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Tennessee-Alabama 2021: A Reuniting of Old Flames — and the Extinguishing of Old Methods — in a Rivalry That’s Transcended Generations

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — This Saturday, Tennessee (4-3, 2-2 SEC) and No. 4 Alabama (5-1, 3-1 SEC) will meet in Tuscaloosa for the 104th edition of “The Third Saturday in October.”

Of course, the game this year is being played on the fourth Saturday of the month — just as it is most seasons.

This calendar-based technicality aside, Alabama leads the series 58-37 with eight ties between the schools. Of Tennessee’s 37 wins, one could argue the Vols’ two biggest came in 1982 — as Johnny Majors beat Bear Bryant in Bryant’s last game against UT — and in 1995, when Peyton Manning fooled everyone at Legion Field on a bootleg that sparked the Vols in a 41-14 drubbing in Birmingham.

But, as anyone can attest, the Vols are long removed from lofting Majors onto their shoulders, or watching in awe as Manning hit Joey Kent on “play number one.”

From the day Nick Saban was hired at Alabama, his team has accumulated a win streak that now stretches 14 games to none. In other words, UT has not toppled the Tide since Phillip Fulmer beat then-Alabama coach Mike Shula in 2006 before Saban came to Tuscaloosa.

My, what changes have unfolded since then.

In his years in crimson, Saban has won six national championships — tied with Bryant himself for most in Alabama history — to give the Tide 18 in total.

Meanwhile, Tennessee has slipped into mediocrity, rifling through countless athletic department and coaching changes that have gelled together to form one of the greatest soap operas in college athletics.

The most recent development in that drama may even steal the spotlight from this week’s matchup, as former Alabama assistant and Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt — fired from UT in January because of NCAA violations — has lawyered up and seems to be coming for blood.

Back to the game at hand, though: since Pruitt’s demise, Josh Heupel has found himself at the helm on Rocky Top.

He’s since rejuvenated Tennessee’s players and fan base, even if some of that response was inappropriate in an Ole Miss matchup that became a drama all its own.

But this week, despite how much UT fans seem to like him and vice versa, Heupel will still be a new face in an old rivalry filled with familiarity.

Reuniting Old Flames

The first and most obvious example here is Henry To’oto’o, the Alabama inside linebacker who transferred from Tennessee last season.

To’oto’o originally committed to the Vols in February of 2019, spurning Oregon, USC, Washington and, yes, Alabama in favor of what Pruitt seemed to be building on Rocky Top.

In the end, To’oto’o stayed at UT two years. He became a Freshman All-American, led the team with 76 tackles as a sophomore in 2020 and started all 10 games his second season before becoming one of several Vols to hit the transfer portal.

Since he’s joined the Tide, To’oto’o leads Alabama with 25 tackles after overcoming a shoulder injury sustained in Bama’s season-opening win over Miami.

“Henry’s a great player,” said UT wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. this week. “He’s a ballhawk. I’ve never been hit by (him), so I’ll guess we’ll see what that looks like.”

Tennessee running backs coach Jerry Mack also praised To’oto’o, saying that he does “a little bit of everything” for Alabama’s defense.

“When he touches you, you go down,” Mack said. “Really impressed with his style of play.”

Despite Mack’s praise, there appears to be no love lost from Vol fans to To’oto’o. In fact, they have have piled on the De La Salle (Calif.) product to the extent of pointing out that he wore a UT Nike bracelet in his first photo at Alabama.

As for Jones? It’s still a family affair, at least after the final whistle blows this Saturday.

“Competing against my brother, it’s going to be fun,” Jones said. “When you pick up, you communicate like you never left off. I’ll talk to him after the game.”

Aside from To’oto’o, another commonality between these teams is Tennessee defensive back Brandon Turnage.

Turnage transferred from Alabama this past offseason, and he has quickly become a valuable piece of depth for the Vols’ secondary.

In replacing Theo Jackson for his first start against South Carolina, Turnage racked up 14 tackles, two for loss, to garner SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

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After the South Carolina win, Turnage mentioned how he chose Tennessee because of its staff, and how that staff has impacted him since he’s been in Knoxville.

