Alabama vs. Tennessee: The Rivalry Continues

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Alabama vs. Tennessee: The Rivalry Continues
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The series dates back to 1901. 

For the most part, since 1928, the tradition has been played out on the third Saturday in October. With today's scheduling issues, the game may occur on the third or fourth Saturday of the tenth month.

In this week's press conference, Alabama head coach Nick Saban was asked what it would be like if the SEC expansion included the elimination of the storied rivalry between Alabama and Tennessee. Saban replied, "Where do you all get your information? In fact, I've been told that rivalries such as this would not be discontinued." And from that point on, the press conference went down hill. Saban was clearly frustrated at even the suggestion of discontinuing such a tradition.

Nonetheless, it was a game worth preserving as an annual tradition when the conference split into Western and Eastern divisions in '92, and it would be worth the cost of preservation if expansion causes further scheduling conflicts.

In 1928, after a 14-year hiatus, play between The Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers became an annual football contest. In the early part of the 20th century, Alabama had achieved national recognition by traveling west in 1926 and '27, to challenge and defeat the established powerhouses in the west, programs at the University of Washington and Stanford University. Alabama won consecutive Rose Bowl victories against those western opponents.

In that game, the Vols defeated Alabama at Denny Field on Oct. 20, 1928, led by head coach Robert Neyland. The victory sent notice to the rest of the country that football in the deep South had truly arrived, and the boys in Alabama weren't the only fellas who knew how to play the game.

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In his excitement, during the post-game interview, Neyland famously asked the reporter, "I know we won the game, but what was the score?" And that is how rivalries get started. Games are highly anticipated and the victor is usually the underdog. The game took on even more significance in the following years.

Players that go onto greatness recall moments that changed their careers in particular games.

As a player, "Bear" Bryant competed in three memorable Bama wins from '33 to '35. The first outing unlocked a nine-year streak for the Vols on the turf of Shields—Watkins Field. Alabama scored two touchdowns in the second half to spot a win in the Tennessee fortress.

In the next edition of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, sports writer Bob Wilson wrote, "Like a storm that breaks with a wrath of destruction, The Alabama Crimson Tide, which rolled along in the first half, offering nothing more than a serious ripple, quickly turned into a roaring torrent that lashed our with devastating force down through the Tennessee Valley to submerge a courageous Volunteer craft under a 12 - 6 score".

In his second outing, Bryant was ejected for allegedly sucker-punching running back Phil Dickens, breaking his nose. As it later turned out, the punch came from another Alabama player (Bear was 15 yards away from the incident), yet Bryant never let on that he was not involved in the incident. His last game against the Vols is marked by his courageous effort, playing with a cracked bone in his leg.

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The great Ken Donahue participated in 31 games of this rivalry, from both sidelines; as a player for the Vols ('49-'51), as a Tennessee assistant coach ('56-'60) and 21 times as an Alabama assistant ('64-'84), only to return to the Tennessee sidelines as an assistant in '85 and '86.

From year to year, fans travel to the respective school's stadiums, garnered with flags and face paint to observe this memorable battle for bragging rights. Games are televised on grounds outside the stadium so that many who would be locked out of the gates have the opportunity to cheer on their team with vigor.

What's beautiful about attending the games is the intense passion exhibited by the fans. Entire stadiums filled with people, hoarse from repeating the beloved phrases of "Rocky Top" and "Sweet Home Alabama," urging the warriors on the field to battle for every inch of sacred turf, keep the players inspired for the entire game.

In Mike Shula's first year as head coach, the Crimson Tide were kicking and scratching for respect. The Vols came to Bryant-Denny following an embarrassing loss to Georgia, but still ranked 22nd in the country and hoping to remain in contention for the SEC East division title. UT was expected to win easily, despite being on the road.

In the first series, Alabama offensive lineman Wesley Britt suffered a femur fracture that necessitated intramuscular injections of morphine ampules as he lay on the field of play. As he was carted off on a stretcher, he fist-pumped the crowd as he passed his teammates and shouted, "Beat Tennessee, for me and everyone in this stadium!"

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The Crimson Tide led at the half, 6-3. The second half was wild, offensively, defensively and with special teams play. Casey Clausen was 2-17 in the second half of play, and the Vols were down 20-13 in the fourth quarter. But, with 1:52 left in the game, Clausen led the Vols on an 81-yard scoring drive, connecting on six of eight passes, tying the game at 20-20.

