Is Alabama-Tennessee even a rivalry anymore?
The Alabama-Tennessee series is one of the best rivalries in sports. It is the creme de la creme of matchups in the SEC. It is one of the best matchups up in all of sports. No, it’s not.
The Alabama-Tennessee series has become just that — a series. It’s no longer a rivalry. It’s just a game. Why? It’s become so incredibly one-sided. Do Alabama fans look at Tennessee as a rival? Probably not.
Alabama is the No. 4 team in the nation. Tennessee is one of the teams in the nation.
Alabama and Tennessee football are on such different planes of existence that this game isn’t really a rivalry anymore. That’s painful to say but it’s true. Alabama is competing for a national title on an annual basis. The Vols are usually just battling with other programs to find a competent coach, which it appears they’ve finally done after a decade. That could change things. We’ll see.
Also, Alabama has Auburn as its chief rival. That has always been the case. There’s a reason the matchup is called “The Iron Bowl” even though it isn’t actually a bowl game at all. The Tigers held their own in the Alabama series. Auburn has had its issues recently but Tennessee’s troubles over the past decade make Auburn look like the New York Yankees of the SEC. Tennessee’s struggles over the past 10 years have made the Alabama-Tennessee game just another game. How long will that last? Perhaps forever.
The Tennessee-Vanderbilt series used to be the biggest game on the schedule for the Vols. The Commodores, not Alabama, were once UT’s biggest rival. Legendary coach General Robert Neyland was hired primarily to beat Vanderbilt, which he eventually did on a routine basis.
There was some give and take between the teams after Neyland hung up his coaching whistle in 1962. The Vols still dominated the series after Neyland left, but Vandy won just enough games against UT to keep that deep-seeded hatred of Vandy alive. That all changed beginning in 1983. Led by head coaches Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer, the Vols had one of the longest winning streaks in the nation over any team when they won 22 consecutive games against Vandy, which finally beat the Vols in 2005.
That win, however, didn’t make the series a rivalry again. An entire generation of fans viewed Vanderbilt’s program as a joke because, well, they were. Vandy beat the Vols in 2005 and the series has been competitive since. Vandy has beaten the Vols 6 times since 2005. That’s enough to return the series into a rivalry again, right? Nope, not even close. The Tennessee-Vanderbilt game will never have the same feel it once did.
The Alabama-Tennessee series may soon suffer the same fate. Alabama has dominated the series, beating Tennessee 14 consecutive times. Most of the games haven’t been close as Bama has been on one of the most impressive runs in any sport. That dominance shows no sign of changing until Bama head coach Nick Saban decides to replace the gridiron with lake life. Saban’s retirement seems like the only thing that could actually make this series a rivalry again. Then, perhaps Tennessee could beat Alabama and things could return to normal. Maybe not.
The Tennessee-Vanderbilt series has never regained its rivalry status from the Vols’ perspective. UT so thoroughly dominated the Commodores that a win is just expected. The Alabama-Tennessee series feels the same way, except it’s Tide fans who expect the win. Sure, the Vols may finally have the right coach in place, Saban may retire and the Vols might actually beat Alabama, but there’s no guarantee that the Alabama-Tennessee series will ever be the same. That’s sad but true.
The SEC will have some say in the series/rivalry since they added Texas and Oklahoma. No one knows just how the new SEC will be aligned. There has been talk of going to a pod system. Nevertheless, drastic changes are on the way. Those are the type of changes that could end the annual series that was once commonly called, “The Third Saturday in October.” If Alabama and Tennessee don’t play every season, then the series loses its luster no matter how many times Saban beats the Vols. Still, that extended streak only throws dirt on the rivalry.
The Alabama-Tennessee series has always been streaky. However, this doesn’t feel like the past. This run by the Crimson Tide has been much more dominant than ever before. Only 2 games during Alabama’s 14-game win streak have been decided by less than a touchdown
Alabama almost slipped up against Tennessee in 2009 with Lane Kiffin coaching for the Vols. Bama let the Vols hang around and won when Alabama’s Terrence Cody blocked a field goal attempt in the final seconds for a 12-10 win. The Vols also had a chance to win in 2015 but fumbled the ball — and the game — away on the final possession partly due to poor pass protection from a patchwork offensive line that was dealing with a slew of injuries. Bama won 19-14.
The Alabama-Tennessee series of streaks is fairly unique in college football. It’s rare that one program dominates a series only to hand the ball off to the other team that does the same. Alabama won 7 games in a row from 1905-1912. Tennessee won or tied Alabama for 6 consecutive games in the 1940s and 1950s. Alabama followed that up in 5 wins and a tie from 1961-1966. Tennessee won 4 in a row after that. Then, Bama won 11 consecutive games from 1971-1981. The Vols then won 4 in a row followed by 6 consecutive victories by Bama. Then, the Vols won 7 in a row beginning in 1995. However, no streak in this series has been as lopsided as the one that is currently still in place.
The Crimson Tide has won 14 games in a row against Tennessee since Saban arrived. Alabama hasn’t lost to Tennessee since 2006. That streak will likely grow to 15 on Saturday. A series of streaks is quickly being defined by the most dominant of its kind in the history of the rivalry — or series. At some point — and that may be now — the college football world will not consider the Alabama-Tennessee series as a rivalry at all. If you’re over 30, that sounds sacrilegious. If you’re realistic, you should know it’s true no matter how old you are.
Will the Alabama-Tennessee series ever be a true rivalry again? Likely not.