TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – They were told Saturday morning, a few hours before the game that would change their season.
Alabama's football players weren't given many particulars regarding the suspensions of five of their teammates, and truthfully, as they revved themselves up to face rival Tennessee, none of them really cared.
"It didn't faze us at all," linebacker Baron Huber said. "No one hit the panic button. Instead there was just this calm feeling, and we all had smiles on our faces. We were looking at each other like 'We're going to do this.'"
Not so fast, LSU – and pay heed, Kentucky and Florida. Alabama thinks it, too, deserves mention as one of the elite teams in the SEC following its 41-17 thwacking of the Volunteers.
John Parker Wilson threw for 363 yards and DJ Hall caught a school-record 13 passes in a victory that should catapult the Crimson Tide back into the national rankings.
So moved by his players' passion was Nick Saban that the normally gruff coach actually got emotional during his postgame press conference. Saban stopped short of shedding tears, but he had to pause a few times to gulp away the football-sized lump that lodged in his throat following his most impressive win as Alabama's coach.
"When you challenge somebody to do their best, and they do it, and you see how happy that makes them …" said Saban, stopping and looking down. "I don't think I've ever seen them happier than they are today."
ALABAMA 41, TENNESSEE 17
Offensive player of the game
D.J. Hall set an Alabama record with 13 receptions, but we'll go with the guy who was getting him the ball – John Parker Wilson. The oft-criticized quarterback (and older brother of 'Two-a-Days' star Ross Wilson) couldn't have looked more poised Saturday. He handled the blitz well, made smart decisions and ran with authority when he had to. Alabama is a top 15-caliber team when Wilson plays like he did Saturday.
Defensive player of the game
Cornerback Kareem Jackson had two picks Saturday, the second coming in the waning minutes against backup quarterback Jonathan Crompton. But Jackson's interception of an Erik Ainge pass early in the third quarter changed the game. Tennessee was driving on its first possession of the half and had passed midfield when Jackson snared the ball at Alabama's 10-yard line and returned it to the 34. The Crimson Tide converted the turnover into a field goal that resulted in a 27-17 lead. Tennessee never threatened again.
Best coaching move
Alabama's Nick Saban helped his team capture the momentum early when he called for an onside kick on the game's opening kickoff. Kicker Jamie Christensen executed the kick perfectly, and Tennessee couldn't come up with the pigskin. Instead it was the Crimson Tide's Demarcus Waldrop who recovered the ball, and Alabama capitalized with a field goal on the ensuing possession. "It was a tremendous momentum-getter for us," Saban said. "They have a tremendous offense and we didn't want them to start with the ball."
What this means for Alabama
The Nov. 3 showdown between the Crimson Tide and LSU could be one of the most-anticipated games of the college football season, especially considering Saban is LSU's former coach. Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson should be riding high on confidence following his brilliant performance against Tennessee. If he parlays that into another strong performance or two, Alabama could be one of the country's top teams by season's end.
What this means for Tennessee
Fans in Knoxville probably aren't too happy with Phillip Fulmer, whose squad suffered its second lopsided SEC defeat of the season. The Volunteers moved the ball extremely well against Alabama in the first half before wilting in the second. Granted, Tennessee caught the Crimson Tide on its best day. Not many teams would've beat Nick Saban's squad Saturday. Still, things could get ugly for Fulmer if his team doesn't regroup against South Carolina next week.
Alabama leads the all-time series against Tennessee 45-38-7 … The Crimson Tide set season records in pass completions (32) offensive plays (84) and points (41) … Alabama's 510 yards were its most in an SEC game since 2002 … D.J. Hall now has eight games with 130 more receiving yards in his career. With two touchdowns Saturday, Hall moved into second place on the Crimson Tide's all-time list with 16 … Terry Grant now has 697 rushing this season, a record for an Alabama freshman … Left guard Justin Britt returned to action after missing last week's game for personal reasons … Alabama averaged 7.9 yards on first down … Tennessee hasn't allowed a quarterback sack since the second game of the season. Quarterback Erik Ainge has attempted 253 consecutive passes without being sacked … Tennessee had a season-high 11 penalties Saturday, including six that resulted in Alabama first downs.
