All streaks in sports come to an end and mathematics suggests Alabama’s current winning streak against Tennessee in football will eventually burn out — in the year 2055.
That’s the current trend, with Alabama having won by 39 points in 2016, 38 points in 2017 and 37 points (58-21) last year in Knoxville. This year’s game won’t be played until Saturday and the margin may or may not be 36 points, although everyone who thinks Las Vegas doesn’t pay attention to every detail should note the opening line on this year’s game listed Alabama as a 35.5-point favorite.
Setting aside Fun With Numbers, and hiding in a bomb shelter should someone (not me) ask Nick Saban about the trend, is wise. But it does raise another question: how did this series — which has admittedly always been streaky, although not to the current extent — go from a fierce and bitter annual event to the exercise in Orange futility that it is today? What happened in 2007 to make this reality?
Why do Alabama players regard this as a rivalry, not because they’ve been in a close game with Tennessee (unless they are fifth-year seniors), but because Nick Saban tells them so?
“Coach, he explained to us yesterday that this game right here means a lot to everybody because they’ve been around for a long time and we’ve been playing them for a long time,” defensive lineman Raekwon Davis said at Alabama’s Tuesday interview session. “So he holds us to a standard for this team.”
The obvious answer as to what happened in 2007, of course, is Nick Saban was hired. There is the simple nuts-and-bolts fact that the hiring gave Alabama the best coach in college football. But there was also a deeper statement involved.
For most of the stretch from 1995 through 2006, the Vols won most of the time (although not every time, with one-off losses to a 2002 Dennis Franchione team that threw just 12 passes and Mike Shula’s 2005 team with a vastly underrated defense.) But in those years, it was Tennessee that had stability — one coach, Philip Fulmer, with one plan and a unified fan base — and Alabama that was drifting from one crisis to another.
But the foundation Fulmer built suddenly crumbled in 2005. Tennessee was ranked No. 3 in the nation in the preseason AP Poll and wound up a dismal 5-6.
UT fans can give a variety of explanations for the sudden arrival of hard times; Alabama fans believe, universally, that it was karma. Fulmer still had a strong base of support and had 9-4 and 10-4 seasons after that, good years but not up to the Peyton Manning/Tee Martin glory days. When the 2008 team started out 3-6, the angst in the Smokies was enough to lead to Fulmer’s ouster, or resignation, depending on which you prefer. But there was no Saban to hire.
Whether Lane Kiffin, the Vols’ choice, could have succeeded in the long term is a fascinating “what if?” He was brash, recruited well, had the backing of the fans even in a 7-6 season — and walked out the same door he came in after one year, headed to USC. Since then, as Alabama grew stronger and stronger, Tennessee looked to find a firm place to stand.
Eventually, Fulmer was back as athletic director and a Saban disciple was hired as head coach, as good a plan as any. But that’s not stability, not yet. And until there is, the rivalry — and it will always be that — will remain one-sided, perhaps not until 2056, but for a while.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt