An Inside Look at Tennessee vs. Auburn

Auburn doesn't rate as a traditional rival for Tennessee, after all, the schools have only played 47 times between 1900 and 2003, a span of 103 years. The Vols have played twice as many games against Alabama, (96), Vanderbilt (97) and Kentucky (99). They have played more games against Mississippi (60) and nearly as many against Mississippi State (42).

The Vols and Tigers had a gap of 29 years from when they first played until they met again in 1929 and another gap of 17 years in which they didn't play between 1939 and 1956. They played 34 straight seasons between 1956 and 1991, but after the SEC expanded and divided, the teams didn't meet again until 1997 (in the SEC Championship) and have played each other only once in the last four seasons.

This recitation of the record isn't intended to undermine the significance of this SEC series, but rather to underscore it. To put the Tennessee-Auburn contest into perspective you have look beyond the streaks to the stakes. Consider that no Tennessee team in the post Robert R. Neyland era, has ever won an Southeastern Conference Championship without going through Auburn. The post-Neyland era began in 1953 and includes eight championships— 1956, 1967, 1969, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1997 and 1998.

In those eight championship campaigns covering the best seasons in modern Tennessee football history, the Vols amassed a 7-0-1 record against the Tigers. In fact, if UT had beaten Auburn last year, the Vols would have earned an opportunity to play for its ninth conference title in the last 47 years. In 1970, when Phillip Fulmer was a starting guard for the Vols, Tennessee would have gone undefeated and been a national title contender if not for a loss to Auburn in Birmingham. In the first three years of Bill Battle's head coaching career at UT, the Vols lost a total of five games. Three of those contests were losses to Auburn, including narrow defeats of 10-9 in 1971 and 10-6 in 1972.

In 1964, Doug Dickey's first season at UT, a 3-0 loss to the Tigers denied the Vols a winning season. A 28-14 setback in 1968, cost Tennessee a chance to win three straight SEC championships under Dickey, an achievement only realized once in UT football history by Neyland in 1938, 1939 and 1940. During that magnificent three-year run under Neyland, the Vols beat Auburn in 1938 by a score of 7-0 and again in 1939 by a score of 7-0.

On the other side of the coin, Auburn has won a total of four SEC football championships throughout its entire history. The Tigers took the league title in 1957, 1983, 1987 and 1988. During those four seasons, Auburn was 3-0-1 against Tennessee. Auburn was the nation's No. 1 ranked team in 1985 when the Vols scored a 38-20 upset in Knoxville and went on to capture the SEC crown.

In other words, the loser of the Auburn-Tennessee game hasn't ever won an SEC title. And since these games have carried so much importance over the years, the intensity level has been proportional high. For many years this match was the first SEC game for both teams and it helped determine the course of the season, much as Florida does now for UT.

After 47 meetings, Tennessee has a 21-23-3 record against Auburn. Alabama and Auburn are the only SEC schools that UT doesn't have a winning record against.

This year's game figures to be just as significant to the SEC title as any ever. Auburn and Tennessee got an early edge in their respective divisions with last second victories over Florida and LSU. If Tennessee wins this contest and loses to Georgia next week, the Bulldogs will still need to beat Florida, plus take three out of four against LSU, Arkansas and Auburn to assure themselves of an SEC title. (That's assuming they're not upset by Kentucky or Vanderbilt.) By the way, UGA only plays LSU and Vanderbilt in Athens.

Conversely, Tennessee would need victories over Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to put the pressure back on Georgia. They play 3 of those 5 games in Knoxville. The Vols have beaten Alabama 8 of the last 9 meetings, while they've defeated South Carolina 11 straight, Mississippi 10 straight, Vanderbilt 21 straight and Kentucky 19 times in a row.

In way of comparison, Georgia has lost five straight to Florida and 3 of the last 5 meetings against Auburn. It is 9-12-1 all time against LSU and 6-3 vs. Arkansas. Only one of those wins came in Fayetteville.

If Tennessee loses to both Auburn and Georgia, it would need a minor miracle to win the SEC crown. That's why the Auburn game is as important as any Tennessee will play this year.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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