Fast Start, Dominating Finish Propels Alabama Past Tennessee In Kiffin’s Return
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Five seasons ago, Lane Kiffin left Tennessee in the night after one promising season as head coach, angering an entire fanbase in the process. On Saturday, on an evening that at one point looked like it could be a special game for the Volunteers, he left them again in the night, but a differently than the time before.
This time? He just crushed them.
Making his first return back to Knoxville since 2009 on the field he once coached, Kiffin's offense raced out of the gates, slowed down halfway through, then turned it on again when it mattered most to help No. 4 Alabama take care of business in a 34-20 victory at Neyland Stadium.
“That was a heck of a game for both teams,” Saban said. “Rivalry games can be that way.”
With the help of Blake Sims and Amari Cooper, Kiffin, now in his first season as Alabama's offensive coordinator, scored 27 unanswered points to start the game in the first half, including an 80-yard connection between Sims and Cooper on the team’s first play from scrimmage. On that game-opening score, Kiffin even ran down the sideline himself.
“He told me afterward he almost beat me to the touchdown,” Cooper said with a smile.
Sims found Cooper again on the next drive for a 41-yard touchdown. Cooper set the Alabama record for receiving yards in a game with 224, the bulk of his yardage coming in a 185-yard first quarter. Julio Jones had the previous-best with 221 yards receiving against the Volunteers in 2010.
Tennessee, who was missing starter Justin Worley due to injury, played two other quarterbacks against Alabama, the second one, Joshua Dobbs, able to do enough to make the game competitive when taking over on the Vols’ third drive.
When Kiffin’s offense came to a lull halfway through the second quarter, Dobbs took advantage, passing for two touchdowns and leading the team to a field goal on another to cut the score to 27-17 with 5:52 left in the third quarter.
“We relaxed a little bit,” Saban said. “You've got to give Tennessee's guys a whole lot of credit because they sure didn't flinch and they didn't give up at all and they kept playing hard.”
But at that point, Kiffin’s offense regained the upper hand, converting four third-down conversions on a 13-play, 76-yard drive capped off by Derrick Henry’s 28-yard touchdown run just before the end of the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Alabama went on a 11-play, 78-yard drive that began at the 9:42 mark and ended with 2:29 left when Tennessee recovered Jalston Fowler’s fumble at the 1. Turnover aside, Kiffin’s work was complete.
“I don’t think it affected any of us. I really don’t,” said Saban when asked about Kiffin’s return to Knoxville. “Lane’s done a really good job for us all year. The players like him, respond well to him. He’s really a good coach, and I think all the people in Tennessee are pissed off at him because they know he’s a good coach and they were upset when he left. ...
“I can understand why they would get upset. I understood why they burnt me at the stake in Baton Rouge the first time I went back there after going to the Miami Dolphins and then coming back to Alabama so I get it. We all have fans that are that way, but I think we all have a lot of fans that really appreciate when people do a quality job. I’m sure there’s a lot of our fans and Tennessee fans that realize that Lane Kiffin is a very good coach.”
Sims went 14-of-24 for 286 yards and two touchdowns, as well as a 28-yard rushing touchdown at the start of the second quarter. Henry led all rushers with 78 yards on 16 carries. T.J. Yeldon scored on a 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Dobbs had 192 yards passing and 75 yards rushing on 19 carries to lead the Vols’ offensively in his first action of the season.