"I don't accept that word–put that word in my vocabulary, the word ‘rival,'" Tide offensive guard Evan Mathis said this week when asked about escalating tensions between Alabama and Tennessee. "I'm going to prepare for each team like I need to prepare. I'm going to put myself in the best position to prepare for that game. Even if it's a rivalry, there's no reason to prepare more for that game as opposed to any other game."
Mathis' sentiments illustrate an important point: the ugly part of an increasingly ugly series between Alabama and Tennessee just doesn't matter as much to those who play it as those who follow it.
Is Saturday's game important to the denizens of the Alabama football complex?
You better believe it.
But Alabama's players and coaches have a disconnect from the Tommy Gallion-Ronnie Cottrell-Phillip Fulmer saga that has grabbed headlines in both states for the past two years, culminating in Fulmer's diatribe-via-speakerphone at this summer's SEC Media Days.
No one in the program, save fifth-year seniors like Mathis, Wesley Britt, Danny Martz, Cornelius Wortham and a select few others, has any connection to Cottrell or Ivy Williams, the former Tide assistants behind the $60 million lawsuit against the NCAA and various other defendants filed nearly two years ago.
To them, Gallion's grandstanding is just another sideshow in a circus where the game–the part they control–is the main act.
"All the things that have been happening in the media, that means just as much to me during the game and preparing for the game as if I was watching the news and saw something about the election," Mathis said this week. "It's totally separate. I don't need to apply that to the game. Why would that help me play harder or prepare better? It's just in the news–you read about it and hear about it."
Players were far more willing this week to talk about on-the-field matters than they were the rivalry's escalating tensions.
Ask about 2002's streak-snapping blowout victory in Knoxville or last season's gutwrenching five-overtime loss, and you got real emotion and engaging answers.
Bring up off-field issues like lawyers, Gallion, or Fulmer, and you get clichés like "one game at a time," "the next game is the most important game" and, my personal favorite, "controlling what we can control and nothing else."
Luckily for us controversy-starved scribes, Gallion still answers his phone.
He called Tennessee receiver Jayson Swain a "nitwit" when Swain suggested to reporters this week that "we get those lawyers out there and strap them up and play (Saturday)."
"If he wants me to go out there on the football field and strap it up, that's one of the most idiotic things I've ever heard," Gallion said. "I'm 61 years old. I wouldn't strap it up and go out for a pee-wee game. It's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard, and I think (Swain) is a nitwit."
Even the outspoken Swain wouldn't take Gallion's bait, though, proving that game-face focus extends on both sides of the state border this week. Speaking on a teleconference with beat reporters from both states, Swain–a Huntsville native whose ACT score was questioned by Gallion this summer–said he has no problem with the state of Alabama.
"Just because I go to school at Tennessee, it doesn't mean that I'm moving from Alabama," Swain said. "My home's there. My clothes are there. This isn't all that serious. It's the best opportunity for me and my family, and for me to play football. I'll come back (eventually)."
With both sides talking down the rivalry, the media was left to create its own controversy.
Seconds after Swain said he'd return to Alabama, a Knoxville reporter asked him if Gallion's comments were "just another attempt to stir up controversy from people in Alabama."
Swain laughed it off, and audible groans were heard on the open phone line.
Make no mistake–Saturday's game will be intense, a contest that will stir deep emotions on both sides of the ball.
But the most virulent emotions will likely remain in Neyland Stadium's 104,000 seats.
Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this weekly column for BamaMag.com