TUSCALOOSA | In its previous three games, the University of Alabama football team had come out of its locker room at halftime like a battering ram.
Saturday, it came out like a cruise missile.
Different weapon, same result.
AJ McCarron's passing helped No. 2 Alabama shake off a sluggish start, igniting a second-half explosion that turned a halftime tie into a 37-6 rout of the Tennessee Volunteers, setting the stage for a Nov. 5 showdown against unbeaten and No. 1-ranked LSU at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
It also marked the fifth consecutive win for Alabama in the SEC's most storied series.
"This game means a lot to a lot of people," UA coach Nick Saban said. "It means a lot to me."
The first half was a defensive struggle, with UT getting the better of play at times. It ended in a 6-6 tie, with the teams swapping field goals, two by the Crimson Tide's Jeremy Shelley and two - including a 52-yarder - by Tennessee's Michael Palardy.
"We were being outplayed," Saban said. "We were not winning at the line of scrimmage. We were lackluster, and that is worrisome."
All that changed in the second half, although it was the precision throws made by McCarron that opened the floodgates. The sophomore quarterback completed four straight passes for 73 yards, setting up his own 2-yard scoring run to give Alabama a 13-6 lead with 11:08 to go in the third quarter.
On the ensuing possession, Tennessee faced a fourth-and-1 at its own 39 and rolled the dice, attempting to pick up the yardage on a quarterback sneak. Instead, UA nose tackle Josh Chapman hit UT's Matt Simms in the backfield and he was stopped for no gain.
"We called time out right before that," Saban said. "They have a history of running the quarterback sneak in that situation and they wanted to run it with us in dime, not a lot of big guys in there. So we called time out, got the right people in there and our guys did a good job of penetrating the gaps.
"And a lot of times when there is a turn of events, a momentum change like that, it's not unusual to take a shot."
Alabama (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) took a shot - and connected as McCarron hit Kenny Bell for a 39-yard touchdown that upped the lead to 20-6 and put the Vols on the ropes.
Trent Richardson, who finished with 77 yards on 17 carries, scored two touchdowns and Cade Foster added a 45-yard field goal as UA pushed its final margin to substantial proportions.
McCarron finished the game with a career-high 284 yards, hitting 17 of 26 passes with one interception.
UA did not allow the Vols to make a first down in the second half.
Saban, however, said it wasn't a fiery halftime speech that made the difference.
"It really wasn't explosive," he said. "The players were emotional and they responded on their own. I challenged them to make a decision about who you are and where your passion and enthusiasm comes from. We didn't have any of that in the first half, anywhere. But we did in the second half."
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0225.