The Third Saturday in October.
The coined term for one of the oldest rivalries in college football still has a way of conjuring memories — both good and bad — for fans of both Alabama and Tennessee. Dating back to 1901 when the teams first played to a 6-6 tie in Birmingham, the annual rivalry game used to represent the highest level of mid-season pageantry and tradition that the sport had to offer.
Nowadays, that luster has faded quite significantly. The Third Saturday in October has always been somewhat of a streaky rivalry. From 1995-2004, the Volunteers beat the Crimson Tide nine out of 10 years in a row. Now, Alabama currently holds a 14-game winning streak that has, in a sense, put the rivalry’s intensity on hold for over a decade.
While older Alabama and Tennessee fans still hold that same age-old hostility against their bitter rival, younger fans might have more difficulties in achieving the same level of anger. There are certainly exceptions but, in the case of young Crimson Tide fans, it might be rather difficult to garner distaste for a team that they might have never seen beat Alabama.
But more interestingly, how does that translate to the players of Alabama football, most of whom were under the age of six years old the last time the Crimson Tide lost at the hands of the Volunteers. And with many of the team’s players not coming from the state of Alabama, it’s unlikely that they even noticed those losses then.
This past Monday, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban expressed that he hoped to get the message of the rivalry’s importance to his players. Saban has not lost to the Volunteers since his arrival to Tuscaloosa back to 2007 — the beginning of the 14-year streak.
“I think the rivalry between Tennessee and Alabama is one of the old great rivalries in college football,” Saban said. “It goes way back. I know it means a lot to a lot of people in our state. It certainly means a lot to me, and hopefully we'll get that translated to our team.”
So how has that message come across? Let’s start with the Crimson Tide’s sophomore quarterback, Bryce Young. Young hails from Pasadena, California and had no connection to the rivalry prior to joining Alabama football in the spring of 2020.
Young has learned of the rivalry’s importance to fans from the more experienced personnel on the team as well as absorbing it through the program’s culture.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot more about it since I’ve been here,” Young said. “You’re around people who have been involved in past years. I definitely have learned how much it means to our alumni, our fan base, everyone. It’s something you don’t take lightly. It’s a rivalry.
“I started to understand what it meant to everyone as soon as I got here as I started to get into it. We’re all excited for it, we all know it’s going to be a tough week of work, we have to prepare and make sure we’re putting ourselves in the best position we can.”
What about one of his wide receivers, John Metchie III, who hails from Canada?
“I didn’t know anything about it before I got to Tuscaloosa,” Metchie said. “But I learned almost everything about it since being in Tuscaloosa. It’s kind of just different when it’s Tennessee week and the rivalry. So I kind of understand the importance of it to fans and the importance of it to the team.”
Both answers denote that a certain degree of intensity to the rivalry has dropped off in recent years, if we are to take both quotes at face value. If you were to go back in time just 20 to 25 years ago, the Third Saturday in October was must-watch college football. Not just for Crimson Tide and Volunteers fans, but for the entire country.
The luster of the rivalry isn’t completely lost, though. If anything, it’s evolved into something else entirely. To older fans, that bitter hatred of that ‘other’ team just over 300 miles away signifies the slogan of the Southeastern Conference: ‘It Just Means More’. However, from the players’ perspectives, there are also aspects that unify the two programs.
Following the 2020 season, Alabama and Tennessee essentially swapped two players after swiping them from the NCAA Transfer Portal. The Crimson Tide picked up the Volunteers’ leading tackler in linebacker Henry To’oTo’o, who quickly rose in the ranks to become a starter at the position in Tuscaloosa. For Tennessee, defensive back Brandon Turnage packed his bags for Knoxville and has become a staple of the Volunteers’ defensive backfield.
For both transfers, this game will mark each of their first games against their former teams. For To’oTo’o, his teammates are keeping mum on if his debut against the Volunteers has been a topic of discussion.
“Not that I know of,” defensive back Jordan Battle said. “Probably going to have to be a question for Henry.”
“Nah, no joking around with that,” defensive back Malachi Moore said.
For Turnage, it seems to be a similar scenario. Turnage and Battle both joined the Crimson Tide for their freshman seasons in 2019. Since then, the two have become strong friends. However, the topic of this week’s game seems to have not come up in conversation despite the duo speaking to each other on a daily basis.
“Me and BT speak every day, he’s one of my best friends,” Battle said. “We have a long-life relationship. I’m very happy for him. I’m proud of him, especially for achieving that SEC Defensive Player of the Week a few weeks ago. I’m hoping for continued success from my guy.”
“We stay away from football.”
Regardless of the connections, the Third Saturday in October still remains a bitter rivalry. While for the younger crowd the sentiment of absolute distaste for the opposing team — whether they wear crimson or orange — might be not as prevalent as it used to be, for the majority of both programs the fierce bitterness formed by years of timeless classics still holds strong.
It might not be the Third Saturday in October that older fans grew up with, but the fact that there is still bitterness after 14 years in one team’s favor shows just how deeply the roots of the historic rivalry go.
At the end of the day, the annual game signifies a chance to add humiliation to the other program. For Alabama, a victory would mean its 15th-consecutive win and yet another blow to Big Orange Nation. For Tennessee, the game represents a chance to ruin the Crimson Tide’s quest for an appearance in the College Football Playoff.
For linebacker Christian Harris, the spark created by the rivalry has a way of evening the playing field. If there’s one thing special about the Third Saturday in October, it’s this: you can never truly underestimate your opponent.
“It really makes it even more exciting for us to go out there and play the game,” Harris said. “I know those games on Saturdays, especially versus Tennessee — what a big rivalry.
“It really doesn’t matter what you did before, or what they did. It’s a whole different type of energy on this night, so we’ve got to be prepared for it.”