They'll probably be giddy tomorrow, too, when they see themselves tied with LSU for first place in the SEC West standings. Alabama (6-2, 4-1) has a bye week before squaring off against the Tigers on Nov. 3 in Tuscaloosa.
If it looks even half as good as it did Saturday, the Crimson Tide will stand a chance.
Alabama outscored Tennessee 17-0 after intermission and nearly doubled the Volunteers in time of possession. Wilson completed 32 of his 46 passes without an interception, and tailback Terry Grant rushed for 104 yards behind an offensive line that was playing without suspended starters Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis.
The players were among five suspended for a violation involving "impermissible receipt of textbooks."
"We could've went belly-up today and said, 'How can we play? We've got five guys suspended,'" Saban told reporters. "I'm sure that's what you (reporters) would've liked us to do, but we're not going to do that."
Saban said he wasn't sure if the suspended players – which also include running back Glen Coffee and defensive backs Marquis Johnson and Chris Rogers – would return for Alabama's next game. Asked if their absence could create a "lingering problem" for the Crimson Tide, Saban went on a rant that measured about 6.9 on the Gundy Scale.
"You guys might want to make this a big deal, but it isn't a big deal to me – just like it wasn't a big deal to the guys who went and got an opportunity to play," Saban said. "They played great. It ain't a problem. I know you're going to make it one, but it ain't a problem for me, just like it wasn't a problem for those guys out there today."
Indeed, the biggest losses were the two offensive linemen, yet Alabama didn't seem to have much trouble moving the ball against Tennessee (4-3, 2-2).
Wilson remained calm in the pocket, often floating dump passes over the heads of blitzing defenders, and Hall was nearly unstoppable when he lined up in the slot. Ten of Hall's catches came in the first half.
"They weren't covering him," Wilson said. "I don't know what they were doing."
As well as his team had played, Saban was actually furious at intermission thanks to a special teams blunder and a personal foul penalty that enabled Tennessee to kick a field goal as time expired. Instead of a 10-point cushion, the Crimson Tide only led 24-17.
"I was walking up the tunnel and I looked at (a teammate) and said, 'That's the last three points they're going to score, '" defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "It's kinda scary, knowing you have the ability to make a statement like that and uphold it."
The game's turning point came early in the third quarter, when cornerback Kareem Jackson thwarted an impressive Tennessee drive by picking off Erik Ainge's pass at the Crimson Tide's 10-yard line. Jackson had two picks Saturday.
Alabama converted the turnover into a field goal that made it 27-17 – and it was 30-17 when Leigh Tiffin kicked his third of four field goals near the end of the third quarter.
Tennessee never threatened again against a Crimson Tide squad that ran 84 plays compared to the 57 by the Volunteers. Alabama also benefited from 11 Tennessee penalties – including six that resulted in a first down.
"We practiced really well this week," Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Maybe we need to practice crappy and play better."
Tennessee plays host to South Carolina next week. Alabama, meanwhile, will hold off on its LSU preparations for a few days so it can enjoy this victory. Even Saban admitted to being a little more jacked than he's been in the past.
ou get as old as I am you can't get fired up all the time or you might not make it through," Saban said. "I thought my intensity might help them keep theirs."
For Alabama, Saturday ended a streak of five games in which the score was decided by seven or fewer points. Still, even though the outcome wasn't decided on the final play, Crimson Tide players said it was an afternoon they'll never forget.
Wilson recalled a pregame conversation he had with offensive coordinator and former University of Texas quarterback Major Applewhite.
"He talked about how this could be one of those games where, 10 years from now, people will still be coming up to you to talk about," Wilson said. "I definitely think that's going to be the case."
Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.