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VOL. 131 | NO. 231 | Friday, November 18, 2016

OK Vols Fans, Do You Really Want Alabama Again?

BY DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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Be honest, Vols fans: Do you really want a rematch with Alabama in the SEC Championship game?

Alabama tight end O.J. Howard is taken down by UT’s Micah Abernathy earlier this season.

(Jerry Denham | The Ledger)

It’s a fair question given the current events in this strange college football season. Tennessee will be favored in its final two games, while SEC East leader Florida faces a significant challenge at LSU on Saturday.

Since the Vols own the tiebreaker thanks to their 38-28 conquest of Florida on Sept. 24, the combination of two UT wins and a loss by the Gators would send Tennessee to the conference championship game for the first time since 2007.

That’s the good news.

The bad news: The opponent would be top-ranked Alabama, the team that dismantled UT 49-10 in October at Neyland Stadium.

(An aside: Is it just me or do we go into every season saying, “Well, at least Alabama won’t be as good as last year … or the year before that … or the year before that …” and eventually conclude that, yes, this probably is the best Alabama team so far.)

I’ve heard from a number of Tennessee fans that want nothing more to do with Alabama. For them, deferring on a berth in the SEC Championship game is just the start.

They go so far as to say UT officials should request that the Vols be assigned a new permanent opponent from the Western Division rather than play the Crimson Tide every year. If not, what about petitioning for a move to the ACC?

As for the SEC Championship game, some prefer to avoid what likely would be a fourth UT loss, adding insult to all those injuries in what already has been a disappointing season.

Why not just go to a mid-tier bowl game and try to finish 10-3? That would be the fourth straight uptick in victories in Butch Jones’ four seasons as UT coach.

I understand that sentiment – to a degree.

Since the rash of injuries has continued for UT while Alabama seems to be gaining even more momentum, there is no reason to expect a different outcome if the Vols play the Tide again. Another 39-point whipping might be in order. Or it could be worse.

But …

There is still something to be said for claiming a share of the SEC East title, even in a season where the division is historically weak.

Among other things, it would be another benchmark in Jones’ brick-by-brick rebuilding of UT football. Remember, in the two years before Jones arrived, the Vols finished last and next-to-last in the division.

Bottom line: At Tennessee, you don’t run from competition. Sure, it looks like a mismatch, but you take your chances. That’s the nature of the game.

Say what you will about Jones (and I’ve heard quite a bit over the last few weeks), he doesn’t look for the easy way out. When he got hired at UT, some suggested he talk his bosses into buying out the game at Oregon in 2013, his first season.

Jones never said a word. He didn’t duck the Ducks. He dutifully took the Vols to Eugene where they were dismantled 59-19 by Marcus Mariota and friends.

If things fall right for the Vols, they will be accused of backing into Atlanta. And there is some truth to that. After consecutive losses to Texas A&M, Alabama and South Carolina, UT needs a lot of help.

So far, things have fallen right for the Vols. Florida’s no-show loss at Arkansas a couple of weeks ago got the Vols into this position.

Perhaps it would be payback for 1993, ’95 and ‘96 when UT’s only conference losses were to Florida, costing the Vols a spot in the SEC Championship game each of those years.

Besides, apparent mismatches have happened quite often in the SEC Championship game.

Everybody knew Florida was going to dominate Arkansas in 1995, and the Gators did the expected, winning 34-3.

Auburn was on its way to a national championship in 2010 when the Tigers battered South Carolina 56-17 in the most lopsided outcome in the history of the championship game.

It would be only the fourth time in the 25-year history of the title game that a team with three conference losses made it. But you know what? I don’t think LSU is going to give back the SEC championship it won in 2001 when the three-loss Tigers beat second-ranked Tennessee 31-20 in Atlanta.

LSU’s victory cost those Vols a berth in the BCS Championship game.

Look, there is no question that things haven’t gone the way many expected for the Vols this season. The great escapes of the early season were erased by the three-game losing streak that was capped by the inexplicably weak effort at South Carolina.

Throw in all those injuries. And don’t forget the ugly defection of Jalen Hurd, who might be the program’s all-time leading rusher by now if he had stayed the course instead of quitting on his team. One thing these Vols never lack is drama.

In situations like this, you simply line up and play the game. And if that means a rematch with mighty Alabama in the SEC Championship game, so be it.

Embrace the opportunity.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018 yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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