Tennessee vs. Alabama: 10 things every fan should know about the rivalry
The Third Saturday in October hasn’t always been played on the 3rd Saturday in October.
And everyone who knows enough about the illustrious Alabama-Tennessee rivalry knows that.
But the name is just so darn catchy. It grabs you. It screams importance.
Because when the Crimson Tide and Volunteers get together, sometimes on the third Saturday in October but always in mid-to-late October, it’s never not important.
No matter the records. No matter the current state of each proud program.
Just sometimes, like this Saturday for example at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, it seems to mean just about everything.
You’ll have the No. 3 team in the land in those wonderfully plain white road jerseys trying to break Tennessee hearts for the 16th year in a row.
You’ll have the No. 6 team in the land with 102,000 fans and an entire state behind it, trying to will a program that’s been down for a long time past a program that’s been kicking it in the teeth for, oh, a decade and a half.
It’ll be Alabama vs. Tennessee, and the stakes will never be higher.
But there is so much more to know about the Third Saturday in October. So much color and pageantry is packed into this particular SEC rivalry. It is so unique, no matter which exact date it is played on in October, and we’ll give you a crash course before Saturday.
Here are 10 things every fan needs to know about the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry:
10. Light up those victory cigars!
A guy named Jim Goostree injected some cigar odor into the rivalry way back in the 1950s. Goostree was the head athletic trainer at Alabama at the time, and he innocently started a tradition by simply handing out cigars after a victory over Tennessee.
Little did Goostree know what he had started.
Both programs kept the cigar celebration going for many years, but they had to keep the cigars and that funky smell under wraps because of NCAA rules that deal with extra benefits and tobacco products.
Bama restarted the tradition in a public manner in 2005 and preserved it by going as far as self-reporting a violation to the NCAA. As a result, in each of the past 15 years after the Tide have beaten the Vols, Alabama knowingly violates the NCAA’s rule, cleans up all its cigar ashes and then reports the violation in honor of the tradition.
9. A rivalry chock full of streaks
For a century and a couple of decades, the Tide and the Vols have seemingly traded runs of dominance over each other. And yes, Alabama has had more of the fun over that time, right up to its present-day, 15-game winning streak over Tennessee that’s gone in lockstep with Nick Saban’s arrival as head coach in 2007. Right now, at least for another few days, Bama can boast not having lost to the Vols since 2006.
But Tennesse has taken its turns, too. The Vols ripped off 7 straight wins over the Tide from 1995-2001, a run that included Tennessee’s national championship in 1998. Just before that, Bama had an 8-0-1 run in the series from 1986-94, which included its own national title run in 1992. The Tide also had their way with the Vols for 11 straight years between 1971-81.
Yes, Bama totally owned the rivalry throughout the ’70s. But a few decades before that, Tennessee did the owning and the winning and the bragging, going on an 8-1-2 run in the series from 1950-60.
And at the very beginning of it all? Well, it was Bama that got the jump on Tennessee when the rivalry was launched at the start of the 20th century. The Crimson Tide won 8 of the first 9 meetings before the Vols jumped in and took 5 of the next 6 meetings, and the insanely streaky nature of this rivalry was born.
The Tide hold a robust lead in the all-time series, 59-37-7, because their winning streaks in the series have been longer and more plentiful. But the Vols have had their moments, plenty of them, and Saturday just might be another one.
8. Birmingham, Bama’s home away from home
Before coming back to its real home of Tuscaloosa to play Tennessee every other year, Birmingham was Alabama’s home backdrop in this series. It was in Birmingham in the 1906 meeting where the Crimson Tide recorded their most lopsided victory over the Vols, winning 51-0 at the Birmingham Fairgrounds.
The home-and-home series between the Tide and Vols began in 1909, but when it was time for Bama to play host, most of those meetings came in Birmingham, not Tuscaloosa. By 1930, the teams had played in T-Town a few times, but then the rivalry took a long-term detour from Tuscaloosa.
For nearly 7 decades, between 1930-98, the Alabama-Tennessee game was not played in Tuscaloosa. It would volley back and forth between Knoxville and, yes, Birmingham. Years later, after those battles at the dusty Birmingham Fairgrounds had run their course, venerable Legion Field became the Birmingham backdrop for this rivalry in the odd-numbered years when Bama was host.
7. Uncanny coaching connections
Yes, Alabama and Tennessee hate each other, and you’ll see that vitriol displayed quite nicely on Saturday in Knoxville. But for 2 programs in the same conference who dislike one another so much, they sure do have a lot of connections, especially in recent years.
There was Bill Battle, Bama’s athletics director from 2013-17 who was Tennessee’s head coach from 1970-76.
There was Jeremy Pruitt, a former Crimson Tide player and assistant coach who was the Volunteers’ head coach from 2018-20.
There was Butch Jones, the Vols’ head coach from 2013-17 who was an analyst and assistant to Saban from 2018-20.
And there was Lane Kiffin, Bama’s offensive coordinator from 2014-16 who was also Tennessee’s head coach in 2009.
