Too much cigar smoke? Not possible for Vols and Tide

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee receiver Bru McCoy enjoys a victory cigar amid Volunteers fans following last October's 52-49 outlasting of Alabama inside Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee receiver Bru McCoy enjoys a victory cigar amid Volunteers fans following last October's 52-49 outlasting of Alabama inside Neyland Stadium.

Alabama football coach Nick Saban never tires of enjoying victory cigars after games against Tennessee.

Enjoying.

Not smoking.

"I guess it's fun when you get the opportunity to smoke a cigar," Saban said this week. "I don't smoke, so I just kind of chew on one for a little bit, but I think games like this that sort of have special innuendos that go with them are good for the players and their relationships with each other when they do stuff like that.

"I don't think there is anything bad about it."

Saban experienced cigar celebrations during each of his first 15 seasons with the Crimson Tide, but that tradition eluded him last October, when Chase McGrath's 40-yard field goal as time expired propelled Tennessee to a 52-49 triumph inside a delirious Neyland Stadium. The No. 17 Volunteers square off at No. 11 Alabama this Saturday afternoon (3:30 on CBS) in the first meeting since.

Last season's thriller was the second Alabama-Tennessee experience for Volunteers coach Josh Heupel, who was happy to participate in a ritual that was established more than 60 years ago.

"I've been in trophy games before, but I had never been involved in anything quite like this one where the cigar is a part of the celebration," Heupel said. "My first memory was being in Tuscaloosa and being on the wrong side of it."

Alabama's 52-24 victory two years ago inside Bryant-Denny Stadium extended the longest streak in series history, with the 15 straight wins topping the 11 that Paul "Bear" Bryant racked up from 1971-81. The Vols had a series stretch when they lost only once in the decade from 1995-2004, but Saban's stranglehold on the rivalry coupled with Tennessee's pre-Heupel mediocrity resulted in this tradition-rich clash being relegated to second-tier status on recent occasions.

Then last year happened.

"To be honest, I didn't really pay much attention to this game growing up, but I noticed it quick when I got here," Alabama linebacker Deontae Lawson said. "I know it's a traditional rivalry and a big rivalry for the fans. Last year definitely woke my eyes up a little bit to see how big this rivalry was."

Alabama's 15-year run began with a 41-17 drubbing in Tuscaloosa during Saban's first season in 2007 and included three consecutive 31-point wins from 2010-12. There were only two close calls — the 12-10 decision that was sealed by Terrence Cody's blocked field goal in 2009 and the 19-14 outcome in 2015 — with several of the scores getting as lopsided as 45-10, 49-10, 45-7 and 58-21.

Saban was asked if Tennessee's streak-buster a year ago has led to more spirited practices this week.

"We've always had a tremendous amount of respect for Tennessee and their program," Saban said. "They obviously had a really good team last year, and they've got a really good team this year. I think the spirit comes from the challenge of what you have to play against and not necessarily what happened the last several years.

"It's a big game for a lot of reasons on both sides. It's relevant to the SEC and all kinds of things, so there are all kinds of reasons to have spirit about playing in this game, and I think our players certainly understand all those."

The magnitude of this colorful, late-October matchup even when Tennessee experienced down years is reflected by Saturday's showdown being the 20th and final time it will be televised by CBS (the network's deal with the Southeastern Conference is expiring). Yet games between these two programs were significant long before TV broadcasting rights influenced the sport.

"It was the first thing I heard about when I came here," Heupel said. "For our fan base, this is one that they point to. It's a historic rival, and obviously they always play it on the same weekend. The passion and the pageantry of the game and the excitement that surrounds it I think is really unique.

"Historically, it's had a huge importance on the SEC races and the ability to put yourself in the position to do the things you want to within the conference."

And after last year's classic and with both teams ranked in the top 20 this week, the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry is back and as healthy as ever, even if there is some cigar smoke in the lungs of underage folks.

"That's like the cherry on top," Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe said. "Having that cigar at the end of the game — there is no better feeling. The atmosphere up there last year was great, and our fans are going to be great this weekend."

Said Saban: "It's one of the best rivalries in college football and has been throughout the years."

No Small milestone

Tennessee senior running back Jabari Small reached the 2,000-yard milestone during the third quarter of last Saturday's 20-13 win over Texas A&M.

The 5-foot-11, 213-pounder from Memphis now has 389 career rushes for 2,006 yards (5.16 per carry) and 24 touchdowns.

"You're not really thinking about milestones when you're playing," Small said this week. "It's definitely something I'm proud of, but there are a lot more yards out there."

To become one of the top 10 rushers in Vols history, Small would have to equal the 2,364 compiled by Curt Watson from 1969-71. Travis Henry is the only Tennessee player ever with 3,000 rushing yards, amassing 3,078 from 1997-2000.


Recognizing Pearce

Vols sophomore edge rusher James Pearce Jr. was named Thursday to the watch list for the Bednarik Award, which is annually presented to college football's top defensive player.

Through six games, the 6-5, 242-pounder from Charlotte, North Carolina, has tallied 11 quarterback hurries, nine tackles for loss and six sacks.

"James is a young player who continues to get smarter and fundamentally has continued to sharpen," Heupel said Thursday during his final news conference of the week. "That's a huge part of why he's playing the way he is."

Bednarik semifinalists will be announced Nov. 13.


More Stormtroopers

The Vols will wear their all-white uniforms Saturday afternoon. Tennessee displayed its "Stormtrooper" look two years ago at Alabama and more recently last month at Florida.


Sunday showdown

One day after Alabama and Tennessee collide for the 106th time, the NFL has a prime-time showcase of Miami at Philadelphia, which will pit former Crimson Tide quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts against one another for the first time.

"I've never had two players who were really, really good players at the same position who actually supported each other the way those two guys supported each other when they were here," Saban said. "I think that comes from mutual respect and both guys being great team guys and putting the team before their own personal feelings. One guy went like 26-2 as the starter and got replaced by the other guy for a whole year and supported him.

"The psychological support that they gave each other in every circumstance is something that I think is really, really special, and I'm sure they have the same feeling about each other. I know they're great competitors, so they're going to do what they have to do for their teams, but I do think there will be a mutual respect by both guys."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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