Stuart McNair

Alabama and Tennessee have been the top teams in SEC history

Many believe Alabama’s biggest game is vs. Tennessee, not Auburn

Alabama Coach Nick Saban stirred the Alabama-Auburn rivalry a bit when earlier this year he said that his players seemed to consider Tennessee to be the Crimson Tide’s biggest rival.

This year, Alabama was the preseason pick in most polls to win the Southeastern Conference West Division and Tennessee was predicted to be the top team in the SEC East. This week the teams will play in Knoxville with Bama undefeated at 6-0 and  ranked first in the nation and Tennessee (5-1, coming off a double overtime loss at undefeated Texas A&M) ranked ninth.

The game will be televised on CBS with kickoff at 2:30 p.m. CDT. It will be Tennessee’s third consecutive CBS game and the second of the year for Bama with a third already announced for the following week when Alabama hosts Texas A&M.

In the state of Alabama, most Alabama and Auburn fans would likely consider the in-state opponent to be the biggest rival, in great part because talk radio and the Internet have ramped up the emotions of fans. But there is also the obvious – the in-state aspect, the fact that so many players on each side are from the state and played with or against one another in high school, and so many alumni of each school working and socializing.

Still, the fan bases on both sides have contingents who disagree. It is not uncommon to hear Auburn fans say the biggest rival for the Tigers is Georgia. That’s partly because the Auburn-Georgia game is the longest continuous Southern rivalry, and, probably, partly because Auburn has educated so many Georgia residents. It is also much closer in all-time wins and losses than is the Alabama-Auburn rivalry.

There are many in the Alabama camp who consider Tennessee to be the Tide’s biggest rival based on the fact that in almost every category of success, Alabama is tops in the Southeastern Conference and Tennessee second.

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Alabama has won 25 SEC championships (beginning with the first one in 1933 and taking the last two in 2014 and 2015). Tennessee is second in league championships with 13.

Notably in those combined 38 championship years for both teams, a win over the other has almost always been required. In 1989, Alabama and Tennessee tied for the championship (Alabama won the game that year). Otherwise, in 1990, Tennessee lost to the Tide, but the Vols won the championship, and in 1999, Bama lost to UT, but won the league title.

In all-time SEC standings, Alabama is first, Tennessee second. In total wins and conference wins, again, it is 1. Bama, 2. Vols. In bowl game appearances among SEC teams, Alabama is tops, Tennessee second.

Although expansion has altered the SEC schedule from time-to-time and moved the Alabama-Tennessee game a week or so off its traditional date, The Third Saturday in October has national fame as the day that Tennessee plays Alabama.

Legends Paul Bryant of Alabama and Robert Neyland of Tennessee have long been considered the best coaches in SEC history (although Nick Saban has, at the least, joined that group). Indeed, Bryant’s obsession with Tennessee likely had an effect on the Tide fan base having that mindset.

Alabama also has had a longstanding tradition of players and coaches enjoying post-game cigars together in the lockerroom following wins over Tennessee. (There is a report that Alabama reports itself for a secondary NCAA violation after each of these celebrations since the NCAA bans tobacco products for such situations.)

An oddity in the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry is how many times one side or the other has a long streak of victories. Alabama won 7 in a row from 1905 to 1913, won 11 straight from 1971-1981, won 7 consecutive from 1986 to 1982, and is on a 9-game winning streak dating from Saban’s arrival at Alabama in 2007, which has inflated the Tide’s lead in the 98-game series to 53-37-8. The Vols have had streaks of four or more consecutive wins in 1955-58, 1967-70, 1982-85, and 1995-2001.

The series began in 1901 with a 6-6 tie and Alabama and Tennessee have played each other every year since 1928 except for 1943, when because of World War II neither school fielded a team.

This week, Saban said, “This game is a really big rivalry game and a special one for a lot of people in our state, our supporters, and our fans. It's obviously a big game for our players as well, and it's very challenging to play this game on the road as it always is because there's always a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”

Tennessee or Auburn? That was a theme when reporters met with Alabama players Monday. Here are some of their comments:

Linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton of Montgomery said, “It’s Tennessee because we play Tennessee this week. Even as a little kid, Third Saturday in October was Tennessee weekend. That’s the game. Pretty big game. I think that rivalry is right up there with Auburn. I’m looking forward to it.”

Hamilton said he likes the cigar tradition. “That’s probably one of the richest traditons in the country,” he said. As for where the cigars come from, he said, “I don’t even know. They’re just in the locker room, and I see them, so I take one and light it up.”

Tight end O.J. Howard of Prattville was asked if it’s the biggest game of the year. He said, “I think so. We all know how tough Tennessee plays us every time we play them. It’s a very important game to a lot of guys around here. It means a lot. It means a lot to our fans. It’s a rivalry game we take a lot of pride in.”

But bigger than Auburn?

“I wouldn’t say bigger,” he said. “To some people it is. Some of the fans really think it’s bigger, but I think they are both kind of important. You know Auburn is just an in-state team and that’s why I think it’s really important. It’s our rivalry in the same state so only one person can have bragging rights for the whole year. So that’s why I think the Auburn game, but this is definitely important to a lot of people.”

Offensive guard Ross Pierschbacher came to Alabama from Iowa without much knowledge of Alabama-Auburn.

He said, “I feel like yeah, Tennessee’s a big rival obviously and LSU, Auburn. This year it’ll be a big game and it’ll mean a lot for the SEC. Just being away and in that hostile environment, it means a lot to us. They have a great environment, and it just makes it fun for us to play there and gets us more hyped up. So yeah, it’ll be interesting.

“I guess with the cigars, it’s a pretty big deal to the old timers around here.

 “People back home asked me if we did that for every game, and I said no. We don’t know a lot about it up in Iowa, so it was fun; fun for the time being, just being out with your teammates after a big win. It makes it fun.”

He said he’s not a cigar guy, but “It was pretty cool. Everyone was real excited, and it was a big win my freshman year at Tennessee. So I just think it meant a lot for us. It’s just something different, definitely, to be smoking a cigar with your coaches after a game. I’d never experienced that before.”

Pierschbacher took a pass on choosing between the Vols and Auburn as top rivalry for him. “I’d probably say LSU to be honest, because it has the most implications year-in and year-out as far as playoffs,” he said. “Whatever game means the most that season, I think that’s kind of the biggest rivalry of the year, and that’s what the players get most hyped up about.”

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