By Eric Taylor
When former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer added Arkansas and South Carolina as the 11th and 12th team to the conference in 1990 so he could stage the first ever conference championship game, anyone would have bet the family pet that Alabama and Tennessee would meet in at least one championship game through 2011.
They haven’t met once.
Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer had a vision that many thought was blurred. It turned out okay.
Not only that, but the ‘Tide and the Vols have played in 60% of the championship games over the last 20 years. Just not against each other.
The Third Saturday In October has never become the First Saturday In December.
It’s not that they haven’t come close to meeting in Birmingham (host of title game 1992 & ’93) or Atlanta (host of title game from 1994 to present) in the previous 20 games. It’s as if Bear Bryant and General Neyland decided long ago to never let it happen and based on the way things are going in Knoxville, I may be writing this same article 20 years from now.
The closest the end zones have come to reading ALABAMA and TENNESSEE for the title game was the inaugural year of expansion, 1992. Tennessee and interim head coach Philip Fulmer had worked their way to a 5-0 record and a No. 4 ranking. Under Fulmer’s five-game reign as head coach, the Vols earned back-to-back victories at No. 14 Georgia and No. 4 Florida in Knoxville.
Then, Johnny Majors returned from heart surgery a week before the October 10th Arkansas game in Knoxville — a mere tune-up for the Third Saturday In October matchup versus Alabama. Arkansas had one win and it came against the other new member of the SEC, South Carolina. They had four losses — two of which came at the hands of tradional powerhouses Memphis and The Citadel.
Magically, on a typically horrible Jefferson Pilot broadcast that resembled something closer to a 1980s Dr. Who episode on PBS than anything football related, Philip Fulmer’s Tennessee offense fell into quicksand while the defense and special teams found ways to lose. And lose they did.
Arkansas quarterback Barry Looney floated left-handed off-speed pitches all afternoon that somehow found receivers instead of Tennessee defensive backs’ hands. The plan may have been to throw every pass so slow that — like a hitter in baseball looking for a fastball — Tennessee defenders would get way out in front of the pass and whiff on the interception.
Whatever it was, it worked.
Looney’s final drive was masterful and set up Todd Wright to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.
Arkansas won 25-24 and Johnny Majors went from 40-year University of Tennessee hero as a former player and current coach to an absolute zero in one game. People say Fulmer tanked the offense on purpose, but that’s a story for another day.
Tennessee tuned up for Alabama that day in Knoxville, but not in a good way. For five games the Vols couldn’t lose. After the Arkansas game, the Vols couldn’t win. The ‘Tide won the next week, 17-10, and South Carolina – who couldn’t beat Arkansas — completed the losing streak trifecta with a 24-23 win in Columbia.
From No. 4 in the country to losing to the two newest members of the SEC, Tennessee’s season was over. They never lost again after the South Carolina loss, but the damage was done. A 2-point conversion versus South Carolina or a missed field goal against Arkansas — only one of those two things had to happen — and Tennessee gets another shot at Alabama in the inaugural SEC Championship Game. Then again, if Tennessee wins one of those two games and wins the SEC East, does Johnny Majors ever get fired?
To take that one step further — if Florida doesn’t beat Georgia by two points and sneak in to Legion Field for the title game, is Spurrier as dominant at Florida? Probably. They were really good. They won the next 36 SEC Championships or something like that.
A strong case can be made that ’Bama and Tennessee were never meant to play in this game when we take a closer look at the 1999 and 2007 seasons, when both teams could have easily made it to Atlanta.
Sidenote: In 1996, 1999, and 2007, the team that lost the Alabama-Tennessee game represented their division in the SEC Championship Game with Alabama actually winning the title in 1999.
Tennessee’s 1999 team was even better than the 1998 team that won the BCS Championship, but once again, two last-minute losses — Florida by two and Arkansas by four – ruined the season. The Vols seemed to have ended the Florida domination with an overtime victory in 1998 and they hoped to start a streak of their own in ’99. Unfortunately, Florida won their 30th — and last — consecutive game at The Swamp (Coincidentally, Alabama’s defining moment of ’99 was ending the Gators’ home streak two weeks later). Down two points late in the fourth quarter, Jamal Lewis was stopped on a 4th-and-2 toss sweep to end the Vols’ hopes of getting in field goal position.
Alabama’s win over Florida in The Swamp gave Tennessee new life in the East, but the Vols’ trip to Fayetteville would be fatal to the season.
Clint Stoerner avenged this 1998 fumble against Tennessee the next year, sealing the Vols’ second place finish in the SEC East behind Florida.
The Arkansas loss was just pure Karma. One season after Clint Stoerner politely laid the football onto Neyland Stadium’s Shield-Watkins Field, Stoerner led the Hogs to a late-game win over the Vols to get the year-old monkey off his back. Eerily, Jefferson Pilot broadcasted this game as well.
With the head-to-head loss to Florida, the Arkansas game drained any hope of winning the East barring some miracle and there were no miracles. Yet, the ’99 Florida team turned out to be one of Spurrier’s most harmless teams. In retrospect, the miracle was the fact that Tennessee did not win the East.
All LSU had to do on the first Saturday in December was convince Les Miles not to move to Ann Arbor, beat Tennessee to win the SEC, and hope 46 teams ahead of them in the BCS lost. Check. Check. And check.
Don’t forget how Tennessee backed their way into Atlanta in 2007 while Les Miles and LSU tripped over their own feet — and two losses — into an SEC and BCS Championship.
Nick Saban, in his first season at the Capstone, and the ‘Tide had a 7-point lead over the Tigers late in the fourth quarter in Tuscaloosa — as did 10 other teams on LSU’s schedule — before losing the game in the final moments. A win in that situation and LSU probably takes the November nose-dive instead of Alabama.
Everyone in the college football world was waiting for the Les Miles lucky bubble to burst, but it never did. If it had burst in Tuscaloosa with a loss to the Tide, many believe the ‘Tide players would have finally bought in 100 percent to Saban’s system and not have lost to Mississippi State the following week. Or Louisiana-Monroe the week after that. Then Auburn the week after that. ‘Bama would have been in the Georgia Dome for sure if that had happened. But would Tennessee have been there?
Remember how Tennessee had to rely on a missed Bryant Hahnfeldt field goal to beat Vandy and went four overtimes with Kentucky before getting the victory to clinch the East? A loss in either of those games and a two-loss Georgia team would have been in Atlanta. Georgia was actually ranked higher in the BCS and a victory over LSU would have more than likely placed the Bulldogs in the BCS Championship Game.
If Alabama had beaten LSU and gone on to win the West, then based on 20 years of history, we have to assume that Georgia would have played in Atlanta. Hahnfeldt’s kick would have ricocheted inside the uprights to beat Tennessee and/or Kentucky would have scored a touchdown as time expired in the fourth quarter rather than kick the field goal to settle for overtime.
But wait. Alabama is only allowed to play Florida in the SEC Championship. That’s another phenomenon to explore.
On another note, the inevitable UT Buttchugger costume is here. Thanks to @willisrush who sent in this picture of his buddy in Dallas.