TUSCALOOSA _ There was a while there that University of Alabama junior wide receiver Marquis Maze thought he would become part of the "Third Saturday in October," only for the other side.
He was a senior at Tarrant High School and had made an early verbal commitment to Michigan, but decided to continue making official visits including to Tennessee. That trip went well and when things disintegrated with the Wolverines he appeared to be Knoxville-bound.
That is until Nick Saban arrived at Alabama and made an immediate push to keep Maze in-state. It still went down to National Signing Day, where in front of a packed auditorium the versatile athlete who had played tailback, quarterback, wide receiver, defensive back and returned kicks picked up a Tennessee hat before pulling a crimson one out from underneath.
"It's tough, but I had to make the best decision for myself," said Maze, who on Saturday will go back to Neyland Stadium (he started there two years ago when the Crimson Tide opened with a three-receiver set).
"It means a lot to me."
Although it's a down year for the Volunteers (2-4 overall, 0-3 SEC), who have already used 16 true freshmen, no one has to remind anyone on the Alabama sideline that rivalry games usually bring out the best in an opponent, especially this one.
There's also the fact that the No. 7 Crimson Tide (6-1, 3-1) has played seven straight games while UT was off last week and will have 100,000-plus orange-clad screaming fans on its side.
"It's big," junior defensive end Marcell Dareus said. "When I first got here I didn't think it would be that big, but every year it grows and grows.
"Tennessee, they're going to bring their A-game not matter what their record is, no matter how their season is going, no matter how bad their defense or how good their offense is going, and it's the same thing with us. We can't just show up and expect to win."
Overall, Alabama leads the all-time series 47-38-7, but it's also known for streaks. Tennessee won seven straight from 1995-2001, while the Tide dominated the 11-year span from 1971-81. The last three meetings have all been UA wins.
During that time period Alabama has also recruited well in Tennessee. Linebacker Alex Watkins (Brownsville) was already committed when Saban was hired, but he's since been joined by Chris Jordan (Brentwood), brothers Barrett and Harrison Jones (Memphis), Dont'a Hightower (Lewisburg), Keiwone Malone (Memphis), Brandon Ivory (Memphis), along with long-snapper Carson Tinker (Murfreesboro).
On tap for next year's class is Jackson's Jabriel Washington, rated the third-best prospect in the state.
"I think it's a great rivalry, especially being from Tennessee," Barrett Jones said. "It's a game I've personally been to for many years before becoming a part of it. I think it's a really special game."
The rivalry dates back to 1901, when the game was called due to darkness with the score tied 6-6 and spectators rushed the Birmingham field in protest. Some would argue that the disputes between the football giants have only grown since.
For example, due to a number of injuries the 1913 contest went past sunset and spectators with automobiles were asked to encircle the Tuscaloosa field and turn on their headlights so it could continue. Alabama held on for a 6-0 victory, the seventh straight shutout against the Volunteers, who remembered Bully VandeGraaff more than the lighting problems.
"His ear had a real nasty cut and it was dangling from his head, bleeding badly," Tennessee lineman Bull Bayer later 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."
The "Third Saturday in October" didn't really develop until years later when the Volunteers followed the Crimson Tide into national prominence, and considered Alabama its nemesis because it was the only Southeastern Conference team with more wins, league tiles and national championships.
It became a benchmark game for both sides, with the winning side usually going on to play for much, much more.
"You never know what a football player is made of until he plays Alabama," Tennessee legendary coach General Robert Neyland once said. He was also quoted as saying, "Tennessee sophomores don't deserve citizenship papers until they have survived an Alabama game."
Similarly, former Alabama coach Wallace Wade said of Neyland: "He could take his and beat yours or take yours and beat his."
Paul W. "Bear" Bryant enjoyed victories over Tennessee so much that he began the tradition of handing out cigars in the locker room after victories. Not to be outdone the Volunteers picked up the habit in the 1990s, but both sides have "officially" dropped the practice because it's an NCAA violation.
