They should start keeping track of the number of people still living who think the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry means something. We lost another seven of them this week, I’m hearing.
Ah yes, it’s the third Saturday in October and the annual rite of fall between Alabama and Tennessee is upon us.
Oh, wait, this is the fourth Saturday in October incoming, and it’s time for the annual fall by Tennessee to Alabama – at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN in Tuscaloosa. This game quit being annually on that third Saturday when the SEC went from 10 to 12 teams and to West and East divisions in 1992. It has fallen on that third Saturday just 10 times from 1995-2020.
The series was truly great until 2007 when Alabama hired coach Nick Saban, who is 14-0 against Tennessee.
No. 4 Alabama (6-1, 3-1 SEC) is a 24.5-point bet by FanDuel to make it 15-0 against the Volunteers (4-3, 2-2 SEC).
Saban’s arrival at Alabama coincided almost exactly with the downfall of Tennessee football and the exit of coach Phillip Fulmer. Beginning in 2008, Tennessee has had eight losing seasons and two 7-6 seasons under six coaches.
Fulmer was 10-5-1 against Alabama from 1993 through his last season in 2008, including seven straight from 1995-2001, which was a period in which Alabama had five coaches. Of those seven straight, Tennessee won by an average of two touchdowns in six of the games. Fulmer also won the 1998 national championship, two SEC titles and three SEC East titles. Tennessee has not made the SEC Championship Game since Fulmer left.
While Tennessee has been building to 0-15 against Alabama, the Tide has lost to many other teams and truer rivals beginning in 2007: Auburn five times, LSU four times, Clemson twice, Texas A&M twice and Ole Miss twice. Tennessee has also not been able to do over that span what other programs have done once, such as Georgia, Florida State, Mississippi State, Florida, Utah, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio State and even Louisiana-Monroe.
As of 2007, none of the other SEC West-East permanent games have one of the teams winning them all, other than Texas A&M going 7-0 against South Carolina, but that one just started in 2012 when A&M joined the league. Missouri, the other newcomer in 2012, is 6-1 versus Arkansas. The other permanent pairings between divisions have LSU leading Florida 10-5 in the best East-West series, Georgia leading Auburn 13-3, Mississippi State ahead of Kentucky 10-4, and Ole Miss and Vanderbilt tied 7-7.
Not only is Alabama-Tennessee nothing like it used to be, it is the worst West-East series there is now.
“You talk about the historic nature of the football game,” new Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “Players that have been here understand the expectation and what this game means to people.”
Alabama players used the word “history” often as well, which is a sign that there hasn’t been much to his game recently.
“It goes way, way back,” Alabama junior safety Jordan Battle said. That’s also where it stopped.
“This is an important game for the alumni,” he said. Not necessarily the players, I guess.
How often do players bring up alumni, by the way? Not often.
“There’s going to be a lot of alumni at this game,” Battle continued. “We know how rich in history this rivalry game is.”
Do you get the feeling Battle was briefed by those who may have at least film of the last Alabama loss to Tennessee? That was on Oct. 21, 2006 – hey, the third Saturday – when Alabama coach Mike Shula lost 16-13 at Tennessee in a 6-7 season, which was Alabama’s last losing season.
“You can say it however you want to say it, but it’s significant if you don’t have success in the game,” Saban said.
Saban was echoing the late LSU coach Charles McClendon, who was once asked about how small a game was against a heavy underdog and said, “Lose it, and you’ll see how big it is.”
At least Saban sort of admitted that Alabama-Tennessee is insignificant because it is one-sided. But that could change quick.
So, Saban wants to keep hammering the Alabama-Tennessee rivarly into insignificant submission.
“Because it’s significant to a lot of people,” he said.
Unless it stays one-sided.