On the last series in regulation, Alabama's Tyrone Prothro scooped a short kick, carried it 38 yards and a face mask penalty against UT tacked on 15-yards. This placed the ball on the Tennessee 31-yard line. Brian Bostick barely missed a 44-yard field goal in the final seconds, sending the game into overtime. In the end, after five overtimes and numerous game-changing plays, Alabama lost to UT 51-43.

In 2006, Alabama traveled to Knoxville to battle the No. 7-ranked Vols. Alabama lost 16-13, in an extremely hard fought defensive battle. For Alabama fans, the defining moment for the Shula era was on an interception by defensive back, Simeon Castille.

Castille should have had a 68-yard pick six, but ran out of gas at the UT eight yard line, and was forced out of bounds by the Vol quarterback, Erik Ainge. The Tide had to settle for a field goal and never mounted a scoring threat for the remainder of the game. That game was Phillip Fulmer's last victory against Alabama.

The arrival of Nick Saban brought confidence back to the Alabama program and, in three years, he rebuilt national credibility into the football program of the University. Now, in his fifth year, he has brought back domination. But in order to dominate, you cannot let your guard down on any given Saturday.

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On the other sideline, the Volunteers are in a state of flux, a period of uncertainty that will be played out in a new season with a young coach, a two-year old staff and high expectations. Derek Dooley has certainly gotten the Vol fans buzzing with anticipation of a championship caliber team, but the Volunteer program is not yet vintage Tennessee football.

Quarterback Tyler Bray will not be available for the game. The Volunteer offense will have to step things up against their greatest challenge of the year, possibly of the decade. The Alabama defense is as talented as it has ever been and will not yield scores easily at Bryant-Denny.

Alabama is poised to contend for the West championship. First-year starter AJ McCarron is getting more and more competent running the Alabama offense and gaining confidence with every game. His ability to make the quick read and execute the correct call for the defensive set is improving.

McCarron has shown flashes of excellence, but game experience is limited and he has not connected regularly with downfield receivers. Success must come in this game. It is the last chance for real game action before LSU brings their talented defense in for a game that will have national implications.

There are no other questions for the Alabama faithful regarding their team. The backfield, offensive line and entire defense have experience and are determined to improve on the 10-3 record of the 2010 season. Anthony Steen may sit this game out due to injury. While the Tide has continuously experimented with different men on the line, they have had Steen to lean on for consistency.

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Prior to 2007, the Vols had been riding high with an 11-3 run. Fulmer had his faults, but he had Alabama's number. Hatred for Fulmer intensified with the NCAA investigation and fallout landing Alabama on probation, nearly producing a death sentence for the storied Alabama program. His dismissal by the Tennessee administration after the 2008 season didn't cause the water table to rise in the state of Alabama. He is not a welcomed visitor to the Yellow-hammer state.

The last four games have gone to Alabama. Four years ago, Saban's first Alabama campaign, the start of the game was overshadowed by a book scandal that left starters Glen Coffee, Antione Caldwell, Marlon Davis and Marquis Johnson on the sidelines. Saban made adjustments, took the momentum of the game early with a successful opening game onside kick, and never let up on the Vols for a 41-17 victory.

In 2008, the Tide rolled into Neyland Stadium and camped in the checkered orange and white endzone for a 29-9 victory, racking up 366 total yard to a paltry 173-yard effort by the Vols. That victory for Alabama spelled doom for UT head coach Phillip Fulmer. It was a humiliating loss for the UT fan base and a nail in the coffin of Fulmer's football coaching career.

The 2009 Vols bought the goods with Lane Kiffin and drank the Kool-Aid, but the young buck with the good looks and flair disrespected the Tennessee faithful by fleeing for the west coast after one measly season. Kiffin nearly beat the undefeated 2009 Alabama team in their own back yard. It was a season to remember for the Crimson Tide, and a season that cost more than just respect for the Volunteer program.

On Oct. 22, 2011, the tradition continues. The rivalry is as strong as ever. And, despite the beat down handed to UT last week by LSU in Neyland Stadium, don't think for a minute that Dooley won't have his team ready to play. The athletes at Tennessee play with a lot of pride and passion and they will pack their lunch for this road trip, as those before them have for almost an entire century.

This border war remains a highly anticipated event.

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