“They’ve kept it strictly one-hundred with me,” Turnage said. “Just telling me I would have to work for everything I wanted, and I was up for the challenge.

“It’s been a real great experience learning from these guys. They really know what they’re talking about, and I really feel like they have my best interest and still do.”

“(Brandon) is continuing to grow and learn in our system and get better each day,” added Tennessee DB coach Willie Martinez. “He's got a great attitude. He understands that the guy he just replaced in one of the games has been playing the best in the back end in Theo. But we can also move him around. Again, he's been trained at corner, so he’ll play some there. He'll play some at Star. He’ll play some at Dime. (The plan) is to continue to play him, and he's earned that.”

But Turnage’s benefits at Tennessee have stretched beyond the field, as he has had moments in the film room and with his daughter that emulate differences in UT’s culture.

And, as mentioned before, those representations couldn’t be further from the way Pruitt ran the Vols’ program.

Extinguishing of Old Methods

When Jackson knew he would be out for the South Carolina game, he immediately started peppering Turnage with help in the film room so the Alabama transfer would be ready.

That moment, according to Martinez, was a reflection on both Jackson and on the culture Heupel has brought.

“I think it's both,” he said. “It starts obviously with Coach Heup and what he's brought here, and as a staff, and we’ve been saying it from Day One, it’s holding ourselves accountable, but also at the same time, too, taking ownership of each other.

“Be accountable for everything you do. That includes myself and them, and they've done that since we've been here. Theo is obviously a great leader, someone who has a tremendous amount of experience since he's been here. He's been the most consistent player since Day One, since we've gotten here.”

Martinez added that he’s not surprised that Jackson has been coaching guys up, because that’s the way they’ve done things in practice.

“Within it, we tell the guys that if you're not in, you should be coaching,” he said. “That's how we do it every day in reps and on the practice field. If you're on the second group, you're watching what the first group is doing, and then make sure that everybody knows what they're supposed to be doing.

“Theo knew he wasn't going to play. Obviously he took it upon himself, just like he does every day in practice. Even when he's playing, he's coaching. Obviously that's the kind of culture that we want, and I can see a lot of it, because it's just spreading. It’s spreading among the group — in our defensive back group, but you can see it on the team, too, and the communication is a lot better than it was Day One, as it should be.”

That communication has sparked better results — not just because of the way players talk to and coach one another, but because of the way coaches work with the players individually and as a team.

“It’s really more teaching and less screaming and yelling,” said Jackson of the Vols’ coaches. “Guys don’t want to be somewhere where they get cussed out every day. It’s really teaching and having guys understand it better.”

That’s a far cry from Pruitt, who could be seen yelling during drills when the Vols practiced, or Saban, who has become famous for his tirades in workouts and during games.

The positive effect has spawned a new work ethic in UT’s players, as Jackson emphasized after the Vols refused to quit in the final moments against Ole Miss.

“That’s just us having the will to win,” he said. “We knew the game wasn’t over. We’re going to play every second and defend every blade of grass.”

Tennessee edge rusher Tyler Baron echoed the sentiment earlier this season when he said players are “just working harder,” while Jones — who muffed a punt that led to an Ole Miss touchdown last Saturday — said that, even after mistakes, positivity radiates from the UT bench.

“Everybody was positive,” Jones said. “That’s what I love about this team. Even my coaches. Just hearing that motivated me, actually got me pumped up. After that I had a chip on my shoulder, that I’d definitely make up for it.”

So this Saturday, when Tennessee and Alabama meet for another chapter of a storied rivalry, it won’t just be a few familiar faces in new uniforms.

It will also be Heupel’s new-age approach against Saban’s classic, no-nonsense style.

Throw in the combination of Heisman candidate Bryce Young, Tennessee’s new/old quarterback issues, the Vols’ talented running backs and secondary and Alabama’s vaunted receiving corps, and this year’s rendition could shake out to be another Shakespearean act by itself.

But then again, that’s every week in the SEC.

Cover photo via Jake Nichols