Vols keep SEC hopes intact

Updated: October 26, 2003, 5:33 PM ET

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Tennessee needed a fourth-quarter comeback, five overtimes and nearly as many hours to keep its Southeastern Conference title hopes alive.

The 19th-ranked Volunteers (5-2, 3-2) dispelled any notions that they would fade out of the league picture following two straight losses with their 51-43 victory over the Crimson Tide.

"This was everything for us," Tennessee guard Anthony Herrera said. "It was now or never. If we don't beat Alabama, we don't go anywhere."

The Vols certainly didn't appear destined to go particularly far, dropping 15 spots in the national rankings with back-to-back losses to Auburn and Georgia while struggling to run and stop the run.

Then, Tennessee lost three fumbles in the first quarter, saved from a big deficit only by a defense that staged three goal-line stands through four quarters.

Casey Clausen took over after that, throwing a game-tying touchdown pass to Troy Fleming with 25 seconds left in the fourth to cap a nearly flawless drive. He then passed for three more scores in overtime and won it with a 1-yard quarterback sneak in overtime No. 5.

Clausen's most gutsy play, though, was a 29-yard pass to C.J. Fayton on fourth-and-19 in the third OT.

"Our coaches and players showed a lot of character," Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said. "These kids have been through a lot, and I think it's something we can build on."

Alabama's Mike Shula insists the same thing is true for the Tide, which has lost five of six games and taken three ranked teams down to the wire at Bryant-Denny Stadium only to lose. Tennessee is the first visitor to win three straight in Tuscaloosa.

"I just feel for our players," said Shula, whose team also lost in double overtime to Arkansas after blowing a three-touchdown lead. "They deserve better than this. You don't play a game like that if you're not mentally tough, if you're not physically tough."

Alabama enters its first open week after an injury-filled nine-game stretch that grew in this game. Offensive tackle Wesley Britt had surgery on a broken left leg Sunday.

Shula still likes how his team has responded to adversity.

"You look in their eyes, it's difficult yet it makes me feel good," he said. "We've got some guys on this team that are going to be part of our future, and our future is real good. A lot of people may not agree with me, but that's fine."

Tennessee's future certainly looked a little brighter, particularly offensively.

No team had scored that many points against Alabama since 1907, though the Vols tacked on 31 points in the extra sessions after trailing 6-3 at halftime.

Tennessee also showed a more balanced attack, running 41 times for 209 yards and passing 43 times for 283 yards.

The Vols executed a couple of trick plays well. Derrick Tinsley raced 28 yards on a reverse and James Banks took a shotgun snap and ran 25 yards up the middle for a touchdown in his first play at quarterback this season.

Clausen passed for 283 yards and four touchdowns, two to Banks, who showed plenty of playmaking ability in an offense that had been lacking just that. Banks was listed as the Vols' No. 2 quarterback entering the preseason.

"He's growing as a receiver," Fulmer said. "He's quite a football player."

The Vols must recover physically from a game that lasted seven minutes shy of five hours. They lost two straight and three of four after a six-overtime decision over Arkansas last season.

Next up is a homecoming visit by Duke, but after that the Vols play at No. 2 Miami followed by three league games against teams with losing records -- Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

"We're going to take this win and use it in all the games we have left," Banks said. "I never give up hope. We stick together."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index