have been primarily referring to Alabama as “the red team” this week – refraining from saying the school’s real name. Head coach Butch Jones has heard all about this rivalry for nearly a year. Now he’ll experience it for the first time on Saturday.
“It started December 7 [the day he was hired], and everyone talking about this great rivalry and this game means so many things to so many people, both institutions,” Jones said of the importance of UT-Alabama, one of the South’s most storied rivalries. “It’s really educating our players on the value of this rivalry. This is what makes college football very, very special.”
And while the rivalry is deep in back-and-forth history, it’s been heavily lopsided in Alabama’s favor since coach Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007. Outside of a 12-10 win for Alabama in 2009, every game has been decided by the fourth quarter, with Alabama averaging a margin of victory of just over 23 points per contest.
The second half has been brutal against Saban-led Alabama teams. Tennessee has been outscored 116-16 in those six games in the final two quarters.
It’s been even worse for Tennessee the past three years. Under former coach Derek Dooley, the Vols lost to Alabama by exactly 31 points each season. The Vols scored a total of just three second-half points against Saban in the short-lived Dooley era.
“Going back to make these rivalries relevant, we need to start winning a few of these games,” said Jones. “But our players understand the challenge ahead and we have a tremendous amount of respect for what they’ve done.”
Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen has a unique perspective on Alabama. A four-year assistant coach at Auburn (2009-12), Thigpen coached and recruited against Alabama on a yearly basis. He was involved in another huge rivalry, Alabama and Auburn. He says this matchup is on the same level as that in-state feud.
“It’s just as big,” said Thigpen. “Our guys are really into it this week. They know it’s one of the biggest games of the year. Again, they’re the No. 1 team in America. You’ve got to get up for that game. And I think our guys will accept the challenge.”
As one of the few coaches with experience at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Thigpen is helping get this team ready for what they will experience in front of 100,000-plus this weekend.
“It’s probably one of the most electric stadiums in the country,” he said. “It’s one of the better ones in the country as well. It’s going to be loud. Their fans are all into it.
“What you tell your guys is this is the best of the best. This is what you play for in the SEC. You match-up with those guys, it says a lot about your program. That program, year in and year out, is going to be in the top five in the country and this year they’re No. 1, two national championships in a row. What better game to make a statement for Tennessee football?”
• Out: TE Alex Ellis, TE Justin Meredith, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, QB Nathan Peterman, WR Jacob Carter, S Max Arnold
• Limited: TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, TE Brendan Downs
• Wide receiver Josh Smith (hamstring) appeared to be back to doing a normal workload after working in the injury area on Tuesday. The freshman missed last week’s game, but Jones said earlier this week that he expects him to play this week against Alabama.
• The Vols worked inside for a majority of practice. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said that the ability to make it loud inside to simulate Saturday's condiitons was among the reasons the Vols were inside today.
• Quarterback Justin Worley continues to wear gloves in practice. Coach Butch Jones said on Tuesday that he’s wearing them to help with his grip, but it seems more likely to do with the fact that he banged his hand on a helmet in Saturday’s win over South Carolina. There's been no noticeable difference in his throws with the gloves on. Bajakian echoed Jones' statement on Wednesday, saying that it was just to help his grip.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga