Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Football

Forget the retro jerseys, throwback memorabilia and gramp's hard-boiled tales of gridiron glory when hay makers regularly met leather helmets, and the only face mask was a five-day growth of beard soaked in pickle brine.

Watching Tennessee renew its annual one-day war against Alabama is like taking a seat in a time machine and setting the dials for Tuscaloosa in 1928.

That year General Robert R. Neyland's Volunteers eked out a 15-13 victory over the Crimson Tide en route to a 9-0-1 record. For sure it was a different era with lower scores and fewer rules favoring the offense. Some would call that era more primitive while others would regard it as pigskin purity.

For sure, it was an era dominated by defense and a time when Alabama and Tennessee dominated the southern football landscape. It was Neyland's third season on the job at Tennessee and the first time the Vols and the Tide had played since 1914. The rivals have played every year since then, but the tenants for success haven't changed at all. It's all about defense and the kicking game.

In was Neyland's first span as head coach at Tennessee (1926-1934), before duty, honor and country called the General into active service. In that eight-year period Neyland went 76-7-5 and his Volunteers surrendered an average of 32 points per season or a field goal per game. Three of those seven defeats were to Alabama as Neyland went 4-3 vs. Alabama. He went 2-1 against Bama's venerable Wallace Wade in those first three games before Wade left to coach Duke. That success and competition against the Crimson Tide cemented UT's approach to football for the next seven decades and defined The third Saturday in October as a sacred date in the college football season.

In keeping with tradition, this meeting takes on all the characteristics of a throwback game to that long ago era when the pursuit of excellence by two programs bound them together for all time. The Volunteers and the Crimson Tide brought out the best in each other over the years and established their series as the most prestigious in the South, which, by way, makes it one of the signature rivalries in the country.

Simply put Tennessee-Alabama is rock em, sock em football. It's a lot more about wills than thrills, although there is rarely a shortage of big plays, while momentum seems to hang perpetually, and precariously, in the balance. The average score in the last three meetings between these teams is: Tennessee 12, Alabama 11. The Vols won Saturday's contest 16-13. They won the 1928 game 15-13.

Although closely contested the UT-UA rivalry has been distinguished by its intensity and ferocity. There have been some blowouts and a few big-time shootouts but, even then, the tipping point is usually generated on defense or in the kicking game.

It's interesting to note some of the connections between the programs. Phillip Fulmer played under head coach Bill Battle who played at Alabama for Bear Bryant. He also coached under Johnny Majors, who was recruited at Tennessee by Neyland and played under Bowden Wyatt. Of course, Mike Shula played at Alabama and threw the pass in 1985 that Tennessee linebacker Dale Jones caught at point blank range. Shula played under Gene Stallworth who played his college football under Bear Bryant.

That type of continuum, along with the unflagging impetus placed on the game by fans of each school, has kept the significance of this series alive in the hearts and minds of the players. Naturally, these teams have other rivals since that's the nature of the SEC beast, but Tennessee vs. Alabama is rooted much deeper. It's a celebration of competition that finds it's essence in its excellence.

If you are known by the company you keep, you are measured by the enemies you keep. That's why Tennessee and Alabama need each other.


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