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Rivalry Renewed For Alabama and Tennessee? Not Quite: All Things CW

After 15 years of domination, the Crimson Tide will face the Volunteers for just the second time with both teams ranked during the Nick Saban era.

The All Things CW notes column by Christopher Walsh will appear in five parts this week, one each day leading up to Saturday's game against Texas A&M.

This is ...

Take 1 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As rivalries go this one was all but extinguished. 

Sure, the Alabama Crimson Tide and Tennessee still had the Third Saturday in October name, and the the players and coaches still light up victory cigars in celebration even though it's considered an NCAA violation.

But the scores have told a different story: 45-7, 58-21, 35-13, 48-17, 52-24. Those have been for just the past five years, as the points differential has only been growing. 

Consequently, it's a 15-game winning streak the Crimson Tide has in the series and Nick Saban still has a perfect record against the Volunteers while at Alabama. His teams have outscored the team in orange 589-201, for an average final of 38.3-13.4.

That's pure domination against a program that hasn't lived up to its end of the deal. 

The string that began at the end of the Phil Fulmer years, and endured Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt, two former Saban assistants and the other two ended up working for him. 

Actually, Dooley's been both as the Crimson Tide offensive analyst will be heading back to Knoxville and on the opposing sideline for the first time since he was fired in 2012 with a 15-21 record. 

Only three times since 2007, when Saban was hired at Alabama, has Tennessee finished a season in the AP Top 25, No. 12 in 2007, and No. 22 in 2015-16. Its only had three first-round NFL draft picks since 2010, and no 10-win seasons in a dozen-plus years.

That 2007 team, the last to reach the SEC Championship Game, may have finished higher had Tennessee not been upset in Tuscaloosa, 41-17, even though the textbook disbursement scandal was announced that day and Alabama was without some prominent starters. The No. 20 Vols still couldn't take advantage. 

Overall, the teams have played just once during the Saban era with both sides ranked. In 2016, No. 1 Alabama visited Knoxville with Tennessee at No. 9. However, the Vols were playing their fourth straight ranked opponent, and following a last-play victory over Georgia were coming off a 45-38 double-overtime loss at No. 8 Texas A&M.

The Crimson Tide crushed the home team, 49-10, starting the downward spiral leading to Jones being booted a year later. 

This used to be a benchmark game, crucial to the title chances of both sides, and led to quotes like the following from legendary Tennessee legendary coach General Robert Neyland: “You never know what a football player is made of until he plays Alabama.” 

He also once said: “Tennessee sophomores don’t deserve citizenship papers until they have survived an Alabama game.”

Perhaps college football should have known if what might develop when Alabama and Tennessee first met in 1901. With the game tied at 6-6, it ended up being called due to darkness. Spectators rushed the field in Birmingham to protest the outcome of a tie. 

Of all the stories and tales I've come across about college football over the years, this following one has been my favorite. It stems from the 1913 game, and not because darkness was a factor and anyone with a car was to encircle the Tuscaloosa field and turn on their headlights so that play could continue, or that Alabama pulled off the 6-0 victory. 

It was due to Bully VandeGraaff, the Crimson Tide's first All-American. 

“His ear had a real nasty cut and it was dangling from his head, bleeding badly,” Tennessee lineman Bull Bayer later said. “He grabbed his own ear and tried to yank it from his head. His teammates stopped him and the managers bandaged him. 

"Man, was that guy a tough one. He wanted to tear off his own ear so he could keep playing.”

Now that's a rivalry. 

It was under Paul W. “Bear” Bryant's coaching tenure that the tradition of cigars began, but his history with Tennessee goes way back, to even before his years as head coach at Kentucky (1946-53), and when he was an assistant at Vanderbilt (1940-41). 

One of the tales that's still told about his toughness stems from his senior year at Alabama in 1935, when Bryant played against Tennessee a week after suffering a broken leg against Mississippi State — and the fracture was confirmed by journalists who got to look at the X-ray. 

Bryant recounted in his autobiography the speech assistant coach Hank Crisp gave before the 25-0 victory: “I'll tell you gentlemen one thing. I don’t know about the rest of you, you or you or you. I don’t know what you’re going to do. But I know one damn thing. Old 34 will be after’em, he’ll be after their asses.”

“In those days they changed the players’ numbers almost every week ... to sell those quarter programs,” Bryant wrote. “So he’s up there talking about old 34, and I look down, and I’m 34! I had no idea of playing.”

Since then there have been some amazing performances, including by Julio Jones and Amari Copper. Alabama has recruited some outstanding players out of Tennessee's backyard including Dont'a Hightower and Barrett Jones, plus a couple of the games were incredibly close. 

Alabama's 2009 national championship season came dangerously close to being derailed by Kiffin, who could only helplessly watch nose tackle Terrence Cody make his second field goal block of the game in the closing seconds to preserve both the 12-10 victory and undefeated season.

“It’s funny, you wonder how the season might have been affected if that one armpit hadn’t blocked the kick. You never know," Barrett Jones said back in 2010. 

“Thankfully it did.”

But what's kept the rivalry smoldering on the Alabama end has been Fulmer's legacy. During various legal cases and lawsuits, court records indicated that the former Tennessee coach was instrumental in the NCAA Committee on Infractions building a case against the Crimson Tide during a recruiting scandal that could have resulted in the program being issued the death penalty. 

Numerous coaches had pointed the finger at Alabama, but Fulmer lobbied the SEC to take action and directed a key witness to investigators.

You know what they say about elephants never forgetting, and neither do Crimson Tide fans, who have subsequently enjoyed watching season after season for UT go up in smoke. 

Of course, over this past summer the NCAA issued a 51-page report detailing 18 alleged major violations by Tennessee, including up to $60,000 in cash and gifts given to football recruits and players by Pruitt, his wife, coaches, football staff, and boosters.

Despite the large number of violations, the NCAA declined to charge the university with lack of institutional control as Danny White took over. Fulmer had stepped down as athletic director in January 2021, and Pruitt was fired and replaced by Josh Heupel. 

The former Oklahoma quarterback is off to a good start in bringing the Volunteers back to relevance.

So yes, Alabama and Tennessee are rivals, and will probably always be. Crimson Tide fans still take exception to Peyton Manning leading the Pride of the Southland Band to celebrate a win 25 years ago, but do feel like karma caught up to the Volunteers.

As such, the slow burn of a cigar is appropriate symbolism.

However, there's only one thing that can fully reignite this rivalry, and heading into this weekend's top-10 matchup of No. 3 Alabama at No. 6 Tennessee it's something the Crimson Tide aims to hold it off for as long possible.

Tennessee has to win.  

Christopher Walsh's notes column All Things CW appears every week on BamaCentral.

See Also: 

What Does the Alabama/Tennessee Rivalry Mean After 15 Straight Crimson Tide Wins? Three-and-Out

Alabama Stays Atop Coaches Poll, Drops to No. 3 in AP Poll

GameDay Edition of All Things CW: Texas A&M at Alabama

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