Clash of Coaches

When Alabama opened its crimson vaults and shelled out mega millions to lure Nick Saban back to the SEC, it was for the expressed purpose of restoring the program to its past glory, but there is an asterisk to that mandate which states: *BEAT TENNESSEE.

The Vols' 11-3 dominance of Alabama under Phillip Fulmer's direction sticks in the craw of Tide fans. The fact the first of those wins came when a 17-17 tie in 1993 was later forfeited along with the rest of the wins that season as part of NCAA penalties, doesn't make the matter any more palatable.

Throw in the longest losing streak (9) to any opponent in Alabama's rich football history along with Fulmer's involvement in reporting Bama recruiting violations that led to more NCAA penalties and sanctions and you have in CPF Alabama's Public Enemy No. 1.

There's also the matter of Fulmer's standing among active head coaches for winning percentage with at least 10 years of experience, and his status as dean of SEC head coaches with 16 years at UT's helm, which makes Tennessee a high value target for every opponent it plays.

Interestingly, the situation was reversed 30 years ago when Bear Bryant was the dean of SEC coaches and Alabama ruled the conference behind a bone-rattling defense and an explosive wishbone offense that had been installed in 1971. After failing to beat his alma mater and former head coach for six straight seasons, Bill Battle had become expendable and Johnny Majors, who led Pittsburgh to the 1976 national championship, came marching home.

However Alabama's dominance of the series continued for another five seasons before Tennessee finally broke through with a victory in 1982 that ended 11 straight seasons of losses to the Crimson Tide. That would also be Bryant's swan song as he entered retirement and then the afterlife.

Tennessee won the next three seasons to extend their victory streak to four, but the magical 1985 season would be the last time a Majors' team would beat Alabama, as the Crimson Tide ran off seven straight wins to reassume control of the rivalry.

Majors' failure to do better than a 4-12 record against Alabama was the biggest source of fan dissatisfaction with his performance as head coach. The early defeats were understandable because Bryant had established a gridiron powerhouse in Tuscaloosa that few teams were beating. It was the last seven losses that would prove most damaging as they cost the Vols three SEC titles and a shot at the national title.

In 1989, 1990 and 1991 the Vols had a total of five regular season losses and three of those were to Alabama. The problem was further compounded by the perception that Tennessee had more talent than Alabama.

That was usually the case, but the Vols had a way of playing to their worst instncts against the Tide. The game was so big to Coach Majors that he had a tendency to go super conservative, allowing the Crimson Tide to hang close with good defense and inferior offensive firepower. Invariably Alabama would find a way to win late as Tennessee faded with the finish line in sight. It's hard enough for Big Orange fans to accept losing to a superior Alabama and something altogether different to lose to Bama teams with less talent than UT.

That sets the stage for Saturday's showdown in Tuscaloosa and helps explain why this contest is so vital to both Fulmer and Saban. Tennessee has more talent than the Tide while Alabama has the home field advantage. A victory appears more important at this point to Fulmer than it does to Saban. Fulmer has had 16 years to establish his program at Tennessee while Saban is in his first year on the job and has yet to recruit a full class of players to fit his system.

The situation was similar the last time these coaches met. That was the 2001 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta which the Vols entered needing a victory to win the conference crown and earn a trip to the Rose Bowl for a national title shot. Tennessee had beat LSU in the regular season and appeared to have hit its stride the week before with the schools' first victory in Gainesville in 30 years.

The Vols got out to a 17-7 lead and the issue was all but decided when the Tigers lost both their starting quarterback and tailback to injuries. Somehow with an inexperienced quarterback, Mike Mauck, who completed just 5 of 15 passes for 67 yards and no TDs that night, LSU outscored Tennessee 24-3 the rest of the way for a 31-20 victory. That's as close as the Vols have come to a championship of any kind since.

It just goes to show you never know. Tennessee's defense that December night included John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Will Overstreet, Eddie Moore, Andre Lott, Julian Battle, Rashad Baker and Jabari Greer. The offense featured a line with Scott Wells, Fred Weary and Reggie Coleman. The receivers were Donte Stallworth and Kelly Washington. Sophomore quarterback Casey Clausen was enjoying a career year as was senior tailback Travis Stephens, who set the school's single-season rushing record. The punter was Dustin Colquitt.

Because the Vols also have a personnel advantage coming into this game Fulmer's under the gun to win. After all if he can't beat Saban with superior talent how can he beat him with equal or less talent? And it's just a matter of time before the Tide are loaded with blue chip prospects.

Even though it would appear there isn't a good chance these two coaching giants can coexist and both succeed in meeting the expectations of their ravenous fan bases, it would be in both schools' best interest to have a competitive rivalry between perennial national powers. That would return this game to its stature as one of the most anticipated battles of the college season which would benefit both sides since prospects love the idea of being part of the biggest contests.

It's hard to imagine that Tennessee and Alabama need each other, but in football you are measured best by the strength of your worst enemy.

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