published Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Even Saban says UT is Tide's top rival

KNOXVILLE — Daniel Hood grew up in East Tennessee watching a rivalry blossom in the 1990s.

In the newly expanded Southeastern Conference, the early September meetings between Tennessee and Steve Spurrier's Florida teams became the rivalry for Hood, now a redshirt sophomore for the Volunteers.

When he stepped on campus as a freshman in 2009, though, that changed.

"Now being here," the 6-foot-4, 293-pound defensive tackle said, "I think the Alabama rivalry's more than the Florida one."

Neither rivalry has been kind to the Vols lately. Florida earned its seventh consecutive win in the series last month, and Alabama is going for No. 5 tonight in Tuscaloosa. Given what the respective programs have experienced during that four-year span, however, UT's losing streak to the Tide seems longer.

Since Nick Saban took over as Alabama's coach before the 2007 season, the Tide are 50-11 with the 2009 SEC and BCS national titles. The Vols are just 31-27 and have had three different coaches and an NCAA investigation.

"I think everybody knows who's on Bama's team, how much talent they've got and what kind of team they are," Hood said. "Saban's brought that with him everywhere he went, and that's what makes them a good team. That's what we want to be like."

Saban's powerful team might be hurtling toward a Nov. 5 clash with top-ranked LSU after an open date, but he has been publicly passionate this week. Frustration from questions about tailback Trent Richardson's Heisman Trophy campaign and conference expansion erupted in profanity during Monday's news conference. The coach said during Wednesday's SEC teleconference that he's faced more questions unrelated to the game this week than any other week.

"It's the biggest game all year to me when we play Tennessee," Saban said during his weekly radio show appearance Thursday night in Tuscaloosa. "I just lost it. It's important to me."

Tonight will be the 93rd matchup between the schools, but the last matchup when both were ranked was in 2005, when the Vols finished 5-6. The last time UT and Alabama met with both ranked in the top 10 was 1999.

But ask the players and coaches involved in the game, and the records and rankings are secondary.

"When you get the chance to be on both sides of it, it's truly a special, special game," said UT defensive line coach Lance Thompson, an Alabama assistant for four games against the Vols. "Both sets of fans are tremendously passionate about the game and about their universities. The players buy into that; they want to represent the right way. It's an important game to both programs.

"When you have coached on both sides of it, you hear both sides and what they think about the other group. More than that, it's the passion they have for their universities and two teams representing them. Now there's some bad blood through the years. That's part of it, but for the kids and the coaches it's a game where we want to go compete and represent the school the right way."

Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower -- a Tennessee native -- said the UT-Alabama rivalry might be better than the Tide's annual grudge match with in-state rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

"This game brings up a lot," he said. "A lot of people never ask what your Iron Bowl record is, but they always ask what your record is against Tennessee."

UT linebacker Austin Johnson gets similar questions.

"When [alumni] come and talk to us, all they say is, 'Did you beat Bama?'" the senior said. "If they have a reunion, 'Everyone in the room, if you beat Bama, stand up.' That just kind of shows that this is a huge rivalry. I want to be one of those people than can stand up and say I beat Bama."

Johnson gets his final chance tonight, and it might be his toughest. The Vols had a game-winning field goal blocked as time expired in their last trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2009, but that UT team, though also a heavy underdog, had four starters who went to the NFL and wasn't down four of its top players.

As the saying goes, however, anything can happen in rivalry games.

"I'm focused on this year, so we can't think about previous years," Hood said. "Records don't matter. Nothing matters when it comes to the Third Week of October and it's Tennessee-Alabama. You've got to come out and play with effort and toughness, you've got to play with discipline and you've just got to have that passion the whole game."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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