Tennessee series still matters
Over the summer, as the alignment of the newly-expanded SEC was being debated, the University of Alabama's athletic administration fought fiercely to preserve its annual rivalry with Tennessee.
It would be easy for a cynic to look at this weekend's game, which Alabama enters as an 18-point favorite, and observe that it is easy to see why. But it's not really about recent history of the notoriously streaky series.
Nick Saban has beaten the Volunteers in each of his first five seasons, with only one close call. Setting aside the intra state rivalry with Auburn, most Alabama fans of recent vintage would regard Alabama-LSU as a far more significant series. Even Alabama-Florida, not an annual event, carries more resonance with fans (and with the two teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the first BCS poll of 2012, fans of both teams would love to see a renewal in Atlanta.)
There are still plenty of Alabama fans, though, who cherish the Tennessee series for many historical reasons. For years, the two teams dominated the SEC. At Alabama, there was a Tennessee rivalry for a long stretch of years when Auburn wasn't even on the schedule.
Paul "Bear" Bryant was a player in those years, and was a young SEC coach in Kentucky during Tennessee's ascendancy.
Bryant never forgot those days and, for as long as his influence was pervasive in Alabama athletics, there was a special regard for Tennessee. The Saban tenure has been different. The Volunteers haven't been particularly good over the past five years and Saban's Alabama teams have won every time.
When the series enters those stretches, as it did when Bryant was coaching, and Gene Stallings, and, curiously, Bill Curry, Alabama fans get complacent, only to embrace the rivalry again, urgently, when Tennessee gets the upper hand.
Is that about to happen? It doesn't appear likely. Tennessee has a good offense, but the pattern for Derek Dooley's team has been to score enough to keep up, then fail to get enough defensive stops to win. The game does come in a tough stretch of the schedule for Alabama. Back-to-back conference road games are often problematic.
The Crimson Tide won't take Tennessee for granted, but I am not entirely sure they will treat this as a "rivalry," which isn't really the way Saban approaches things anyway.
A win would, of course, be huge for Tennessee and for Dooley, who (shades of Mike Shula) urgently needs a "signature" win to dangle before an increasingly restless fan base. I would trot out the cliche that Alabama "will get Tennessee's best shot because they get everyone's best shot" here, if it hadn't been demonstrably untrue this year.
For a variety of reasons, I don't think Alabama has gotten anyone's best shot this year, with the possible exception of Ole Miss. It could be that the Crimson Tide is so dominant that even the "best shot" from Michigan, or Arkansas, or Missouri, was futile. Certainly, Alabama disrupts opponents in the way a tsunami disrupts a day at the beach.
Maybe it will be a few more years before Tennessee turns this into a heated rivalry again, and who knows what will be left of the history in these changing times? For now, though, Alabama vs. Tennessee does still matter, even if recent arrivals have a hard time figuring out why.
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