But Bryant's history with the Volunteers extended back well before he coached Kentucky (1946-53), which like Vanderbilt, where he was briefly an assistant (1940-41), considered Tennessee its biggest football rival. As an Alabama senior end in 1935 he sustained a broken leg against Mississippi State, but played the following week against Tennessee.
He recounted in his autobiography the speech assistant coach Hank Crisp gave before the 25-0 victory: "I'll tell you gentlemen one thing. I don't know about the rest of you, you or you or you. I don't know what you're going to do. But I know one damn thing. Old 34 will be after'em, he'll be after their asses."
"In those days they changed the players' numbers almost every week ... to sell those quarter programs," Bryant wrote. "So he's up there talking about old 34, and I look down, and I'm 34! I had no idea of playing."
More recently, the rivalry grew to a fever pitch when court records indicated that Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer had been instrumental in the NCAA Committee on Infractions building a case against Alabama during a recruiting scandal that almost resulted in the Crimson Tide being issued the death penalty. Although numerous coaches had pointed the finger at Alabama, Fulmer lobbied the SEC to take action and directed a key witness to investigators. Roughly a decade later, lawsuits are still pending.
What Dareus remembers most about Alabama's last visit to Neyland Stadium two years was the crowd noise and having to stand next to Rolando McClain to hear the play calls.
Something else stood out to Maze: "Fans started leaving."
Already disgruntled, with Tennessee just 6-13 against ranked teams over the previous four years, and 1-8 at home against top 10 teams since 2000, few expected the Vols to win and near-lifeless downtown Knoxville reflected it the night before. Sure enough, the No. 2 Tide dominated, 29-9.
"It's just a special rivalry and a special game to all of us involved in it in different ways," Fulmer said afterward. "I'll be back up tomorrow. I'm not down. I just got a lot on my mind right now."
When Fulmer lost the subsequent Saturday at South Carolina, 27-6, he was forced out and became a lame-duck coach. The team reacted with a 13-7 loss to Wyoming, but sent him off with wins against Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
But that was just the beginning for UT fans, who subsequently endured a topsy-turvy year with Lane Kiffin only to see him bolt for Southern California. The pinnacle moment of last season may have been at Bryant-Denny Stadium, where nose tackle Terrence Cody's blocked field goal in the closing seconds preserved both the 12-10 victory and undefeated season.
"It's something that we talk about," Jones said. "It's funny, you wonder how the season might have been affected if that one armpit hadn't blocked the kick. You never know.
"Thankfully it did."
This time Tennessee took a page from its rival and hired Derek Dooley, the son of famous Georgia coach Vince who was a Saban assistant coach with LSU and the Miami Dolphins before taking over Louisiana Tech in 2007.
"First of all he is a very bright guy, a student of the game in all parts of the game," Saban said. "He was never one of those guys that just thought he was a one-position coach on offense or a one-position coach on defense. He looked at the big picture all the time.
"He has a great family heritage, relative to football, so he kind of grew up with it. He understands the big picture of issues and problems that you have to deal with in a program and I think he is a really good recruiter. I think he has all the right stuff to be a very successful college coach."
Dooley had equally nice things to say about his former mentor, whom he still regularly talks with (just not this week).
"They're complex and always have been," Dooley said at his weekly media luncheon on Monday. "I say that, but the base philosophy and ways they win are very simple. It's the right things: It's stop the run; It's pressure the quarterback on third down; It's good return game and special teams to control the vertical field position; and it's run the ball. That formula has been around for a long time in football, and it's what I believe in.
"Those things that I said that he believes in, I think, stand the test of time. He's always believed in that. He's shown that he's done a great job in recruiting, to get really good players, and each year always doing a great job of evaluating what they do and how they can do it better. He's done a good job of that, and I think that in its simplest form leads to success and consistency."
While their personal rivalry will only grow from here, Saban called Alabama-Tennessee a signature game and Dooley said being part of it is a "great honor." Consequently, no one involved ever forgets a "Third Saturday in October," especially players like Maze, who has no regrets about his decision.
"Yeah, I won a national championship."