TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Alabama players surged back onto the field happily puffing on celebratory cigars.
The 11th-ranked Crimson Tide had plenty to celebrate minutes after producing an utterly dominant second half to keep their national championship hopes from going up in smoke.
Jalen Milroe passed for two touchdowns, Jihaad Campbell returned a fumble for a score in the fourth quarter and Alabama uncorked 27 straight second-half points in rallying for a 34-20 victory over No. 17 Tennessee on Saturday.
“Obviously a pretty fun second half,” Tide coach Nick Saban said.
With its national title hopes on the brink, Alabama (7-1, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) turned in its most dominant half of the season. And it came against a border rival who had helped end ‘Bama’s championship aspirations a year ago.
“This is the reason you come to college football to play in games like this,” Milroe said. “To have moments like this that you will remember forever.”
Cigar smoke wafted across Bryant-Denny Stadium in the aftermath, a long-standing tradition for the winner in this rivalry. Some players raced across the field to celebrate with the student section, and Saban made a beeline that way too.
The comeback was fueled by big plays from Milroe and tailback Jase McClellan and a defense that smothered Joe Milton III and the Volunteers (5-2, 2-2) after the half and even provided the decisive TD.
Saban said his halftime message was, “Everybody’s got to choose what they want.”
“And we went out and scored in two plays in the second half of the first drive and changed the momentum of the game and played really well from that time on,” he said.
Cambell took a scoop-and-score 24 yards midway through the fourth quarter after Chris Braswell knocked the ball loose from Milton.
The loss dealt a big blow to the SEC East chances for the Vols, who had built a 20-7 halftime lead with a huge start from Milton.
Their chances of a first win in Tuscaloosa in 20 years rapidly evaporated. The Vols had ended 15 years of frustration against the Tide, 52-49 a year ago on a last-play field goal.
Alabama got payback in the final 30 minutes of the rematch.
“It was personal,” Braswell said. “It was a personal game to us.”
Milroe completed 14 of 21 passes for 220 yards, with a 46-yard touchdown less than a minute into the second half and an earlier 10-yarder to Jermaine Burton. McClellan ran 27 times for 115 yards and a touchdown.
Milton was 28 of 41 for 271 yards — including 175 by the half — and two touchdowns. He also gained 59 rushing after completing his first nine passes.
Alabama turned Vols coach Josh Heupel’s second failed fourth-down gamble shy of midfield territory into its first lead. McClellan bounced outside and ran untouched for a 5-yard touchdown.
The Tide had a chance to make it a two-score game in the fourth quarter but had to settle for Will Reichard’s 50-yard field goal for a 27-20 lead with 8:17 left. The defense delivered the knockout blow.
Squirrel Wright sprawled out for a 39-yard touchdown on the opening drive and finished with 10 catches for 111 yards. He had eight for 105 by halftime, though.
Tennessee linebacker Elijah Herring said the Vols lost “that get it done mentality” in the second half.
“We just let go of that rope, felt comfortable, felt like we won the game already,” Herring said.
Tennessee: The Vols looked like a different offense in the first half, keeping the Tide off-balance. Milton turned things around after Texas A&M held him to 100 passing yards. Heupel’s fourth-down gambles and failures in the red zone cost the team.
“I felt like we had an opportunity to pick it up and obviously didn’t,” Heupel said of the gambles. “We gave them a short field and they took advantage of it.”
Alabama: Yet another slow start left Alabama down 13-0 and outgained 187-36 in the first quarter. The Tide looked like a completely different team in the second half, though. It was a big bounce-back from second-half struggles against Arkansas. Saban said cornerback Terrion Arnold suffered “a slight concussion.”
Alabama could well return to the Top 10 for the first time since losing to Texas — unless voters only saw the first half. The Vols won’t likely fall too far.
Alabama committed 17 penalties for 130 yards in last year’s loss to Tennessee. The Tide was flagged only once for 5 yards in the rematch.
Tennessee visits SEC East rival Kentucky on Oct. 28
Alabama has an open date before facing chief SEC West challenger, No. 19 LSU on Nov. 4