Tennessee vs. Alabama: After 15 years, a win over Tide would change everything
I’ve been going to Tennessee football games since 1994. Actually, hang on. I was at the 1981 Garden State Bowl in East Rutherford, but have vague recollections of the Vols’ 28-21 win over Wisconsin.
Anyway, during all my years around Tennessee football, and for more than 100 all-time meetings, the Alabama game has meant the most. Yes, Florida has had its moments, and Georgia is special, but the “Third Saturday in October” always means a lot, no matter the records of the combatants.
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My 1st time seeing the Tennessee-Alabama game in person was in 1994, when a freshman quarterback named Peyton Manning nearly led the Vols to an upset of the Crimson Tide. That loss extended Tennessee’s winless streak against Alabama to 9 games.
A year later, Manning’s Vols destroyed the Tide, 41-14, starting a stretch in which the Vols won 10 of the next 11 meetings. Tennessee was on top of the rivalry while Alabama went through the wilderness, shuffling through multiple coaches and dodging NCAA investigations.
Then, Nick Saban was hired by the Tide in 2007, and a typically streaky series turned Alabama’s way. It has won the past 15 games, against 6 different Tennessee coaches. Two (Derek Dooley, Jeremy Pruitt) were former Saban assistants. Two (Lane Kiffin, Butch Jones) would end up working for Saban at Alabama. Dooley liked the Saban experience so much, he’s on his staff again this year.
While serving as a Saban intern, Jones has been photographed smoking victory cigars inside Neyland Stadium. The fact that he was still being paid buyout money from Tennessee made that snapshot even more offensive to Vols fans.
Tennessee has played Alabama close into the final minutes of a game only twice over the past 15 years. Most of the time, these have been blowouts. Crimson Tide fans have piled into Neyland Stadium more often than not, turning the home of Volunteers football into a Tuscaloosa party place.
You don’t need more proof. Alabama has owned Tennessee for a decade and a half.
When recruiting violations came to light, Pruitt was fired and athletic director Phillip Fulmer (cough) “retired” in early 2021. It looked like Tennessee was going to be pushed even further behind in this rivalry. But Tennessee made an athletics department-changing hire in Central Florida’s Danny White as athletics director.
This was a “big boy” hire, and it has paid off better than anyone expected.
White brought in his football coach, Josh Heupel, and in less than 2 years the Vols have gone from a 3-7 team heading into NCAA investigation to the 6th-ranked team in the country. Fan excitement is at a level not seen since the late ’90s/early 2000s, when Tennessee was on top of the college football world.
That’s where Alabama has been, basically, since the start of Saban’s 2nd year in Tuscaloosa. A season that doesn’t end in the College Football Playoff (and previously in the BCS title game) was considered a disappointment by most Crimson Tide fans. They are spoiled beyond belief, and they have been the envy of college football fans over this period.
It took Georgia multiple tries and years of high-quality recruiting classes to finally get over the hump in its Alabama rivalry. But the Bulldogs didn’t have to play Alabama every season like Tennessee does. It took Kirby Smart 5 tries to finally get past Saban, his former boss.
On Saturday, Tennessee gets the chance to exorcise their Bama demons very early in Heupel’s tenure. This is only his 2nd game against Saban, and he hasn’t fully assembled his machine yet.
What would a win over Alabama mean for Tennessee? Well, you’d have an outpouring of emotion inside Neyland Stadium not seen since the 1998 Florida game, which happens to be the last time Tennessee fans rushed the field.
While victories over Florida and LSU put the college football world on notice that Tennessee was back, beating Alabama would be even more of a shot across the bow.
The Vols’ Class of 2023 is currently sitting at 9th in the country and 4th in the SEC in the 247 Sports rankings. You’d think that a win over Alabama would give Tennessee a boost. But simply being in this position gets Vols coaches into more living rooms than they previously would have.
This would be a victory felt in Tennessee from Memphis to Mountain City and all places in between.
The Vols will be the underdog. Alabama is expected to stretch the streak to 16.
But the streak has to stop sometime.
And when it happens — maybe on Saturday — oh what a celebration it will spark.