Tennessee had lost 15 games in a row to Alabama.
The average margin of defeat: 26 points.
Nick Saban was undefeated against the Vols as the Tide’s coach. He was the higher ranked team 14 times, entering seven games as the No. 1 team in the country. Only twice during that time had Tennessee come within one score of beating Bama.
But this was a different Tennessee team with a different mindset that faced the top-ranked team in the coaches’ poll.
The result: Tennessee 52-49 in one of the greatest games ever played at Neyland Stadium.
“We went into that game and expected to win,’’ said Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh. “I told those guys on Friday that `you have earned the right to be confident.’’’
Really? Confident? Against Alabama?
Golesh added: “You have to earn the right to win every week. You earn the right to win every week in how you control your process, in how we practice, in how we study film and the extra time it takes. There is a lot that goes into a win.’’
Perhaps the confidence came from previous results.
Tennessee had already beaten three ranked teams, two on the road. The Vols led the nation in total offense and the SEC in scoring. They are led by a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and the best receiver in the SEC.
They were undefeated and unafraid.
And they played like it against a disheveled Alabama team that committed 17 penalties and was outcoached and outschemed by Golesh and head coach Josh Heupel.
You don’t often say that about a Saban led squad.
So where did UT’s belief in beating Bama come from?
“Just confidence in the work we’ve put in,’’ running back Jabari Small said. “The way we were playing, it just gives us momentum and confidence just to keep going.
“We knew they were a pretty good team, but at some point, you get kind of fed up with just being stuck in the trap of always losing.
“The first step to winning is believing you could win, so that’s what we did.’’
Tennessee believed even after it blew a 28-10 lead and trailed 35-34 in the second half.
Tennessee believed even after a botched exchanged led to a scoop and score off a fumble to give the Tide a 42-35 lead with 7:49 left in the game.
Tennessee believed even with just 15 seconds left in regulation in a tie game.
The belief comes from hard work and results.
But it also comes from a culture change.
In previous years, Tennessee hoped to compete against Alabama, hoped to keep it close, hoped not to be embarrassed.
Heupel has installed an offensive system that basically says, you can’t stop us.
It’s a system that tires a defense, create mismatches and missed assignments.
It’s a system that seems to have an answer for any defensive scheme.
And it’s aggressive.
Many coaches would have taken a knee with 15 seconds left on their own 32-yard line and settled for overtime against the mighty Tide.
“It’s an aggressive approach in everything we do,’’ Golesh said. “It’s how we coach. It’s how we recruit. It’s the way this program has to be. We’re going to be aggressive in everything we do.’’
And what Tennessee has done so far is beat four ranked opponents, snapped losing streaks to Florida, LSU and Alabama and achieved a No. 3 national ranking.
Not bad for a coaching staff that two years ago inherited a 3-7 team in 2021, lost over 40 players for a variety of reasons and still has an NCAA investigation hanging over its head.