When Tennessee first lined up against UAB’s fledgling football program, the Vols were on top of the mountain.
Well, they would be within 24 hours.
On Nov. 7, 1998, No. 2-ranked Tennessee beat the Blazers 37-13 in ho-hum fashion. Top-ranked Ohio State was upset that day and when the polls came out Sunday, the Vols were No. 1.
You know the rest of the story.
Since then, however, UAB has had a knack for catching Tennessee when things aren’t so swell.
That trend continues Saturday at 12:21 p.m.
The Blazers are coming off a 34-33 victory over Troy, via a Hail-Mary pass on the game’s final play.
Tennessee is in the awkward posture of taking solace in the fact that a 31-17 loss to Florida was an improvement from a 48-13 drubbing by Oregon the previous week.
UAB is still a relative newcomer to big-time football, moving up to Division I-A (now FBS) in 1996. Tennessee had a head start by more than a century.
The Blazers’ second visit to Neyland Stadium was opening day 2005. The Vols were ranked No. 3 and thought to be championship contenders.
Tennessee survived 17-10, defending a UAB pass into the end zone in the final minutes.
That was the first clue the Vols weren’t going to be contending for championships. They finished 5-6.
When the Blazers came back in the second week of the 2008 season, they didn’t have to dispel any grandiose Tennessee delusions. That had been accomplished a week earlier in an overtime loss at UCLA.
In fact, a 35-3 UT win turned out to be Dave Clawson’s finest hour as offensive coordinator.
You also know the rest of that story.
So here UAB comes again. Just like 2005 and 2008, the Vols could very well end up a five-win team in 2010.
Furthermore, I would make the case that Saturday’s game will find the two teams with less separation than in any of the previous three meetings.
I’m not sounding the upset alert. Tennessee will be a pronounced favorite and should win without needing to execute a Hail Mary or — tip of the helmet to Michigan State — a fake field-goal in overtime.
Still, the playing field might be closer to level than you’d think.
“I don’t want to really compare our players to their players,’’ UT coach Derek Dooley said Sunday night. “We won’t really know until we see them in person.
“We’re very thin at every position and young at a lot of positions. Those two things are great equalizers no matter who you play.’’
The Blazers returned 17 of 22 position starters from a 5-7 club, although several junior-college transfers have cracked the lineup.
I don’t know how many players UAB has on scholarship but it’s probably more than Tennessee does.
At one point during UT’s first defensive possession against Florida the tackles were Joseph Ayers, a redshirt freshman walk-on, and Victor Thomas, who was originally ticketed to play center this season.
Two true freshmen will apparently start in the offensive line, likely flanking second-time starter Darin Gooch at center.
UAB’s roster is barren of Rivals.com Top 250 prospects from the past five recruiting classes. But that’s not a terrible disparity at the moment.
Tennessee has eight true freshmen from the 2010 Top 250 list. After that, however, there are only three survivors from the four previous classes: Janzen Jackson, David Oku and Jerod Askew, all from 2009.
If Gerald Jones is able to return from a broken hand, he’s the only other Top 250 prospect available.
UAB is 2-13 against the SEC, with wins over LSU in 2000 and Mississippi State in 2004. And I’m not suggesting the Blazers will be celebrating Saturday.
But this battle won’t be fought at the top of any mountains.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276.