TUSCALOOSA – Javier Arenas didn’t fully grasp how seriously Alabama players and fans take the Tennessee rivalry when he arrived on campus, or even when he boarded the plane to Knoxville as a freshman.
By the time he landed, Arenas had been educated.
“Everybody was quiet, focused, doing rituals and things of that nature,” the second-ranked Crimson Tide’s cornerback and return man said. “And I’m listening to Tupac singing out loud on the plane. And I got cursed out. They were like, ‘What are you doing, man?
“They explained it to me. I just thought it was Auburn. Auburn’s the rival, that’s what I thought.”
Not every Tide player comes to Tuscaloosa fully versed on the rivalry. Arenas, for one, is from Florida. Left tackle Andre Smith is from Birmingham but grew up following Florida State.
Quarterback John Parker Wilson, however, said the atmosphere is similar to the Iron Bowl.
“It kind of makes everything happen quicker,” he said.
One tradition that has gone by the wayside in the series for the players: Puffing on victory cigars.
Tide players didn’t get any stogies after last year’s 41-17 win.
“The NCAA said it was an extra benefit,” safety Rashad Johnson said.
SMELLEY TEST: Nick Saban finally gave in to his offensive coaches. The Tide coach said he and his assistants had debated playing freshman tight end Brad Smelley instead of redshirting him.
Smelley wound up catching a 16-yard pass on third-and-7 to keep a touchdown drive alive in last Saturday’s 24-20 win over Mississippi, his first college game.
“Smelley is a guy we’ve been back and forth on all season long, whether we should play him or not,” Saban said. “He does give us something athletically as a tight end and a pass receiver, and he can block and has a role. He’s the kind of athlete that really can help you on special teams. All those factors contributed to making the decision to go ahead and play the guy.”
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Smelley played quarterback at Tuscaloosa’s American Christian Academy. He is the younger brother of South Carolina quarterback Chris Smelley.
The Tide already has two solid tight ends, the blocker Travis McCall and the receiver Nick Walker. Walker ranks second on the team with 20 catches for 208 yards.
Smelley could give Wilson another big target.
“He’s a very athletic guy who can get open, has good hands and really good speed,” Wilson said.
Smelley was the 16th freshman to play for the Tide this season, behind only Florida State (22) and Miami (21).
ROAD SUCCESS: Alabama’s three most impressive performances have come away from Bryant-Denny Stadium leading up to the visit to Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium.
There was the 34-10 win over Clemson in Atlanta and victories at Arkansas (49-14) and at Georgia (41-30).
Saban, for one, doesn’t necessarily see a trend developing. He said the only differences are the travel and piping in crowd noise, which he said the Tide doesn’t do until Thursday’s practice.
“Other than those two factors, I’m not sure there’s anything different,” Saban said. “The players have to be focused on things they have to do and not get affected by external factors, whether it’s the crowd or the noise or any of those types of things.
“That’s challenging. And we’ve been able to do that fairly well in our road games so far.”