Alabama's Rivals: Tide May Be Turning Away From Traditional Foes

Ingram WorleyCorrespondent IOctober 20, 2009

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 12:  Kenneth Darby #34 of the University of Alabama is tackled by center Ali Highsmith #7 of Louisiana State University on November 12, 2005 at at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)


Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines the word "relevance" as: "relation to the matter at hand," or "practical and especially social applicability."

When speaking on the matter of college football, and especially the rivalries contained within, relevance is a word that has taken on special significance.

For my entire life as a college football fan, and more specifically, an Alabama football fan, my rivalries consisted of two teams:  Tennessee and Auburn.

Regardless of preseason expectations, returning talent, coaching situations, or previous records, the games against Auburn and Tennessee were circled, and looked forward to for the entire season.

History plays a great role in the growth of a rival.  Geography plays an important, though less vital role as well.

Alabama and Auburn share the state.  For many years, the two schools represented the only major college football within the boundaries.  Though UAB and Troy have recently come into the picture, for most, the situation remains the same.

Fans within the state will tell you definitively that the Iron Bowl represents all that a college football rivalry should be.  Two teams that routinely occupy national importance, share a conference, and have more than a healthy dose of hatred have grown the rivalry, the "Iron Bowl," into a household name nationwide.

Tennessee and Alabama for years occupied the "Third Saturday in October," which the rivalry still claims as a title, though the game has not occupied that exact date for some time. 

The hatred is certainly there, and like the Iron Bowl, both teams are major college football institutions and in most years, at least one of the participants is involved in the national conversation.

However, the recent trends in college football place relevance ahead of rivalry.

While folks in the state of Alabama will always relish the late November date between Alabama and Auburn, national relevance has been missing in action for a long period of time.

The last time Alabama and Auburn met when both teams resided in the top 10 nationally was 1994.  You can safely tack on another year to that streak this year, which will leave the tally at 16 years. 

While the game will always be relevant in the state, the Iron Bowl has ceased to exist on a national scale of importance for the better part of two decades.

To put that fact in perspective, there is a fairly good chance that by the year's end, Alabama will be involved in four top-10 matchups.  For 15 years, Alabama has not faced Auburn when both teams were near the top of the college football mountain. 

The rivalry with Tennessee has proved no better.  While the game has produced many entertaining contests, the national picture generally is impacted little by the game.  While the rivalry has not suffered in the least in local fanfare, a matchup that in recent years has pitted two unranked teams has drawn little or no national attention.

Now, as an admitted Alabama homer, this could easily be construed as my "elitist" Alabama attitude downplaying the rivalries because of recent "down" years at Auburn and Tennessee.  This is not the case.

In fact, Alabama shoulders most of the blame in the last decade for the loss of national implications relating to the two rivalries.  From 1997 to 2007, Alabama (notwithstanding the SEC Championship year of 1999) has been far-removed from the national stage. 

Auburn's six-year winning streak against Alabama during that time saw many below-average Alabama teams, which further removed the game from national prominence.  Alabama's return to the upper-echelon has seen Auburn slip back.

During that time, LSU and Florida have emerged as the perennial conference favorites.  Claiming three of the last four National Championships, certainly the national attention has been properly directed toward them.

For forty years, LSU's spot on Alabama's schedule meant nothing more than that of Mississippi State, Ole Miss, or considering Alabama's dominance in the series prior to the mid-90's, even Vanderbilt.  But "relevance" has changed the landscape.

LSU's emergence as a national power first enhanced their rivalry with Auburn, but that has now shifted to Alabama.  The two have locked up in classic matchups in the last two years, both with national title implications.  Add to that the "Saban factor", and this has become the "can't miss" game in the SEC West. 

It has all of the hatred you will find in an Iron Bowl or on the Third (Fourth) Saturday in October, but when you add in the fact that both teams now generally sit in the Top 10, the game has become a rivalry in the truest sense of the word.  A very relevant one, at that.

Alabama's rivalry with Florida might seem like it has come about in the last 10 months, dating back to the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in last year's SEC title game.  Certainly, any game involving the top two teams in the country is bound to draw attention and give rise to a "rivalry."

The fact of the matter is that Alabama and Florida have met in the SEC Championship game in five of the 16 years of the game's existence, and seem to be steamrolling towards a sixth meeting. 

Couple that with Alabama and Florida's 1-2 ranking (again), and a rivalry, with or without the history factor, was bound to emerge.  It doesn't get any more relevant than that. 

I can remember a time (not that long ago), when Alabama fans could look at the schedule and assume that all would be right with the world if the Tide could beat Auburn and Tennessee, and let the cards fall where they may for the rest of the games. 

This year, even the most traditional of Alabama fans looked at the 2009 schedule, and found Auburn and Tennessee as the fourth and fifth most important games on the schedule.

Which brings me back to that word again: relevance. 

National relevance has dictated that Alabama has new rivals.  LSU and Florida are now the most important.  Tennessee and Auburn will still have their historical significance, but the games mean nothing more nationally than the games against Ole Miss and Arkansas. 

Alabama enters the this weekend's game against Tennessee as a 17-point favorite, where a seven-point margin of victory would actually be damaging to their national credentials. 

Alabama's total score against Tennessee and Auburn in 2008?


This is hardly the stuff that will have viewers in Texas or California glued to their seats. 

If Auburn can right the ship, the Iron Bowl might attract moderate national attention, but this seems unlikely.

Do not mistake this for an indictment of Auburn and Tennessee.  I do not mean that in any way.  But in this age of 24-hour sports stations and an overload of information via the internet, the games must mean more to maintain the intensity they have had for decades. 

It just so happens that this is Alabama's turn on top, and that lends little to adding relevance.  Today, Alabama's games against LSU and Florida just "mean more."

I guess you have to decide for yourself if you want "rivalry" or if you want "relevance."  It seems rare to have both.  For years, Texas and Texas A&M had a relevant rivalry.  Does anyone even pay attention to that game now? 

Texas' "relevant" rival is now Oklahoma, and sometimes Texas Tech.  What about Notre Dame and USC?  Rivalry? Certainly.  Relevance?  Not in a while. 

Even Miami and Florida State, which is arguably the most "relevant" rivalry of my generation, has been relegated to a second-tier game.  Army and Navy boast what most consider as the purest rivalry in sports.  That game hasn't been relevant in half a century.

I do not want to see the Alabama-Auburn and Alabama-Tennessee rivalries fade into irrelevance.  I wish that those two games were the most important on the schedule.  They aren't, and don't appear that they will be for a few years.  For the time being, LSU and Florida are the "circled" games, and the Florida game isn't even official yet. 

I know that these things are cyclical.  Auburn and Tennessee will certainly be back.  I just hope that Alabama stays strong for as long as that takes, so we can see some "relevance" back in the rivalries.







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