For as long as they have existed in our national vocabulary, Tennessee vs Alabama in the SEC Championship Game has been at the top of my sports bucket list. There are other Vol-related items on it - winning the SEC Basketball Tournament seems an easier ask than the Titans getting that one yard back in some other Super Bowl some other day - but none higher than our biggest rivalry finally playing out on the biggest stage.
This December will be the 25th edition of the SEC Championship Game; you don't have to be too much younger than me to never remember a time without it. The first year in 1992 used to be as close as we ever got to a Vols/Tide title game: Tennessee blew out Florida in a Neyland rainstorm but lost to Arkansas and South Carolina by one point (with a 17-10 defeat to eventual national champion Alabama sandwiched between), just missing the inaugural SEC East title and facilitating the change from Johnny Majors to Phillip Fulmer.
After four more years of futility against Florida, the Vols won the East five times in 11 years from 1997-2007, plus a three-way tie awarded to Georgia in 2003. During that stretch the Crimson Tide made just one appearance in the Georgia Dome in 1999, wading through their own wilderness and preventing the match-up so many of us envisioned as a frequent occurrence when the title game began.
And of course, the Vols haven't been back to Atlanta in the last eight years while the Crimson Tide have made five appearances. It's not just the outcome of the Third Saturday in October that's been driven by streaks, but the health of the two programs involved as well.
But all of this could change this fall.
It almost happened last year. As we know, Tennessee was a 4th-and-14 at Florida away from winning the East and getting to Atlanta to face the Crimson Tide. The biggest reason Tennessee and Alabama haven't faced off in Atlanta is the same reason Florida & LSU and Georgia & Auburn haven't seen each other there: annual rivalries produce guaranteed losses for someone. The loser of the Third Saturday has to still be good enough to take care of business in its own division, and that hasn't been the case in a long time. The Vols and Tide haven't met when both were ranked since 2005, and haven't met when both were in the Top 10 since 1999.
Bama will be projected to start there this fall, and the Vols might join them. Whether both are still there by mid-October is a more difficult issue. Alabama will try to stop Ole Miss's streak from becoming three in Oxford on September 17 and must travel to Arkansas the week before coming to Knoxville; the Vols play the Tide at the end of a four game stretch including Florida, at Georgia, and at Texas A&M. All of this after Alabama plays Southern Cal at Jerry World in week one and the Vols play Virginia Tech on an even bigger stage in week two.
Past and present show us the odds will never be particularly great for this match-up. But whatever little preseason predictions are worth, we will probably see the Vols and Tide both chosen as favorites in their respective divisions. That hasn't come close to happening since the mid-90s. If form holds, we'll have the most significant Tennessee-Alabama game of this millennium. And that means we could finally get a rematch in what would be one of the most significant Tennessee-Alabama games of all-time.