By Steve Williams
Discussion of Tennessee ending its traditional football series against Alabama continues to pop up from time to time and as long as the Vols keep losing to the Crimson Tide, we’ll hear about it more often.
I understand the unfairness in the sentiments of those who think the Alabama game should be scheduled on a rotating basis. But there is another way to make things fair and at the same time preserve this classic contest.
Since All-America halfback Gene McEver returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown to spark a 15-13 win at Alabama in 1928, this series has been one of college football’s most popular – a Southern classic that in the 1930s became known for being the game played on the Third Saturday in October.
The current controversy stems from the Southeastern Conference’s adoption of East and West divisions in 1992, with Tennessee put in the East and Alabama in the West. Even the oldest running series in the South – Auburn versus Georgia – saw its rivals placed in different divisions.
To preserve these classic games, the SEC allows for each school in the conference to have a permanent opponent. So Tennessee has Alabama and Georgia has Auburn. Another popular “crossover” matchup pits Florida and LSU.
The SEC was smart to preserve its top annual games. But there is no need to count these “crossover” contests in the divisional standings. Divisional championships should be decided by games played between division members only. That would be the fair thing to do.
A lot of older Tennessee fans still look at Alabama as the biggest game of the year. Many younger UT fans consider the Florida game as the biggest, and that’s understandable since the Vols and Gators are in the same division and have squared off in many crucial games since divisional play began.
With the Alabama program being as strong as it is now, just playing the Crimson Tide each year is enough of a disadvantage for Tennessee. But having the Vols playing Alabama on a rotating basis would be even worse for many fans of both teams and college football in general.
This longtime series has always been one of streaks. Tennessee currently is on the wrong end of one, but the Vols have had a couple of near wins even in the dark days of the post-Phillip Fulmer coaching era.
Lane Kiffin was a field goal away of beating the Tide on the road in 2009. But Mount Cody blocked Daniel Lincoln’s 44-yard attempt with four seconds to go to preserve Bama’s 12-10 victory.
Two years ago in Tuscaloosa, Butch Jones’ Vols, 15 ½ point underdogs, took the lead over Alabama in the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold it and lost 19-14.
Tennessee had home field advantage last season, but the Vols were coming off their first loss, a 45-38 overtime setback at Texas A&M. That loss took a lot of wind out of the Tennessee sails.
A fresh Alabama team coming off an open date came into Knoxville the next week undefeated and ranked No. 1. The 5-1 Vols had slipped to No. 11. The Tide rolled 49-10. It was Alabama’s 10th straight win over Tennessee and its biggest margin of victory over the Vols in 110 years.
Still, I’m not in favor of dropping the annual matchup with Alabama. The streak has changed hands before and it will again.
Many of us still remember Mike Terry’s interception in the end zone at Neyland Stadium that snapped Alabama’s 11-game win streak in 1982 and Peyton Manning’s touchdown pass to Joey Kent on the opening play of the 1995 victory at Alabama that started a seven-game win streak over the Tide.
It’s an annual classic that’s worth keeping. It’s also important to make thiigs fair in the divisional races. There’s a way we can have both.