Do you really have to ask?
This is Part II of a three part series on the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry originally published in the 2009 edition of Rocky Top Tennessee (2010 edition here). It was written by Alabama fan Todd Jones Background here.
Why the Hate?
In college football there are plenty of one-sided rivalries that no one particularly cares about. For example, Alabama and Southern Miss met almost annually from the late sixties until 2005, during which time Tide fans considered the plucky Golden Eagles as nothing more than schedule filler while many Southern Miss partisans thought of Alabama as their chief rival. An astute commenter on Roll Bama Roll made the analogy that such a practice is like "that guy who you consider to be your best friend and he doesn't even know your last name."
I'm sure Tennessee has that same relationship with other nearby or in-state schools, fans that hate and despise the Vols but that Tennessee fans can't muster enough emotion toward to even remember the name of their quarterback. It's sad, really, but all too understandable, for in any rivalry there has to be a sense of mutual hatred between its two proponents, and that kind of hatred can only grow from three things: familiarity (it breeds contempt, after all), a sense of somehow being "wronged" by the other party, and, weirdly, respect. We'll get to the "wronged" reason later (and believe me, there's plenty of that discussed among my fellow Tide fans on a daily basis), but as for the other two we'll need to go back a ways to really get a sense of the great struggle for superiority between our two programs.
There are two main aspects to the familiarity between our two programs: location and number of meetings. As for location, just like many of the other great rivalries in college football (Texas/Oklahoma, Michigan/Ohio State, Florida/Georgia, West Virginia/Pitt, etc.) ours is a border war that not only represents the football superiority of one school over another, but the relative worth of an entire state over another. People like to talk about how these kinds of rivalries aren't as passionate as the type of in state rivalries like the one we have with our wayward neighbors in Auburn or even the cross-city rivalries like Southern Cal and UCLA, but I'm here to tell you that that just ain't true. Maybe those other states that don't take football as seriously as we do aren't in the habit of displaying their team colors and logos like we are, but take a quick drive around Birmingham and you'll see an orange T on the back of at least one vehicle. And that doesn't even begin to address the increasing frequency of such occurrences when headed north on I-59 toward the state line where Tennessee grads and/or expatriates seem to have established a sort of hillbilly beachhead into our great state (I can't blame them, really; every time I'm in Tennessee I can't wait to get back to Alabama either, so believe me, I do understand the instinct to head south). So even though our two teams might call different states home, our two fan bases aren't as easily segregated. We see each other on the streets, we work with and next to one another, some of us live next door to one another, and, sometimes in cases of extreme blasphemy and poor taste, we even date and, worse, marry each other. We have constant reminders around us that not only do the Tennessee Volunteers exist but also that there are actually people we interact with on a daily basis that we consider the enemy! Of course, two beat downs in a row have mitigated some of the horror of parking next to an orange "T" adorned car at the grocery store, but you get my point.
The second most important aspect of our familiarity is the sheer number of meetings between our two teams. Alabama has played Tennessee more times (91) than any other program save Mississippi State (93), while Tennessee has only played two other teams (Kentucky 104 times and Vanderbilt 105 times) more than the Crimson Tide. Even our "biggest" rival, Auburn (or "Little Sister" as we affectionately call them), has only played us 73 times, so it's really no wonder our special reserve label brand of hate is all directed north. Even more than the number of times played, there's a good bit of hatred wound up in the history of all those meetings.
The Tide and Volunteers first met on the gridiron in Birmingham way back in 1901, fighting to a 6-6 tie before a controversial call sparked a riot (I wasn't there, but I'm pretty sure y'all started it), ending the game and starting a now-century old grudge. Even though there weren't any more riots to speak of in the ensuing decades, the level of bad blood present after that first game wasn't terribly diminished at any of the other meetings. In fact, it took two year's worth of cooling off before the two teams would meet again in 1903 (we won 24-0, just so you know), and from there on out it became an almost annual battle for supremacy of southern football. Alabama dominated early on, winning eight of the first ten and refusing to give up a single touchdown to the Vols until only their second loss in the series, a 17-7 loss in 1914. That 1914 game was a pivotal one in the series, as it saw the Tide's stranglehold start to loosen and one of the more unique aspects of this rivalry, it's oft-mentioned "streakiness," truly manifested itself. The two teams wouldn't meet again until 1928, the year that the rivalry took on the "Third Saturday in October" tradition (and moniker), and the Vols grabbed the second win in a three-game winning streak.
And so it's been ever since, with back to back (to back to back... ) wins/losses being the norm instead of the usual back and forth, home-field-advantage type of record typical to most other rivalries. I guess you could say there's another type of contemptible familiarity engendered by the streaky nature of the rivalry; the familiarity of being on the losing side for years at a time.
UP TOMORROW: Respect
Todd Jones is an editor and author of the popular and influential Alabama blog Roll Bama Roll. He owns nothing that is orange.