Well, until further notice, forget next year. Watch as the best comes cresting this year.
After getting his eyeful, Tennessee Coach Bill Battle, who played end on Bryant's 1961 national championship team, said it is already the best Alabama offense he has seen. "Faster," said Battle, still shaken by the fourth-period blitz (and 524 total yards) that knocked his Volunteers from the unbeatens. "And more of 'em."
Of all those who have tried to put Bear Bryant under a pedestal over the years, Tennessee has been the most persistent. Bryant says it used to get to him and he had often "overcoached" against the Vols. One year, looking high and low for inspiration, he even decided to have all the Alabama dummies painted orange. All except one, he said. "I overcoached again, and got beat." In recent years he has been more relaxed around Tennessee and has widened his edge, now having won three straight. This time Alabama—unbeaten and second-ranked—was going off a 14-point favorite. "That's ridiculous," snorted Bryant, but deep down he undoubtedly knew better. He had his cigars bought. He had his specialty teams primed. "He's going to introduce his specialty teams instead of the offense or defense," shouted ABC-TV's Beano Cook in the press box. "Only Bear Bryant would ever think to do that." More important, he had turned Jimmy Sharpe and the offensive coaches loose to scout their own offense, and had done some restructuring.
Specifically, Bryant wanted more bite in his passing game. Tennessee is a fine offensive team, made in the scrambling, rambling image of Quarterback Condredge Holloway, who is more than slightly terrific, but defensively the Vols are hurting at linebacker and are suspect in the secondary. Vulnerable to the pass, they had given up 347 passing yards to Army, 394 to Kansas. Bryant has said all along that the Wishbone is virtually untapped as a passing offense and against Tennessee he showed what he meant. On the first play of the game Gary Rutledge faked his fullback into the line, and Tennessee massed at the bait. The play is not new in Alabama's book, but this particular tactic was. Suddenly the tight end, George Pugh, and the split end, Wayne Wheeler, were out of the traffic and beating it downfield, with only one unsuckered Volunteer, Jon Murdic, left to defend against them. Murdic made his first move toward Pugh, and Rutledge read correctly and threw to Wheeler, a solitary figure beyond reach, 80 yards, touchdown.
Alabama did not throw again until the second quarter. Bryant loosed his running backs (Wilbur Jackson, Randy Billingsley, Paul Spivey, et al.—they come in groups of three) to get Tennessee's attention ("You can talk passing all you want, but you won't be able to until you show you can run"). What they got, too, was a 64-yard touchdown drive. When it was 14-7 Todd came in and passed two for two off bootleg action—his fakes were exceptional—and raised the advantage to 21-7.
For a long time after that the game was a showcase for Holloway and his mischief—Holloway breaking tackles to complete passes, Holloway salvaging busted plays by improvising in full flight. By the fourth quarter Tennessee had earned a 21-21 tie, Holloway passing for two touchdowns and running for the other. Bryant got about as close as anyone to Holloway during that stretch when he shook hands with him immediately after the game.
Then, as sensationally as it had begun, the game was suddenly stripped of its suspense. Robin Cary, a dutifully inspired specialty teamer, returned a Vol punt 64 yards to a touchdown following a wedge of Redshirt blockers who ricocheted off one another like tenpins in their eagerness to cooperate. The crowd went wild, mostly with relief. Jackson, who wound up rushing for 145 yards and now is averaging seven a carry, turned a simple power sweep into an 80-yard run for a second touchdown three minutes later. The crowd went wilder, sensing the kill. A Tennessee fumble, a short Alabama drive and the third touchdown in five minutes, seven seconds. Wilder still and totally relieved.
Bryant would gag on the suggestion, but Alabama is now in excellent position for a run at an undefeated season. Of its remaining opponents, only LSU on Nov. 22 at Baton Rouge would seem a serious threat and, like a storm on an open sea, Alabama is a team that seems to gain strength and dimension every week. "These aren't just fine players, they're fine people," says Bryant. Alabama freshmen mingling with Alabama seniors; Alabama blacks with Alabama whites in a common cause—the national championship.