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Smoked ’Em: Tennessee Has Celebration for the Ages After Ending Its Alabama Heartache

Cigars were passed to players, coaches and fans alike in a surreal scene in Knoxville after the Vols finally got the best of Nick Saban.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—In this, the 105th installment of the Third Saturday in October, the smell of victory smacked you in the face. It burned the nostrils, filled the senses, watered the eyes. It rose like a fog over an orange-splashed field.

The cigars surfaced in all shapes and sizes. Long and skinny, short and fat. Lit and unlit (but mostly lit). Some were wrapped in gold bands, others in brown or black. Men and women smoked them. The older generation smoked them and the younger generation smoked them, too.

One man riding atop the uprooted goal posts—hauled out of the stadium by fans like a glittering white casket—smoked a cigar, as well.

It was a celebration for the ages after Tennessee smoked Alabama for the first time in 15 years in a thrilling, down-to-the-wire 52–49 win. And the Vols and their fans smoked ’em off the field, deep into the October night.

Josh Heupel smokes a cigar on the field after beating Alabama

Josh Heupel is now 13–6 at Tennessee, with no win bigger than Saturday’s over Alabama.

It all unfolded after one of the more epic slugfests in the long history of this series—a slobberknocker of offensive football in this new age of the sport, two quarterbacks captaining high-octane offenses and duking it out on a 70-degree day amid the Smoky Mountains.

Despite all the yards (1,136 between them), it took a kick, of all things, to send the Volunteers to their first 6–0 start since 1998. Chase McGrath, a veteran transfer kicker from USC, booted a 40-yard field as time expired that had just enough distance to barely hurdle over the crossbar. It didn’t matter that Alabama’s Byron Young burst through the center of the offensive line and got a couple of fingers on the ball. McGrath’s wobbly duck of a kick elicited one of the wildest field stormings you’ll ever see.

An orange sea wave of students crashed onto the Neyland Stadium field and overran a band of security officers to take down the goal posts, swiftly carrying them out of the smoke-filled stadium and into the booze-splattered streets of the city.

“The fans deserve this,” says Ryan Alpert, one of Tennessee’s deputy athletic directors. “It was a long time coming.”

The last time Tennessee beat Alabama, a man named Mike Shula was coaching the Tide and Phillip Fulmer was leading the Vols. Seven losing seasons and five coaches later, coach Josh Heupel, an offensive whiz and former Oklahoma quarterback, did the unthinkable—scoring 52 points on a Nick Saban–coached football team for the first time in 26 years. (You have to go back to Saban’s days at Michigan State for such a feat, as top-ranked Nebraska scored 55 on the Spartans.)

Quarterback Hendon Hooker shined in an outing that could thrust him to the top spot among Heisman Trophy favorites—right alongside his favorite target, Jalin Hyatt, who caught five touchdowns and finished with 207 receiving yards. No receiver had finished with three touchdown passes and more than 100 yards on a Saban-led Alabama team before Saturday.

It’s another startling statistic in a game full of them; more proof that Tennessee’s hot offensive start was far from an aberration. The Vols look here to stay. “This is just the beginning,” Heupel said afterward.

During the on-field celebration, Heupel was reminded of how special this rivalry is to Tennessee fans. He glanced up toward the stands to search for the cigar smoke. “This was the first game I heard about when I got here,” he said.

This is an improbable place for a program bursting out of more than a decade of doldrums. In January 2021, Tennessee fired a third straight coach, didn’t have an athletic director and had lost 10 starters to the transfer portal. Roughly 21 months later, the Vols took down the Tide (6–1).

The people who led the charge—Heupel and athletic director Danny White, both previously at UCF—shared cigars in the locker room. They smoked them long enough that Heupel didn’t emerge for his news conference until almost 90 minutes after the game ended.

How was the stogie? “It was dang good, man,” Heupel said with a smile.

In a confidence-inducing move, several entities supplied cigars to the team before the game, including Jay Cutler, the former Vanderbilt quarterback who owns a cigar company based in Nashville. Tennessee athletic officials were confident enough in Heupel’s team that they prepared a plan for a potential field-storming so players and staff were whisked away safely.

It was a madhouse afterward, as tens of thousands flooded the field, many of them puffing lit cigars.

“Smoke ’em if you got ’em!” yelled one man, blowing out a plume of smoke toward the chilly night sky.

“I can’t believe we won,” exclaimed another.

“I thought he missed the kick,” said a third.

Heupel’s squad nearly folded down the stretch. The Vols’ bugaboo—they sport one of the nation’s worst passing defenses—festered in the second half. They blew a 28–10 first-half lead and needed touchdown receptions from Hooker-to-Hyatt of 36, 11, 60, 78 and 13 yards—the final to tie the score with four minutes, 23 seconds left.

The Tide marched 43 yards, but kicker Will Reichard missed a 50-yard field goal to give Tennessee possession at its 32-yard line with 15 seconds left. Hooker found Ramel Keyton for 18 yards and then threw a dagger to Bru McCoy for 27 more to set up McGrath’s kick with two ticks left. He’d missed an extra-point earlier in the game. Approached by Heupel before the kick, he ushered the coach away.

“He gave me a look, ‘Get away from me, I’m good,’” Heupel said.

Tennessee fans storm the field after beating Alabama

Vols fans tore down the goalposts during the field storm.

As the kick fell over the crossbar—good by no more than five yards—Alabama’s survival hopes were dashed. The Tide won games at Texas in their season opener and  against Texas A&M last week by a combined five points. Saban’s club looked sloppy again Saturday, amassing a whopping 17 penalties and posting massive coverage misplays in the secondary.

In a wild postgame scene, Saban was ushered off the field by security, and the Alabama team had trouble exiting the stadium. Officers held back Tennessee fans as players loaded the bus. Back on the field, more than two hours after the game ended, Vols fans climbed atop what was left of the goal posts—a 12-foot high, orange beam jutting from the field. They swung from the top of it and signed their names onto its exterior. Security officers snapped photos of them, just hours removed from their failed attempt to protect the pipes.

Outside of the stadium, it was mayhem. More than 100 boats, part of the Vol Navy, partied into the night as they floated on the Tennessee River. And those goal posts? They made their way down Cumberland Avenue and into downtown, where a smoke hung over this town.

It was the smell of victory.

More College Football Coverage:

• Michigan Rout Reinforces Big Ten Pecking Order
Saban Rips Alabama Defense After Loss to Tennessee
Remembering Tennessee’s 2009 Loss to Bama