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Tennessee vs. Alabama: A Return to National Relevance?

Ten years ago, The Third Saturday in October meant the Vols were defending National Champions, bringing a top five ranking into the annual grudge match.  It meant Alabama had one of the Heisman frontrunners in their backfield, carrying a top ten ranking into the contest with a team that would eventually win the SEC Championship.  The game was moved for the first time in generations from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa, and the eyes of not only the SEC, but all of college football were rightfully fixed on this historic clash.

In 1999, #5 Tennessee beat #10 Alabama 21-7.  And that's the last time this game was nationally relevant for both teams.

When the SEC expanded to 12 teams and split into two divisions in 1992, the creation of an SEC Championship Game meant one thing:  Tennessee and Alabama would surely get to play each other twice a year, and this time with the conference title definitively on the line, the matchups would be among the all-time greatest in the storied history of this rivalry.

17 years later, we're still waiting.

It'll be at least 18, barring a collapse of epic proportions by the Florida Gators.  Tennessee has made five appearances in the SEC Championship Game, and Alabama is in line to make their seventh trip this season.  But the two teams keep missing each other, which is tangible proof of their inability to both be good at the same time in the last decade, which combined with Steve Spurrier's presence at Florida in the 90s means we've had to just keep waiting...for now.

If I made a sports bucket list, a Tennessee-Alabama SEC Championship Game would claim the top spot in a heartbeat.  I've been fortunate enough to see the Vols win a National Championship, two of my professional sports teams have won championships in my 28 years (though right now it looks like the Titans won't be joining them any time soon), and as long as Bruce Pearl sticks around, the Vols will have a shot to finally make a Final Four.

But more than anything else, I want to see a 50/50 orange/crimson crowd in the Georgia Dome, with everything on the line.  To get there, both teams have to be good at the same time.  And for the first time in a long time, while we're not there yet...we could be on our way.

Children and teenagers growing up today haven't gotten a chance to fully experience what this rivalry is all about.  They may have heard their parents and their elders talking about the past, and they may have witnessed the 51 weeks of respect and seven days of hate that tend to define this rivalry for me.  But in the last ten years, the Third Saturday hasn't meant as much as it used to.  And it's both of our faults.

Here are the AP rankings of both teams coming into the Third Saturday during the 90s:

  • 1990:  Tennessee #3 - Alabama NR
  • 1991:  Tennessee #8 - Alabama #14
  • 1992:  Tennessee #13 - Alabama #4
  • 1993:  Tennessee #10 - Alabama #2
  • 1994:  Tennessee NR - Alabama #14
  • 1995:  Tennessee #6 - Alabama #12
  • 1996:  Tennessee #6 - Alabama #7
  • 1997:  Tennessee #9 - Alabama NR
  • 1998:  Tennessee #3 - Alabama NR
  • 1999:  Tennessee #5 - Alabama #10

Six times in the 90s, the Third Saturday featured a matchup of two top fifteen teams.  This correlates with the fact that the teams combined to win five SEC titles in the 90s (or "all the ones Spurrier didn't win") and each won a National Championship.

In this decade - whatever we're calling it - neither Tennessee nor Alabama has won an SEC Championship.  The Tide will have their chance to change that in the next seven weeks, but should the Tide stumble en route to Atlanta or the Gators get the best of them when they get there, it will make the 00s the first decade in the history of the SEC where neither the Vols nor Tide won a conference title in football.

You can see in the AP rankings of each team in the last ten years that there have been several cases in the last ten years where either the Vols or Tide were good, but never really both at the same time:

  • 2000:  Tennessee NR - Alabama NR
  • 2001:  Tennessee #11 - Alabama NR
  • 2002:  Tennessee #16 - Alabama #19
  • 2003:  Tennessee #22 - Alabama NR
  • 2004:  Tennessee #11 - Alabama NR
  • 2005:  Tennessee #17 - Alabama #5
  • 2006:  Tennessee #7 - Alabama NR
  • 2007:  Tennessee #20 - Alabama NR
  • 2008:  Tennessee NR - Alabama #2
  • 2009:  Tennessee NR - Alabama #1

As opposed to the 90s, this decade has seen zero Top 15 matchups between the two teams.  And in the two years where both teams were ranked going into the game, the Vols were actually en route to tailspins that would end with UT out of the final polls in both 2002 and 2005.

Tennessee's best teams of the decade in 2001 and 2004 were significantly better than the Alabama units they faced off with that same season, and vice versa for the Tide in 2005 and 2008.  And that may hold true again this season - Alabama opened as a 16.5 point favorite.  They're #1 for a reason.

However, the new blood of Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin that's been injected into this rivalry may signal the rightful return to national relevance that this rivalry deserves.

Alabama is already there.  Saban has done his job and done it well in just his third season.  And the Tide aren't just winning on the field, they're winning in recruiting.

It's way too early to call on Lane Kiffin, but we Tennessee fans are going to get as much mileage out of that Georgia win as possible...and we liked what we saw there.  A lot.

And it's not too early to call on recruiting for Kiffin, who did an incredible job on short notice and short staff last season, and currently has the Vols' projected class for 2010 ranked in the Top 10 with an eye on the Top 5.

And here's the thing:  both of these teams can be good at the same time.  While we'll continue to knock heads every October, the fact that we're not division rivals means you don't lose control of your own SEC Championship destiny by losing this game.  If Tennessee beat the teams in the East and Alabama beat the teams in the West, it wouldn't matter who won the October meeting, we'd see each other again in December either way.

For what it's worth, the SEC East will be more wide open in 2010 after an expected mass exodus from Gainesville to the NFL.  The Vols won't be projected to be good enough to take advantage of that fact immediately, but if Kiffin and the Vols keep building on what they've started, by 2011 the Vols can get themselves back to the front of the Atlanta conversation.  All Alabama has to do is keep winning, which has never been a problem for Nick Saban when he wasn't in the NFL.

This rivalry needs to get back to its rightful place as one of the most important games in not only the SEC, but college football every year.  We are the two most storied and tradition-rich programs in the SEC, and what's more, the two winningest.  This is where we belong.  And I hope we're on our way back.

Until then...well, we'll just have to take pleasure in hating each other this week.  And if it's national relevance you want, an upset over the number one team in the country would work quite nicely, thank you very much.