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Tennessee-Alabama: The 10 Best Games of The Third Saturday in October

A look at one of the Deep South’s greatest rivalries

Kacy Rodgers Allen Steele/Getty Images

General Neyland, once said, “You never know what a football player is made of until he plays Alabama.”

Tennessee will meet top ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday for the 2017 installment of one of the South’s oldest and most legendary rivalries.

To get an idea of how much these two teams don’t like each other, take a look back at the first time they played each other. It was on November 28, 1901 in Birmingham, a game that resulted in a 6-6 tie. The officials had to call the game early because a controversial call led to a brawl between fans in the stands that eventually carried over onto the field. One hundred and sixteen years later and the animosity between the two still stands.

Both teams started playing on the “traditional” date in 1928 and by 1939, the game had officially become known as the “Third Saturday in October.” Another tradition was added in the 1950s when Alabama athletic trainer Jim Goostree started handing out “victory cigars” to the team following a win over the Vols. Eventually, Tennessee started doing the same. While most rivalries have the winner getting a trophy, Alabama and Tennessee give out cigars.

The “Third Saturday in October” has been a game of streaks. Both teams have had their runs against the other and both teams have brought an end to those respective streaks in dramatic fashion. While Alabama is currently in the midst of a 10 game win streak over Tennessee, there is no doubt that this game still means something to players, coaches, and fans.

Here’s a look at the ten best games played on the “Third Saturday in October”

10.) 2009: Alabama 12 Tennessee 10

Alabama was undefeated, ranked atop both major polls, and a two touchdown favorite when they welcomed unranked and 3-3 Tennessee to Tuscaloosa on October 24, 2009. Ironically, Alabama, lead by eventual Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram didn’t even see the end zone that afternoon. In fact, it was a game of field goals for nearly the entirety of the game. Alabama was leading 12-3 in the fourth quarter when Jonathan Crompton hit Gerald Jones for the game’s lone touchdown to make it a 12-10 score. The Vols then successfully executed an onside kick on the ensuing kick off. A big pass from Crompton to tight end Luke Stocker put Tennessee deep into Alabama territory with the clock running. A few plays later, a struggling Daniel Lincoln trotted out onto the field to attempt the game winning field goal with just four seconds remaining. The kick was blocked by Alabama’s Terrance Cody, and the Crimson Tide would survive en route to an SEC and national championship.

Tennessee v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

9.) 1972: Alabama 17 Tennessee 10

Following a low scoring first half that saw Alabama take a 3-0 lead with a field goal in the second quarter, the fireworks started in the second half. Tennessee’s Condgredge Holloway rushed for a touchdown from two yards out to give the Vols a 7-3 advantage over the 3rd ranked Crimson Tide in the third quarter. In the fourth, a field goal would extend Tennessee’s lead to 10-3. With only 2:39 left in the game, Alabama instituted a 54 yard drive that was capped off by a Wilbur Jackson touchdown to tie the game. On Tennessee’s ensuing drive, a costly Holloway fumble was recovered by Alabama at the Tennessee 17 yard line. From there, a Terry Davis touchdown run with just over a minute left in the game allowed Alabama to escape Knoxville with a 17-10 win. Following the game, as Alabama was getting on the bus to head home, a Tennessee fan stopped Bear Bryant and said, “You’re the luckiest son of a b*tch in the world.” Bryant responded, “Thank you” before getting on the bus.

8.) 1993: Tennessee 17 Alabama 17

Alabama entered Legion Field in Birmingham as defending national champions, as well as #3 in the country. The 10th ranked Volunteers were looking to play spoiler to Alabama’s run at a repeat. Tennessee held a 17-9 lead with just over a minute to play when Alabama quarterback Jay Barker led the Crimson Tide to an 83 yard touchdown drive to make it 17-15. They tied the game off of a two point conversion with 21 seconds left to play. On the following possession, the Vols decided to run out the clock and let the game end in a 17-17 tie. This would be the last time in Alabama history that a game would end in a tie.

7.) 1996: Tennessee 20 Alabama 13

Once again, both teams met as top 10 foes when they played each other at Neyland Stadium in 1996. In a typical Alabama-Tennessee low scoring affair, neither team was able to generate a lot of offense. In the fourth quarter, with the game deadlocked at 13-13 and the clock running with under three minutes left, Tennessee’s Jay Graham finally broke the tie on a 79 yard touchdown run to put the Vols ahead 20-13. Any chance for an Alabama comeback was snuffed out when Leonard Little forced and recovered an Alabama fumble to preserve the win.

6.) 1968: Tennessee 10 Alabama 9

Tennessee scored early to go up 7-0 and an Alabama field goal made it 7-3 at the end of the first quarter. Neither team would score again until the fourth quarter in a defensive struggle. In the fourth quarter, Tennessee’s Karl Kremser kicked a then SEC-record 54 yard field goal to put the Vols up 10-3. Alabama responded with their best offensive drive of the game, an 80-yard drive that was capped off with a touchdown catch by Alabama’s Donnie Sutton. Instead of adding on the PAT to make it a tie game, Coach Bryant elected to go for the knock out punch, a two point conversion to win the game. Alabama quarterback Joe Kelly again targeted Sutton in the end zone, only this time the pass fell incomplete, securing a 10-9 victory for the Vols.

5.) 1995: Tennessee 41 Alabama 14

By now you may have noticed that only the classic, come-from-behind nail biters have been the trend in this ranking thus far. How could a blow out win come in at #5? Well, in the long history of this rivalry, one game that has often stuck out is the 1995 match up between #6 Tennessee and #12 Alabama at Legion Field. Tennessee had lost the previous eight to Alabama, and were looking to finally break that streak. The tone was set on the games first play when Peyton Manning hit Joey Kent over the middle for an 80 yard score. From there, the game was never in doubt in what is looked at as one of the most prolific displays by a football team in Tennessee history. The Vols not only broke an 8 game losing streak to their most hated rival, they did it in dominating fashion in what was their largest ever margin of victory over Alabama.

