Entering their Oct. 15 matchup at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Alabama Crimson Tide were experiencing unprecedented success against the Tennessee Volunteers in the rivalry known as the “Third Saturday in October.”
Since 2006, the Tide had not lost a game to the hated Volunteers – 15 consecutive wins, in large part thanks to their Hall of Fame coach Nick Saban.
The Volunteers’ early success this season vaulted them to No. 6 in the AP Top 25, but it made little difference to oddsmakers, who favored No. 3 Alabama, the perennial contenders, by nine points.
A major contributor in the oddsmakers’ decision-making process was Alabama’s star QB and projected top-3 selection in this year’s NFL Draft Bryce Young. He missed the previous game with a shoulder injury, a 24-20 win against unranked Texas A&M in which the offense looked sluggish and hard-pressed to gain yards compared to previous games.
However, the Volunteers’ QB Hendon Hooker had also been putting together an incredible season, which landed him in the top five, odds-wise, for the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding player in college football.
The stage was set, then, for an electric affair between two elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses.
The matchup did not disappoint. Featuring 14 touchdowns, shattered school records and a walk-off knuckleball kick, every conceivable expectation for this game was surpassed.
Tennessee got off to a red-hot start, scoring three touchdowns in the first quarter and jumping out to a 21-7 lead.
The score was 28-10 with 11:41 remaining in the second quarter before Alabama woke up and realized this was not the Tennessee of years past.
In true Alabama fashion, they roared back to tie the game at 28 points with 11:11 remaining in the third quarter. From there, it was a back-and-forth contest that seemed as if it only could be decided by who had the ball last.
For each methodical ‘Bama drive ending in a short touchdown, the Volunteers had an answer, most often in the form of 50+ yard bombs from Hooker to receiver Jalin Hyatt, who ended the game with six receptions for 207 yards and five touchdowns, disintegrating the school record.
After a fumble was returned by Alabama for a touchdown to put them ahead 49-42, those 15 straight losses were weighing heavily on Tennessee fans’ minds. Yet, as the 2022-23 Volunteers proved, again and again, they are cut from a different cloth.
After a long drive to tie the game at 49 and a huge field goal miss by Alabama kicker Will Reichard, Tennessee got the ball back at the opposing 32-yard line with 14 seconds left. Two quick strikes by Hooker gained 50 yards, getting them into field goal range, where Tennessee kicker Chase McGrath knuckled in a 40-yard kick to give them the win 52-49.
In Alabama’s coach Nick Saban’s postgame press conference, he expressed his disappointment with his team’s play at the end of the game, saying, “Wish we could do some things a little different in the end…play a little better…played way too soft at the end to let them go down the field 50 yards to get into field goal range.”
Saban’s disappointment mattered little to the win-starved Tennessee fans, who understandably went nuts, storming the field and tearing a goalpost down, dragging it all the way to the Tennessee River and throwing it in, in a palpable release of 15 years of pain and anger.
When asked what this win meant, Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker perfectly summed these feelings up, saying, “It was a really surreal moment – very special to not just the team but the program and the fanbase as well…some tears were shed…it was a great moment for us and we definitely stamped our mark in the history book.