Alabama-Tennessee rivalry has rich history … just not rich recent history

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Just to prove how twisted up college football has become, the third Saturday in October is now the fourth Saturday in October.

The third Saturday was the traditional date for the Alabama-Tennessee game, and the “Third Saturday” title still hangs there, albeit a bit awkwardly, as if awaiting an asterisk for this go-‘round.

The late ESPN analyst Beano Cook once advised residents of the two states, “Don’t get married on the third Saturday in October, and try not to die — because in either case, the preacher might not show.”

A broken leg didn't stop Bear Bryant from playing against Tennessee in 1935.

A broken leg didn’t stop Bear Bryant from playing against Tennessee in 1935.

Geography and tradition has always played a part in making this rivalry special. And when it was as meaningful to an icon as it was to Paul “Bear” Bryant, the whole thing gets contagious.

To Bryant, beating Tennessee was pretty much on equal priority as beating Auburn. Perhaps because he found it a little more difficult.

Bryant was 0-5-2 vs. Tennessee legend Bob Neyland while he was coaching Kentucky and finished with a 16-7-2 career record against the Vols; that included a four-game losing streak while at Alabama. He was 19-6 against Auburn.

Perhaps, too, it was because Bryant played in the 1935 game against Tennessee with a broken leg. Said Bryant to a reporter, “It was just one little bone.”

Tennessee coaching legend. Gen. Robert Neyland

Tennessee coaching legend. Gen. Robert Neyland

Nick Saban isn’t given much to sentiment or looking beyond the parameters of the football field, but even he understands.

“The Tennessee game is a special game to a lot of people in the state of Alabama because of the tradition and the rivalry that has existed here for a long time, as well as the history that the game brings,” he said on Monday.

If you’re a sportswriter approaching your sunset years, with a birth certificate issued in Tennessee and a driver’s license issued in Alabama, with nearly 40 football seasons of years of typing on either side of the state line, you really have an appreciation for the depth of the rivalry.

I’ve observed that Alabama-Auburn is based on hostility and day-to-day proximity. It’s like a sword fight. Alabama-Tennessee is a rock fight, things flung from a distance, but no less lethal.

And I think of the number of guys I’ve covered who’ve crossed state lines to go to the “other” place. Like Condredge Holloway, Rashad Moore and Joey Kent from Huntsville. Bryant, to his credit, told Holloway that Alabama wasn’t ready for a black quarterback. So he signed with Tennessee (and played for ex-Alabama receiver and current Alabama AD Bill Battle).

Remember how Kent, who’ll be in town next week to speak to the Huntsville Quarterback Club, caught that 80-yarder from Peyton Manning on the first play of the 1995 Alabama-Tennessee game, helping the Vols end a nine-game losing streak.

And, from the other direction, think about Dont’a Hightower, coming from Lewisburg, Tenn., to Alabama en route to NFL stardom.

Alabama has won eight in a row, and there’s no reason to believe the streak won’t grow to nine this weekend.  Common sense, analysis and Las Vegas would all concur.

The closest the Vols have come to winning lately is the length of Terrence Cody’s fingers. He gave Daniel Moore an instant-classic painting opportunity by blocking the last-second field goal in 2009 to preserve the Tide’s win.

WHNT News 19's new sports commentary segment, Upon Further Review, features Mark McCarter's unique wit and humor.

WHNT News 19’s new sports commentary segment, Upon Further Review, features Mark McCarter’s unique wit and humor.

Tennessee’s Butch Jones offered his own paean to the Alabama-Tennessee series on Monday.

“I understand the importance of the rivalry,” Jones said. “This game means a lot to both institutions, both universities, our fan bases and our players. It means a lot. I have spoken about getting the rivalry back to making it relevant again and being in these football games for us.”

There’s a pretty essential element right there.

Rivalries need to be two-sided. And recent history tells us Tennessee hasn’t been holding up its end of the bargain.

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