It has not always been clear what the Tennessee Volunteers were going for during the 15 years since they last beat Alabama in their annual rivalry, although it has always been quite clear that it wasn’t working. Since Phil Fulmer stepped down as head coach in 2008, the program has pivoted willfully if never very well through various desperate cycles of reinvention. Coaches came and went like overdetermined new hairstyles and increasingly grim attempts at growing a goatee.
There was a Lane Kiffin year, in 2009, which went about how you’d expect. The highlight of Derek Dooley’s three seasons was nearly winning a Music City Bowl; the lowlight was losing to Vanderbilt, 41-18. Butch Jones, unquestionably the most successful coach the program had during this period, won a TaxSlayer Bowl and an Outback Bowl; when his Vols were eliminated from SEC East contention in 2016, he said of his team that “they’re a champion. They’ve won the biggest championship—and that’s the championship of life.” Jones was fired the next season and eventually replaced by Jeremy Pruitt, who led the Vols to their first victory over an SEC West program in eight years during the 2018 season and was fired while under investigation for recruiting improprieties at the end of the 2020 season. During this time, the team lost its Third Saturday in October matchups against Alabama by scores of 41-17, 41-10, 37-6, 44-13, 45-10, 49-10 (Tennessee was ranked ninth at the time), 45-7, 58-21, 48-17, and, in head coach Josh Heupel’s first season in 2021, 52-24. The general vibe, for the better part of a decade and a half, was of a wealthy but troubled man buying, crashing, and glumly trading in one expensive sports car after another without ever bothering to learn how to drive stick.
But Heupel seemed different from the start, and on Saturday his Vols delivered what the brash failsons and jumped-up MAC hopefuls that preceded him could not. Behind a brilliant showing from grad transfer and Heisman frontrunner Hendon Hooker, who threw for five touchdowns, and receiver Jalin Hyatt, who caught all five, Tennessee’s high-speed offense outplayed and exhausted Alabama’s defense. The Vols sealed a 52-49 win with a Chase McGrath field goal that wobbled over the crossbar as time expired. The goalpost was repaid for its kindness as consequential goalposts tend to be, which is by being torn apart by a few thousand hooting college kids.
Yahoo’s Jay Busbee traced the last ride of those goalposts, one of which was left on the field because students couldn’t figure out how to get it out of the stadium; the crossbars of the other eventually wound up floating in the Tennessee River. This is how college football fans mark moments like this. There is no guarantee that any of this will happen anytime soon—Hooker is 24 and on his last year of college eligibility; he has already written a book called The ABC’s Of Scripture For Athletes. Given the context, and the broader circumstances of this rivalry in the last couple decades, the clear thing to do is dismember the goalposts on principle and don’t look back.
But there is another way that college-age people tend to mark moments of pressure and anxiety and physical overage, and it is both more common and more gross. With the clock ticking down below five minutes in regulation and each team trading long drives, Tennessee LT Jeremiah Crawford took a moment before the play to deliver a blast of Gatorade-colored barf onto the Neyland Stadium turf, in the general direction of the Alabama defensive line.
Again, given the circumstances, this was a perfectly reasonable thing for Crawford to have done. And while it was not the reason why Tennessee would wind up outlasting Alabama in this one—that is easier to credit to Hooker, and Heupel, and the team’s startling new fortitude in standing up to one Alabama push after another—you can see the victory in it. Not in Crawford’s Friedkin-esque wash of vomit, to be clear; that’s just gross. But after doing this gross thing, because his body could not do anything else, Crawford nods meaningfully in the direction of the Bama linemen he’s about to face down. It is very difficult to projectile vomit in a way that could also be described as “having swagger,” and yet that is what this is.
It is hard to know what this means, however meaningful it seems—are these nods saying “I’ve got more disgusting bile in my esophagus for you, bud” or “I am unfazed by my body being in open revolt against me at this moment, and so will have no trouble blocking you for another five minutes” or just “That’s right”? I choose to read it as some combination of the above, a reflection of the fact that Crawford sensed that he knew that he and all his teammates and the 100,000 fans there with them might all never barf like this again.