Tide Must Play Up To Competition

You have to give Tennessee credit. The Volunteers have had Alabama down for a long time now, and the Crimson Tide can't seem to get up off the carpet. It's of little comfort that this Alabama team–though showing signs of better things to come–continues the recent Bama pattern of being considered a long shot to win tough games.

Alabama has had a reputation for sometime of playing down to the opposition. That is not a factor in this week's game against Tennessee. There will be no playing down to the Vols, who have piled top recruiting seasons on one another under Coach Phil Fulmer. This week Bama will have to play up to the opposition. In fact, the Tide will have to find a way to play beyond that in order to get a win.

We've heard the talk about how this game has lost its luster, that Alabama-Tennessee is no longer relevant. That's fueled in part because of television executives selecting two other Southeastern Conference games ahead of the most storied rivalry in Southeastern Conference history. One can understand the appeal of Kentucky, having just upset number one ranked LSU, hosting defending national champion Florida. That is the CBS pick. And one can understand ESPN selecting Auburn at LSU. Those teams are tied for the SEC West lead and they were the pre-season favorites to win the West.

That doesn't mean Alabama-Tennessee is somehow not important. A glance at the current SEC standings shows that Auburn and LSU have company at the 3-1 mark. Alabama is tied for the division lead with the same record. A win over Tennessee and Bama will have legitimate aspirations of playing in the SEC Championship Game as either Auburn or LSU is going to get its second conference loss Saturday night in Baton Rouge.

A few weeks ago Tennessee seemed to be in for a bad season after being thrashed by California and Florida. But the Gators losing back-to-back games and the Vols blasting Georgia has Tennessee back in charge of its own destiny (though there is the little matter of Steve Spurrier's South Carolina ahead for Fulmer's Vols).

A few weeks ago, most expected Alabama vs. Tennessee to be a game to help posture the teams for post-season bowl games. It may still come to that, but for now there is more on the table.

More than that, the theory of irrelevancy had–and has–some legs.

The measurements of the past, national championships and SEC championships and victories and winning percentage and bowl games and bowl wins have been like the ramblings of an exhausted Willie Loman.

To be sure, Alabama's problems of the past decade have helped take some of the luster off the game. Bama has not been at full strength in a long time.

The switch to division play with the expansion of the SEC also had some effect, particularly from the Tennessee perspective. Once upon a time the Third Saturday in October was more often than not the decisive game in the SEC, one that often had national implications. But after the SEC split into divisions, at the same time Spurrier was making Florida a powerhouse, the Vols suddenly had two huge games (and usually one huge loss) before getting to Alabama.

Alabama could still make the case that the Tennessee game was the most important on the schedule because Bama's other toughest games–LSU and Auburn–came at the end of the season. But Alabama as often as not got to Tennessee week already wounded in lesser battles.

It's impossible to know if Alabama-Tennessee will regain the place it had as a game of national interest. This year's game on Saturday, though, looks like a step back in that direction–the decision of television not to put it on a big stage notwithstanding.

It would be a good time for Alabama to step up.

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