In this Sept. 14 file photo, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron (10) hands the ball of to running back T.J. Yeldon during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Texas A&M. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
The rest of the nation may see a top-ranked Alabama football team that has won three of the last four national titles and has turned its rivalry with Tennessee, once fiercely contested, into a series of one-sided routs.
The Vols just see red.
That’s the idea anyway, as Tennessee (4-3, 1-2 SEC) prepares for its game at No. 1 Alabama (7-0, 4-0) on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
The Vols chanted “RED!” as they wrapped up their stretching with jumping jacks on Tuesday.
When coach Butch Jones referred to Alabama by name on the wireless microphone that he totes around in practice, he quickly corrected himself to “the red team.”
Afterward, Jones downplayed the motivational ploy, saying it was “no big deal.”
But players said it was a way of tearing down some of the mystique that surrounded the nation’s top team, focusing players’ attention on the things they could control.
“Mentally, just by their name, when team’s hear that name, they’re mentally beat already before they step on the field,” said Tennessee receiver Alton “Pig” Howard. “I give them credit, but we’ve got warriors on our team as well. We’re ready to go to war.”
Tennessee has been buoyed by last week’s win against South Carolina that snapped a 19-game losing streak against ranked opponents. But the rest of the nation seems skeptical that the Vols pose much of a threat to the Tide, who have demolished six of seven opponents this year, enduring a scare only once against Texas A&M. Oddsmakers installed Tennessee as 28-point underdogs.
Recent history doesn’t offer much comfort, either.
Alabama has won six games in a row, all six years of the Nick Saban era, by an average margin of 34-10. The Vols scored only 16 points in the second half of those six games, mounting little resistance to Alabama’s defense.
“It’s the pink elephant in the room,” said defensive end Corey Miller. “You know what they bring to the table and how good they are. At the same time, they’re guys just like we are.”
Jones said he didn’t need to learn about the rivalry from others because he found out about it on Dec. 7 — the day he was hired.
Tennessee players — even seniors — have never experienced the high points, but they’ve endured plenty of the indignities.
Howard mentioned the Alabama players chomping on victory cigars.
“This is just a great rivalry,” he said. “That’s the history behind it.”
But as for this year’s installment, he’s tried to push the No. 1 ranking out of his head.
“I give Bama — the red team — their credit. They’re a great team, they’re consistent,” Howard said. “But we’re going to play our game. A lot of teams mentally get beat because they hear that they’re No. 1 team ... That’s not the case. We’re going to go out there and play our game and see what happens.”