Tennessee makes case for No. 1 ranking with long-awaited victory over Alabama | Opinion

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – They poured over the walls. They engulfed the field in orange. They went for the goalposts.

The goalposts put up a valiant fight.

Finally, they fell.

So did No. 1 Alabama.

Rocky Top, on top of the Tide, for the first time since 2006.

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Amid it all, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel smiled and raised a fist.

No. 8 Tennessee 52, No. 1 Alabama 49.

Chase McGrath kicked a wobbly field goal from 40 yards through the uprights, igniting pandemonium inside Neyland Stadium.

After whispers the past few weeks of, “Are the Vols back?” it can now be loudly proclaimed.

Beating this opponent, and this coach, with this Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback removed the lingering doubt.

Yes, the Vols are back.

And now they should be ranked No. 1.

They probably won’t be. Too many voters in the AP and USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll are unwilling to shuffle down highly-ranked teams that don’t lose, so Georgia almost certainly will be in the top slot.

But if we base this on résumé, Tennessee (6-0, 3-0 SEC), should be atop the polls after slaying the elephant.

The Vols own the best win of the season, along with triumphs over Pittsburgh, Florida and LSU.

The poll that ultimately matters, the College Football Playoff rankings won’t be unveiled until the end of this month, and this will be settled on the field. Tennessee and Georgia will play Nov. 5 in Athens in a battle of the SEC’s new titans.

The eyes of college football were upon Knoxville for this one.

The Tennessee River morphed into an aqua parking lot as boats parked 15-deep along the banks.

Both “College GameDay” and “SEC Nation” broadcast from Tennessee’s campus. Talk-show host Paul Finebaum, a UT alumnus and the “Mouth of the South,” popped out of a coffin during a televised spectacle to declare the Vols’ program back from the dead.  

And Peyton Manning announced a passing of the badge.

The former Tennessee great earned the nickname “The Sheriff” during his NFL career, but there’s a new lawman within the hills of Tennessee, and his name is Hendon Hooker.

“Hendon Hooker is the new Sheriff in town,” Manning said on “GameDay.”

And Hooker is positioning himself to become Tennessee’s first Heisman Trophy winner in program history.

The Sheriff 2.0 matched Alabama’s Superman, Bryce Young, pass for pass in a dazzling display of offense.

Young kept counterpunching, and he nearly engineered another great escape.

Hooker found his top deputy, Jalin Hyatt, time and again. It was really a simple formula: Hooker to Hyatt, five times for touchdown passes.

Hooker to Hyatt, beating Alabama since 2022.

Put that on an NIL-funded T-shirt and watch them soar off the rack.

Alabama’s record said this was an undefeated Tide, and the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll said this was the nation’s top team.

But this is not a vintage Alabama team.

Once again, the Tide (6-1, 3-1) committed special teams gaffes, with penalties and dropped passes galore.

And Hooker abused Alabama’s secondary like Texas’ Quinn Ewers did in September before Ewers’ first-half injury allowed Alabama to prevail.

Here was one particularly unsightly Alabama sequence in the first quarter:

Penalty on a kickoff return.Holding penalty.False start penalty.Dropped pass.Dropped snap.Delay of game penaltyYoung lit up by a blitzing linebacker.Shanked punt.

Despite Alabama’s warts, though, it comes armed with a dose of magic supplied by Young, a magician at papering over the cracks.

A week ago, Alabama nearly lost to Texas A&M with Young sidelined with a shoulder injury. The reigning Heisman winner returned for this rivalry, and the Tide milked every ounce of moxie and magic it could from its maestro.

He danced and he juked in the pocket to avoid a steady wave of Big Orange pressure. He absorbed hit after hit. He threw for even more yards than Hooker, 455 to 385.

For all of Young’s wizardry, he didn’t have enough help.

Alabama’s Will Reichard missed a 50-yard field goal with 21 seconds remaining.

Too much time for Hooker. Two completions later, and Tennessee was in field goal range.

McGrath’s kick barely had enough, but it had all it needed to send the goalposts toppling down.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

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