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October 18, 2011

HURT: Tide-Vols must stay

Consider this paradox.

Could this year's Alabama-Tennessee game be the worst thing that could happen to the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry?

Before the debate even starts, let's build some framework. The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry should be pristine, untouchable by any expansion plan devised by the power brokers of the Southeastern Conference office. Any other argument that anyone cares to make will founder on the rocky shoals of this statistic: There has been SEC football for 77 years now. In that time span, Alabama and Tennessee have won 35 SEC Championships. None of the league's other annual pairings comes close.

The new SEC that is being forged into being must respect tradition, and while there has been a behind-the-scenes battle, that point appears to be resonating in the right places. Nick Saban actually said two revealing things about that issue in his Monday press conference, although they weren't widely reported in the mad media rush to inform the world that Saban had said a dirty word.

Saban also said, however, that he had not heard anything to suggest that Alabama and Tennessee wouldn't be playing. Even when his temperature was a few degrees higher, his suggestion that the debate might be more about the 2025 schedule than the 2012 slate indicated that Alabama-Tennessee will be secure for years to come, something that Alabama has insisted upon in all discussions about expansion and realignment.

There is, however, a great deal of speculation that this year's game will not reawaken the echoes of greatness. The Crimson Tide is favored by more than four touchdowns - the largest such spread in series history - and some people think that is overestimating a weary, banged-up Tennessee team. There is no guarantee that the game will be one-sided (see 2009), but a lot of people think it will be. If Alabama does win, it will be its fifth victory in a row in the series. A young fan might watch the game and think that an Alabama-Missouri game doesn't seem so bad after all.

Such thinking, though, disrespects the series. Tradition isn't about the outcome of a single year. It's about the ebb and flow between two rivals who should, over time, be equally matched. It has happened in the Alabama-Auburn series recently. The Tigers were crushed 36-0 in 2008 and were celebrating a historic victory in Bryant-Denny Stadium just two years later.

Hopefully, Tennessee is fighting just as hard as Alabama to preserve this series. Hopefully, the fact that Alabama is in BCS contention while the Volunteers are in rebuilding mode won't obscure the bigger picture. I haven't spoken with Dave Hart, the Alabama graduate who is now the UT athletic director, since he left for Knoxville a few weeks ago, but given his background, I suspect he understands that.

It is possible that Saturday's game could be another classic, a multiple-overtime thriller like the one that broke Alabama's hearts in 2003, or a last-second cliffhanger like the Volunteers' last visit. Or perhaps it won't. It might have more resemblance to the lopsided games in the series, like UT's 41-14 win in 1995, or Alabama routs in 1980 and '86, or even last season, when UT's plan seemed to call for covering Julio Jones when the mood struck the Vols, not necessarily on every play. But every one of those games, in its own way,is a memory - which is exactly what the series never, ever needs to become.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0225.




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