The Decline of the Alabama-Tennessee Rivalry

Christopher Walsh@@WritingWalshCollege Football National ColumnistOctober 22, 2015

Alabama has absolutely dominated Tennessee since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, winning all eight games.
Alabama has absolutely dominated Tennessee since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, winning all eight games.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Standing in the heart of the University of Alabama campus, you wouldn’t know that the “Third Saturday in October” is looming.

RVs are beginning to roll into town, and the Quad is being prepped for mass tailgating, but life goes on around Denny Chimes like it does during every other game week. There’s nothing to indicate that Tennessee will be visiting Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday.

That’s because it isn’t one of college football’s biggest rivalries any more.

“In my lifetime, it’s at its lowest point,” said former Alabama fullback Baron Huber, who has a unique perspective on the Crimson Tide-Volunteers series.

He grew up in Tennessee and at an early age was fed football stories from his grandfather, from Kenny Stabler spiking the ball on fourth down to the murmur in the stands when Paul W. “Bear” Bryant would walk out and lean against the goalpost as his players warmed up.

Huber also participated in some of the games when things were arguably the most intense between fans roughly a decade ago, and it had little to do with what was happening on the field. There were allegations and threats, lawsuits and a criminal conviction of an Alabama booster.

It was football’s version of a modern blood feud.

Yet, it’s slid into the current state of being a big-time rivalry, in name only, despite the stormy history that dates back in Nov. 28, 1901. When the initial game was called due to darkness with the score tied 6-6, spectators rushed the Birmingham field in protest.

That kind of thing was pretty typical in one way or another until Jan. 4, 2007, the day Nick Saban was announced as Alabama’s head coach.

Since then, only one of the eight meetings was close, “Rocky Block” in 2009, when the Volunteers were coached by Lane Kiffin, who is now the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator.

Not only is Alabama a perfect 8-0 in those games, but it has a scoring advantage of 283-95 in points, for an average outcome of 35.4-11.9.

The Third Saturday in October Since 2007
2014Alabama 34-20Alabama jumped out to 20-0 lead
2013Alabama 45-10Crimson Tide led at halftime 35-0
2012Alabama 44-13Alabama led 30-10 after third quarter
2011Alabama 37-6Tide scored three touchdowns in third quarter
2010Alabama 41-10After UT scored first, Tide dominated 41-3
2009Alabama 12-10Alabama never trailed, blocked two FGs
2008Alabama 29-9The Crimson Tide never trailed
2007Alabama 41-17At one point Alabama outscored UT 31-3
Compiled by the author

Tennessee has had the lead at the end of a quarter just once, 7-3 after the first quarter in 2010. 

In the 480 minutes of game time, the Vols have been ahead for just 11 minutes and 46 seconds. That works out to 2.4 percent.

During one game, the Tennessee student section wasn’t full, and more often than not the stands have emptied early. The tradition of the winning team lighting up cigars still exists, but last year a security guard in Knoxville yelled at the Crimson Tide players coming out of the locker room about it being a smoke-free area.

Volunteers coach Butch Jones has spoken repeatedly about making the games relevant again, but even if the Volunteers pull off an upset on Saturday, one has to wonder if it would really register as a rivalry win.

The teams don’t play in the same division, don’t recruit against each other like they used to, and about the only thing they have in common is that the athletic directors have ties to the other school.

The only players from Tennessee on the Crimson Tide’s roster are sophomore linebacker Walker Jones (who hails from Memphis, which isn’t exactly Volunteers territory), senior defensive back Jabriel Washington and two walk-ons.

From Alabama, the Volunteers have junior offensive lineman Dontavius Blair and redshirt freshman Gavin Bryant, neither of whom might play on Saturday.

That leaves the two obvious storylines of Kiffin and Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara. Kiffin made his first return to Knoxville last season, and only the media seemed to care, while Kamara, even though he used to be on the Alabama roster, never played in a game for the Crimson Tide and originally hails from Georgia.

Nevertheless, Alabama is favored by more than two touchdowns.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Tennessee,” Alabama senior quarterback Jake Coker said. “I’ve grown up watching those games, so yeah it means a whole lot.”

But Coker’s view is becoming more of the exception rather than the norm, especially with Alabama recruiting more on a national level.

Consider the comments by his teammates this week and what they said after towing the line and calling it a big rivalry game that’s important to the fanbase.

Running back Derrick Henry: “It's a SEC game. We're going to prepare for this game like we would any other team.”

Defensive end Jonathan Allen: “I didn’t even know there was a winning streak, to be honest with you. That’s the first time I’ve heard about it. I’d like to continue the streak, but that’s not what I’m focused on.”

Senor wide receiver Richard Mullaney, who transferred in from Oregon State, said no one even mentioned the rivalry to him until this week: “There was a story about something in the past. I'm not sure really about it, but I know it's a big game."

That story might have been about Bryant, who played on a broken leg and scored a touchdown against Tennessee as a player, or maybe the undefeated 1934 season when Tennessee coach Gen. Robert Neyland made his famous comment: “You never know what a football player is made of until he plays against Alabama.”

SEC Championships by School
SchoolTotalMost recent
Ole Miss61963
Georgia Tech51952-x
Miss. State11941
SEC (x-no longer in conference)

Perhaps it was the story of Bully Van de Graaff, Alabama’s first All-American, who made a lasting impression during the 1913 game. 

“His ear had a real nasty cut, and it was dangling from his head, bleeding badly,” Tennessee lineman Bull Bayer said. “He grabbed his own ear and tried to yank it from his head. His teammates stopped him and the managers bandaged him. Man, was that guy a tough one. He wanted to tear off his own ear so he could keep playing.”

For years, Alabama vs. Tennessee was arguably as intense of a rivalry as any because they were often the two best teams in the Southeastern Conference. To win the league, they had to go through each other, and the games were played with zeal and a sense of desperation.

Everything started to change when the SEC split into divisions, and the intensity carried over with Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. Crimson Tide fans will never forgive him for feeding the NCAA and Southeastern Conference information and making numerous recruiting accusations against Alabama, which helped lead to NCAA sanctions—followed by the lawsuits, Logan Young trial, etc.

But Fulmer was dismissed Nov. 2, 2008 and resigned the next day. Since then, Tennessee’s on its fourth coach, it hasn’t finished a season ranked in the Top 25, nor been bowl-eligible in three of the last four seasons.

Even if the Volunteers win on Saturday and suddenly surge back as a national power, the rivalry still wouldn’t be the same. As Huber points out, the digital age brought a 24-hour news cycle and a stronger focus on the here and now. Trends come and go with the blink of an eye, and this year’s freshmen were born right around the time Tennessee last won a title.

Consequently, students increasingly view the “Third Saturday in October” as their parents’ rivalry. They can’t relate to Gene Stallings playing “Rocky Top” in the locker room all week long, the scout team wearing orange jerseys or the five-overtime game in 2003 when Alabama’s enrollment was barely 20,000. 

It’s now up to 37,100, with more than half of the students hailing from places where they grow up with other legends, heroes and rivalries.

“It’s 100 percent generational,” Huber said.

The younger the fans, the less it means to them, even though this is one of the matchups the SEC has tried to preserve with the permanent cross-division opponent in the schedule. It’s a concept that appears to be more outdated with each passing year.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted, while the Bull Bayer and Neyland quotes are attributed to 100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, written by the author of this story.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.


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