The cigars are waiting, tucked in humidors and desk drawers and glove compartments and pockets all over Knoxville.
They’re a tradition for the Third Saturday in October, the annual, perpetual, don’t-schedule-your-wedding-this-weekend date of the Alabama-Tennessee game. Begun in 1961 when an Alabama trainer passed out smokes to celebrate the Tide’s first victory over Tennessee since 1954, cigars are now the visible — and fragrant — sign of victory in a rivalry that dates back to 1901.
After a decade of mid-90s to mid-00s dominance, Tennessee hasn’t smoked a victory cigar since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, a 15-year run of futility in which Tennessee only managed to get within 20 points of Alabama two times.
That was then. This is now. Tennessee is finally as good as its fans always believe it is, a No. 6-ranked team riding a wide-open offense, led by a Heisman-contending quarterback, guided by a coach who’s years ahead of schedule in his bid to return the Vols to national relevance.
“This is why you come to Tennessee and want to be in this league,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said Monday. “Our players have earned the right to get to this point and play for this … It will obviously be a huge test for us, but our players are really excited.”
“Josh has done an outstanding job there. Their offense is probably one of the most explosive, if not the most explosive, in the country,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said Monday. “This is a really, really good team, a real challenge for us.”
Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker will be the best quarterback Alabama has faced since knocking Quinn Ewers out of the Texas game earlier this season. Ewers was in the midst of picking apart the Alabama secondary when he exited the game, and Hooker, possessing a quick release and zero-interception accuracy, has the ability to do the same.
Hooker stretches the field — his 10.2 yards per attempt ranks first in the SEC and third in the nation — and he’s the most accurate passer, by completion percentage, in the conference. As a team, Tennessee’s quick-strike offense has kept three ranked teams on their heels, forcing them to play from behind almost from the jump. The Vols have scored first in four of their five victories. Tennessee’s scoring-by-truckloads strategy will test Alabama like no other team the third-ranked Tide have faced this year.
“Their offense spreads people out and they take great advantage in spreading the ball around to all their skill players,” Saban said. “They take a lot of shots, and they convert a lot of shots.”
Alabama comes into the weekend 6-0, but only after eking out last-second victories over Texas and Texas A&M. Defending Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young’s availability and durability remain in some doubt following a shoulder injury two weeks ago that kept him out of the A&M game. Saban was, as expected, noncommittal about Young’s status on Monday.
“We’ll see how the week progresses,” he said. “I don’t have an update much more than that.”
On the other side of the ball, Alabama’s traditionally smothering defense has veered hard into bend-and-almost-break territory in the last two games, a newfound vulnerability that has Volunteer fans salivating over what Hooker could do.
“We don’t have to do anything extraordinary,” Heupel said. “We have to do the ordinary at a very high level.” That’s … sort of the definition of “extraordinary,” but Heupel is doing his best to manage expectations.
He’s probably the only one in the greater Knoxville area who is. This weekend will be the most hyped Third Saturday in the 21st century. This year is the first time Alabama and Tennessee have met as unbeatens since 1989, and both "College GameDay" and "SEC Nation" will be broadcasting from Knoxville. After setting early lines favoring Alabama by as much as 16.5, oddsmakers have caught up with Tennessee; Alabama is now favored by only 7.5.
At least publicly, the Vols are careful not to indulge in any of Nick Saban’s rat poison, the empty confidence of pregame hype. “Being complacent is a bad thing in any field that you’re in,” Hooker said. “Continuing to push forward and persevere through compliments or failures … continuing to do your job and focus on your goal is the main thing.”
“The expectations we should be concerned about are our own expectations,” Heupel said. “The reason our kids have gotten better is that they’ve continued to build, and paid attention to things that matter … The outside noise has no bearing on how we play.”
Come Saturday, that outside noise — in the 101,915-seat Neyland Stadium — will be impossible to ignore. Vol fans are ready to light up those cigars, and at long last, feel they’ve got an opportunity to do exactly that. This year, for the first time in a quarter-century, Tennessee-Alabama will have all the smoke.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.