TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Tennessee Volunteers came into Bryant-Denny Stadium riding some rare October momentum.
That quickly came to a screeching halt Saturday night.
Coming off their first win against a ranked team in nearly four years, the Vols were flattened by top-ranked Alabama. The Crimson Tide flexed their muscle in a 45-10 win and matched the second-largest win against their longtime rivals -- a 35-0 triumph in 1963.
"It hurts," Tennessee left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said. "You hate to take a loss like that, especially coming off a high like we did last week, but we've just got to be very critical of ourselves watching the film and very critical of ourselves during practice next week."
Last week, Tennessee rallied to upset South Carolina, two weeks after nearly knocking off Georgia. The program had its first 4-3 start since 2007, and the Vols showed growing confidence under Butch Jones, their first-year coach.
Tennessee's win also caught the eye of Alabama, which had mowed down its last five opponents by a combined score of 201-16, and the Tide came ready to play.
Alabama scored on its second offensive play of the game and led 21-0 after the first quarter. Tide safety Landon Collins stepped in front of Vols quarterback Justin Worley's wobbly pass and raced 89 yards to the end zone for a 35-0 halftime lead.
"That's what they do well," Vols linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "We know they can jump up on people real fast. We were practicing to just, if they do jump up on us, we've got to find a way to fight back."
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron threw for 180 yards and two touchdowns with just four incompletions, and the Tide ran for 112 yards and averaged nearly 8 yards per play. Tennessee was an abysmal 1-of-5 on third downs, and Worley, battling a thumb injury he suffered last week against South Carolina and aggravated in Saturday's first half, tossed two interceptions.
"We played our worst half of football that we've played all year," Jones said, "and some of it was due to the quality of our opponent and some of it was self-inflicted wounds. Everything kind of had a snowball effect.
"Every mistake you make against a good football team is magnified," he added, "and Alabama's a great football team. The results speak for themselves. That's why they're No. 1 in the country, and we didn't help it. We didn't help our own cause."
The margin could have been even bigger had Alabama tailback Kenyan Drake not fumbled a yard short of the goal line.
"It's tough," Vols right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We've got to find ways to get started better, especially on the road. We don't have 100,000 in Neyland screaming for us, so we've got to create our own energy."
With Worley hampered by his injury, Tennessee burned true freshman Josh Dobbs' redshirt in the second half. Rajion Neal picked up 43 of his 70 yards on the first play of the third quarter and later scored the first touchdown Alabama has allowed at home all season.
At that point, it was far too late for the Vols, which lost by 45 points at second-ranked Oregon in September.
"When you play a good team like this, the No. 1 team in the country, you get to size yourself up against them and see what you need to work on and things you need get better at," James said. "We've just got to take that from there and watch film tonight, watch film when we get back home, watch film tomorrow as a group. You'll see what you need to work on and build off.
"I feel like we'll bounce back. All those guys in that room are battlers. We're a complete different team than we were from last year and previous years. Nobody's going to break our spirit, and nobody's going to break our will."
In multiple instances, Jones called the loss "very disappointing," and though his frustration with how his team played and its mistakes was evident, he was proud of the Vols' second-half effort.
"The one thing I'm not concerned about is the resiliency of our players," he said. "They've been resilient week in and week out. We'll bounce back. We're going to come to work tomorrow, and we're going to work to be a better football team.
"We've got to get to a bowl game, and that's what we're pushing toward each and every day. I challenged our seniors, I challenged our leadership and you have to learn from it. It's unfortunate. I'm used to these, so you learn from it and you move on."
With plenty at stake in the season's final four games, the Vols have no choice but to move on from its seventh straight loss to the machine that is Alabama's program.
"What it does," defensive end Corey Miller said, "is just lets us know that we've got to bring our A-game week in and week out.
"I don't feel like it's deflating," the senior added, "because in the second half we showed exactly what we can do when we play good football. It's definitely a promising issue coming into Missouri and going into another hostile environment. It just teaches us we can do whatever we can do."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...