Late kickoff, LEDs bring energy to already-bitter rivalry


Photo courtesy of UA Athletics

The Alabama Crimson Tide has played only one night game inside Bryant-Denny Stadium in the last 712 days. The wait will come to an end with an added twist on Saturday when the Tennessee Volunteers visit Tuscaloosa.

Over the summer, 60 colored LED lights were added atop Bryant-Denny Stadium, in addition to 174 white LEDs that replaced a 30-year-old set. The project, which was completed in mid-August, was designed to enhance the fan and game experience.

The new lights include an instant on and off switch, and they are fully dimmable. The lights are also connected to a show control system, which will allow them to function in different scenes and effects.

Junior safety Xavier McKinney said he’s only seen the lights on Instagram but looks forward to seeing them in person for the first time.

“I think it’ll be great for the fans to have that type of lighting around in the stadium,” McKinney said. “I think it will create energy.”

Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne and president Stuart Bell expressed their displeasure with the lack of night games in a joint statement released in early September. The statement must have reached the SEC headquarters in Birmingham, as the Crimson Tide was scheduled for back-to-back night games against Tennessee at 8 p.m. and next Saturday against Arkansas at 6 p.m.

There is arguably no bigger game to debut the new LED lights. Alabama coach Nick Saban was not shy this week in describing the magnitude of this Saturday’s matchup with the Volunteers. He listed how much this game means to the people in Alabama, to the team and to himself. One of the most memorable moments of the rivalry was defensive lineman Terrence Cody’s blocked field goal to beat Tennessee in 2009, affectionately referred to by Bama fans as “Rocky Block,” which helped the No. 1 Crimson Tide stay undefeated and go on to win a national championship.

This week Saban used that as a reminder that no win is certain.

“That play was really significant in terms of that team and what that team was able to accomplish,” Saban said. “Sometimes in rivalry games, you have those kinds of tough tests. You have to be ready for it. You have to complete for 60 minutes in the game, and we were very fortunate in that game to be able to come out on top.”

The matchup hasn’t been much of a rivalry in recent years. Alabama has won 12 straight games against Tennessee dating back to the 2007 season, including the 58-21 rout of the Volunteers last season in Knoxville. The rivalry gained more intrigue when Jeremy Pruitt, then Alabama’s defensive coordinator, accepted Tennessee’s head coaching job in December 2017.

However, Alabama is not letting the long streak of success or Pruitt’s first trip back to Bryant-Denny Stadium get in the way of the task at hand this week.

“It’s still another game, but we know the rivalry and what comes behind playing Coach Pruitt and being familiar with those guys,” redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis said. “We know the pedigree of the game, but at the end of the day, it’s still Tennessee.”

The Alabama coaching staff and players are giving Tennessee the same type of preparation and respect they would any opponent heading into Saturday. Saban said the Volunteers “played their best game” in their 20-10 win over Mississippi State last Saturday.

Between the lights, the rivalry and the long winning streak, there is a lot on the line for both teams in the 102nd installment of the Third Saturday in October. Once the game starts, though, it’s just like any other football game.

“I feel like that’s all stuff that the fans look into,” Lewis said. “By the time we’re on the field, I don’t really be thinking about the lights. I might look up and be like, ‘Oh wow, that’s pretty cool,’ but other than that…”

Lewis ended with a simple shrug, showing that he’s here for the theatrics but he’s more ready for the game.