4.) 1967: Tennessee 24 Alabama 13

The 1967 edition of the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry again featured a match up of top 10 teams battling it out in Birmingham. Both teams scored early in the first quarter, but went into the half only tied at 7 a piece. Tennessee scored a field goal and a touchdown in the 3rd quarter to take a 17-7 lead. Alabama responded early in the fourth quarter with a touchdown drive of their own to cut Tennessee’s lead to 17-13. Alabama was again driving, this time looking to take the lead when Albert Dorsey picked off an Alabama pass and returned it 31 yards for a game sealing touchdown that put the Vols ahead 24-13. The game allowed Tennessee to gain some national attention, as Sports Illustrated featured them on the cover of their October 30th issue. Head Coach Doug Dickey would go on to lead the Vols to an SEC title and some publications even voted them national champions at the end of the regular season.

3.) 1985: Tennessee 16 Alabama 14

Ranked 20th in the country and coming off of a tough loss at the hands of #7 Florida the week before, Johnny Majors and Tennessee traveled to Birmingham to face #15 Alabama. The Vols’ starting quarterback Tony Robinson suffered an injury early in the game, forcing Coach Majors to send in back up Daryl Dickey in a hostile road environment. Tennessee was holding on to a 16-14 lead late in the fourth quarter, and Alabama was looking for a drive to get into field goal range to win the game on a Van Tiffin kick. The Tide had the ball at the Tennessee 37-yard line when quarterback Mike Shula’s pass was famously tipped and intercepted by Vol linebacker Dale Jones, securing the victory for Tennessee. Following the game, Coach Majors said, “We all remember the things we do in the Alabama game. That play will be one of the great plays in my opinion.” The win helped propel Tennessee to their first SEC title since 1969 and a birth in the Sugar Bowl where the Vols dominated heavily favored Miami, 35-7.

2.) 2003: Tennessee 51 Alabama 43

The 2003 season was a roller coaster ride for Coach Phillip Fulmer and Tennessee. The Vols managed to get big road wins at Florida and #6 Miami, but suffered a close loss on the road at Auburn and a 41-14 loss at the hands of Georgia. Tennessee was 4-2, coming off the Georgia loss when they headed to Tuscaloosa to face an unranked Alabama team.

Trailing 20-13, quarterback Casey Clausen led Tennessee on an 81 yard drive, completed with a touchdown pass to Troy Fleming to tie the game at 20 with 25 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, both teams traded scores, but the defining moment for Tennessee came in the second overtime. Trailing 27-34, Clausen hit C.J. Fayton on a 29-yard pass completion to convert on 4th and 19 to keep the Vols’ chances alive. A play later, James Banks hauled in a deflected pass in the end zone to tie the game, 34-34. In the 5th and final overtime, Clausen scored on a 1-yard run and then connected with James Banks on the ensuing two-point conversion to put them ahead, 51-43. Alabama failed to convert a 4th down, allowing Tennessee to get the win, their last in Tuscaloosa. The game was a turn around for Tennessee’s season. Following a 4-2 start to the year, Tennessee went on to win five straight games and finish the season 10-3.

1.) 1982: Tennessee 35 Alabama 28

The 1982 game was perhaps one of the most defining of the Johnny Majors era. While the season as a whole certainly wasn’t one of the most memorable in Tennessee history (6-5-1), the game against Bear Bryant and Alabama was. Alabama came to Neyland Stadium as the 2nd ranked team in all the land, as well as riding an 11-game win streak against Tennessee. There wasn’t a whole lot of people that thought the 2-2-1 Volunteers could pull off the upset at home.

Tennessee had dropped their opening game in a 25-24 loss to Duke at home. A few weeks later they lost to Auburn by ten. Their two wins were narrow victories over unranked Iowa State (23-21) and Washington State (10-3). A week before facing the Crimson Tide, Tennessee managed to escape Baton Rouge with a 24-24 decision against #18 LSU.

Tennessee jumped out to a 3-0 lead before Alabama rattled off two touchdowns to go ahead 14-3. If the underdog Volunteers were ready accept defeat after the 2nd ranked team in the country scored two straight touchdowns, it didn’t show. Tennessee answered right back with a touchdown pass of their own, Alex Cockrell to Willi Gault, to make it 14-10. Tennessee cut the Alabama lead to one with a field goal, but the Tide managed to score another touchdown before the half to make 21-13 at intermission.

In the second half, Tennessee scored a field goal, a touchdown, a two point conversion and then tacked on another field goal to pull ahead, 27-21. The reality of the the unthinkable upset began to really set in with 7:21 left in the game. That’s when Tennessee Fullback Chuck Coleman took a handoff 34 yards for another touchdown to put the Vols ahead, 35-21.

However, Alabama proved their worth, finally scoring their first points of the second half with a touchdown drive with just over five minutes left on the clock. Alabama had the ball in the final minutes and even drove it down to the Tennessee 17-yard line. But this day belonged to the Big Orange, as Tennessee’s defense kept the seemingly unbeatable Crimson Tide out of the endzone to secure the 35-28 win at Neyland Stadium. A sea of orange stormed the field, the field goal post came crashing down as fans were preparing to take it down Cumberland Avenue in celebration. Amid all of the chaos, Johnny Majors was being carried off the field by his players as he shook hands with Bear Bryant at midfield. After the game, Bryant said, “The folks in Knoxville are happy. The folks who graduated from Tennessee are happy. The folks who live in Tennessee are happy. And all those folks have every right to be happy. They lined up and beat us.”