Tennessee vs. Alabama: Not Just Another Football Game

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Tennessee vs. Alabama: Not Just Another Football Game
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It’s the ninety-second installment in one of the SEC’s and College Football’s greatest rivalries.  Called the Third Saturday in October even if it’s not always played then, the annual matchup between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Crimson Tide of Alabama is one of those “Grandpa Games.”  It’s one of those games that you probably heard about first from your grandfather. 

Great coaches like Robert Neyland, Bear Bryant, Johnny Majors, Gene Stallings, and Philip Fulmer have walked the sideline of this annual matchup. 

Played every year since 1928, except for the World War II season of 1943, this game is a measuring stick for players, coaches and fans alike.  Tennessee trails in the all-time series which stands at 46 wins for Alabama, 38 wins for Tennessee and seven ties. 

The only time Tennessee has led the series was after the 20-7 win in 1960, which gave Tennessee a 19-win-18-loss-and-six tie advantage.

This year’s matchup will be played in Tuscaloosa Alabama for only the ninth time.  Tennessee and Alabama played in Tuscaloosa for the first time in 1913, a game won by the Crimson Tide 0-6.  The series in Tuscaloosa is tied at four wins apiece and this year’s winner will claim the lead with their fifth victory on the campus of the Crimson Tide. 

Most of the contests played in Alabama in this series were played in Birmingham; with the Crimson Tide leading the series there twenty one wins to fourteen wins, with six ties.   

There were many storylines surrounding the series in its early years from 1901 to 1914.  The first matchup was won in 1901 by Alabama and fans of both teams were so unruly the series was suspended for two seasons.   

Riots toward officials after the game in 1909 brought another suspended period and the start of the game was suspended due the protested use of an Alabama player who had played professional baseball in 1914. 

That game, won by the Volunteers, proved to be the last in the series until 1928 when both schools were announcing to the nation that they were programs to be feared. 

The series has become a ping pong match of late, with no team being able to post more than three straight wins since the Vols did it from 1998 to 2001 as part of a seven-game win streak.  Since the series restarted in 1928, the teams have traded three game win streaks or more, 11 times with the longest win streak being owned by the Crimson Tide at 11 from 1971 until the Vols 35-28 win in 1982.

The end of that game in 1982 saw the goal posts tumble at Neyland Stadium.  Tennessee had sent the message that they were no longer the whipping boys for the Crimson Tide. 

The World’s Fair was in town that season and after the game jubilation from the Vol faithful was unmatched by even the happiest child that’s ever been on a fairground midway. 

This one game was so important for the Tennessee Volunteers that the radio broadcast by legends John Ward and Bill Anderson were playing on the Volunteer Networks phone lines when callers were placed on hold during the 1986 season.  Tennessee overcame deficits of 11 and nine points and held off three passes into the end zone during the final minute to win the game. 

This series is played by men with intensity and desire that most people would find hard to understand.  A classic example of such willpower comes from the 1913 game where some say Tennessee tackle S.D. “Bull” Bayer bit the ear off of opposing Crimson Tide tackle W.T. “Bully” Vandegraaff. 

According to Bayer however, Vandegraaff’s ear had a nasty cut at its top, bleeding and dangling from his head.  The ear got caught on Bayer’s pants and Vandegraaff was so incensed that he jumped to his feet and attempted to rip the ear from his head. 

Teammates stopped Bully, however, and after a manager bandaged what was left of the ear, Bully stayed in the game.  Bull later remarked that he had never seen anything like it again in his years of football.  His opponent wanted to rip the ear from his own head so that he could stay in the game against Tennessee. 

As we near this weekend’s matchup and talk of this season’s teams flow from the mouths of broadcasters and fans do yourself a favor and stop to realize just what this game means.  It means more than this weekend’s final outcome. 

It means more than passing stats and head coach’s records.  THIS game, the third Saturday in October that will be played on 2009’s fourth Saturday in October is a microcosm of tradition and emotion. 

As Al Browning wrote, “It is a war of fierce intensity and many intangibles make it more colorful than the leaves that wave in the cool breezes when games are played in Knoxville and more hospitable than the annual pregame gathering of fans from both programs near Denny Chimes on the quadrangle when games are played in Tuscaloosa.  There is pride, at times too much.  There is respect.  And, of course, there is tradition, loads of it.” 

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