That’s 4 Vols head coaches since 1970 with deep Tide roots. Incidentally, Pruitt finished 0-3 against Alabama, Jones was 0-5 against the Crimson Tide, and Kiffin lost his only matchup with Bama — but only because one of the biggest plays in series history sealed a 12-10 win.
Only Battle beat Alabama, and he did it once, in his first season in 1970, before losing 6 straight times to the Tide from ’71-76.
You can also throw in Derek Dooley, now a senior offensive analyst at Bama, who was 0-3 against the Tide as the Vols’ head coach from 2010-12.
6. A raucous rivalry gets its name
The Bama-Tennessee series began playing on its traditional date in 1928.
To be precise, on Oct. 20, 1928, in front of about 8,000 fans at Denny Field in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide lost to the Volunteers, 15-13.
Legendary Tennessee head coach Robert Neyland, who only had a stadium named after him, was doing his best to block Alabama from its usual spot atop the conference standings. And 11 years after the Vols beat the Tide in their 1st meeting on their new traditional date, the rivalry was officially given the name Third Saturday in October.
5. Now, about Bama’s recent domination
No need to go too deep on this one, especially for Vols fans’ sake. But you might’ve heard that Bama’s 15-game winning streak in the rivalry has perfectly (or imperfectly, if you’re Tennessee) coincided with Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa.
And that, of course, is no coincidence, because while Saban has symbolized stability at Alabama over the past decade and a half, Tennessee has seen a turnstile of head coaches come through Knoxville. And not 1 of those head coaches has found a way to best Saban. It’s been loss after loss, from 2007 to 2021, and with a few exceptions it’s been downright ugly for Tennessee.
The combined numbers are gorgeous for Bama and ghastly for Tennessee. Saban’s Tide teams have outscored the Vols by a combined 589-201, which is eye-opening, eye-popping and outrageous. The average final score during this era has been 38.3-13.4. Of course, Tennessee has a wonderful opportunity on Saturday to flip the nasty narrative, at long last.
4. The Vols’ crossroads came in 2007
While Saban has been busy winning 6 national titles at Alabama, Tennessee has only finished a season ranked in the AP poll 3 times since he arrived at Bama in 2007.
There was 2015 and ’16, when the Vols finished at No. 22. And then there was 2007, the year things began to change in Tuscaloosa and Knoxville, when 1 program went 1 way and the other program went the other way. That Tennessee team in ’07 actually reached the SEC title game, but it still couldn’t beat Alabama, falling hard 41-17 in Tuscaloosa despite the Tide missing some key starters because of the textbook disbursement scandal.
Ultimately, the Volunteers finished with a No. 12 ranking in 2007 and, not surprisingly, that was the last Tennessee team to reach the SEC championship game.
3. Darkness rules, and no winner emerges
This game isn’t even recorded on the official Alabama-Tennessee Rivalry Finder, which shows that the first meeting between the schools came in 1903.
Actually, 2 years before that, in 1901, the Crimson Tide and Volunteers clashed in Birmingham. But the game was never finished, which is probably why it’s not recorded as an official game.
The matchup was deadlocked at 6-6, but it ended up being called because of darkness, since lights weren’t exactly a thing yet in college football or baseball or sports in general. That doesn’t mean the fans that day weren’t upset. A lot of them reportedly rushed the field in Birmingham to protest the outcome — a dreadful tie.
2. Two legends, 2 stadiums
Who knows what’ll happen to the name of Alabama’s home stadium when Saban walks off into the sunset. But for now, interestingly, the 2 coaching gods of yesteryear for these 2 programs have their names on the respective stadiums the teams play in.
There is the aforementioned longtime Tennessee head coach Robert Neyland, he of Neyland Stadium, which will be absolutely rocking on Saturday afternoon when the Tide and Vols get down to business.
And there is iconic Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, he of Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Vols’ recent house of horrors that will be waiting to host this rivalry again next October in the odd year.
1. Don’t underestimate the pure hatred
OK, from a Bama perspective, Tennessee isn’t Auburn.
And from a Tennessee perspective, Alabama isn’t, say, Florida.
But while Vols vs. Tide isn’t quite the signature rivalry of the SEC, it’s right near the top, for the sheer history, insane talent on both sides, quirkiness and … hatred.
Just ask anyone in T-Town or Knoxville, or the surrounding areas. These programs aren’t located in the same state or even in the same division of the SEC.
Or just ask ESPN’s Rece Davis, an Alabama alum who is the host of the College Gameday pregame show that will be coming to Knoxville on Saturday for the latest titanic showdown between the Tide and Vols.
“You think you’ve heard loud? You haven’t heard loud until you hear what it’s going to be like when they run through the ‘T’ on Saturday,” Davis said earlier this week.
“They think they’re back,” Davis said of Tennessee. “They are starving to be back because it’s not just beating the juggernaut. There’s a generation of fans who don’t understand the vitriol and the disdain and the hatred that Tennessee has for Alabama and, in many cases, vice versa.”