Without weighing in on the debate about Alabama’s “biggest” rival — Auburn, Tennessee or even, for a short stretch a few years ago, LSU (which considers Alabama its archrival down to the last chromosomes in Mike the Tiger’s feline DNA) — the history of the Crimson Tide against the Volunteers has no peer in the annals of Southeastern Conference play.
The last few years have raised a question, though. Is the rivalry fading away? Alabama has won every game between the two since Nick Saban arrived. Since Terrence Cody lifted a mighty ham-sized hand and blocked a last-second field goal in 2009, the last meeting between head coaches Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin (surely the football gods will allow it to happen again in the future), it’s been ugly. There has been one close game — Alabama’s 19-15 win in 2015. That contest had a narrow margin but never felt dramatic, as if an upset was about to happen at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The rest have been one-sided, to be kind. Alabama’s margin of victory since that 2009 game, is right at 25 points (34.9-10.0).
That’s why a response like this from a young player, while it might cause fans of a different generation to grind their teeth, isn’t unexpected.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry, but it’s definitely a big game,” Alabama sophomore offensive tackle Jedrick Wills. “It’s not equal to Auburn, but it’s still a big game. I wouldn’t consider it a rivalry.”
Wills only knows what he has seen. But is the end of the rivalry really here?
In some ways, this is an expanded version of this season’s fourth-quarter paradox. Would it be better for the rivalry there was a close game along the way? Would it help Alabama in some peculiar way, in the same way that some people argue that 2018 Alabama “needs” to be “tested” along the way. Even if either of those proposals is true, what is the Crimson Tide supposed to do about it? Play worse?
Saban doesn’t see it that way. “I haven’t seen it change at all,” Saban said. “To me it’s a big game. It doesn’t matter what happened last year or 10 years ago.”
That certainly precludes any questions about the 29-point line, the largest ever for a road team in the series. Saban was asked cursory questions about Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama’s ex-defensive coordinator and the current Tennessee head coach. Pruitt’s hire was not simply a case of “if you can’t beat them, hire their best people.” He was ultimately Tennessee’s best choice, even when their original search team seemed determined to hire almost anyone else they could find. There will be a difference in the future, maybe not this year — although Pruitt already seems to have instilled a sense of identity into this year’s Volunteer team. Now he needs to back that up with two or three solid recruiting years to narrow the talent gap.
That old-time feeling isn’t going to come back until Alabama players and fans finally have to skip an annual cigar, currently as predictable a part of the month as Halloween candy. Their mission isn’t to make things closer between the two. History, from their viewpoint, will have to step aside, a victim of changing times and their own prowess.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.