Who is the University of Alabama’s biggest football rival?
Depends on who you ask.
Someone asked Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban on his radio show a couple of weeks ago, and his answer raised a few eyebrows.
Tennessee was the coach’s response.
Actually, it was a little more nuanced than that, but the end result was bright orange without a hint of blue.
“I think you get very quickly a feel for what your own players on your own team, even that were here before you came here, what’s important to them,” Saban said. “And it was very obvious to me that the Tennessee game was always the biggest game for us.
“That’s no disrespect to Auburn or the great Iron Bowl rivalries. But to our players and a lot of our fans, the Tennessee game, because of the tradition of the game … it didn’t take long to figure that out.”
As Alabama goes to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday seeking a 10th straight victory over the Volunteers, it’s time to examine the rivalry’s place in Alabama lore. Do passions run so deep that Tennessee stands as Public Enemy No. 1 for UA supporters.
Three schools can reasonably be counted as contenders for the title of being Alabama’s top rival.
The rivalry with Tennessee is Alabama’s most historic, a big game on the schedule since before today’s fans were born.
Auburn is the in-state nemesis, which brings its own circumstances to fans on each side.
Then there’s LSU. Because the Alabama-LSU showdown has been most prominent in recent years, there’s a younger generation of fans who point to the Bayou Bengals as Alabama’s most important foe.
There’s a case to be made for each.
The Case for Auburn
Alabama vs. Auburn is ranked among the greatest college football rivalries of all time by almost every source that has ever addressed the topic: NFL.com and Bleacher Report recently named it No. 1, ESPN called it one of the top 10 rivalries among all sports (alongside Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, the Yankees vs. Red Sox and others) and dedicated a documentary to it. It’s hard to find a list that doesn’t tab it as one of the top five rivalries in college football history.
What makes it so important? Alabama and Auburn fans have to coexist in a football-crazy state.
“I still say for most fans Auburn is the No. 1 (rivalry) because that’s the people you have to live with and work with year-round,” said Tom Roberts, who spent 36 years as a part of the UA broadcast crew.
Alabama and Auburn played a dozen times between 1983 and 1907 before the series was discontinued over disagreements involving expenses for players and who would officiate, as well as some intense battles off the field over land grants, endowment funds and appropriations. It resumed under state pressure in 1948, following a resolution in the state legislature a year earlier urging the schools to renew the series and an implied threat that the government might get involved if the schools did not agree to play.
The long hiatus underscores the intense feelings surrounding the rivalry, but also takes away from the history.
“They didn’t play,” said John C. Taylor, a 95-year-old Alabama fan who resides in Atlanta. “I don’t think Alabama people, I don’t know about the athletic department and the university itself, but the fans didn’t think of Auburn as any kind of competition then. It got to be real important just a little bit before I moved from Tuscaloosa in 1960.”
The games and the stakes have lived up to the hype.
In the 1980s, Alabama and Auburn played five consecutive contests that were decided by a total of 12 points, with each school creating moments that lived in history: “The Kick” by Van Tiffin to win for Alabama in 1985, “Bo Over the Top” by Bo Jackson to win for Auburn in 1982.
More recent installments have taken things to an even higher level. The winner of the game went on to win the national championship from 2009-12, with Alabama claiming three of those titles. Auburn won the Iron Bowl in 2013, knocking Alabama out of the national title picture and going on to finish runner-up in the championship game. Alabama won the next year and made the College Football Playoff, and again last year on the way to winning yet another national title.
“The Alabama-Auburn thing since I got done playing has really grown,” said former Crimson Tide player Roger Shultz, who played from 1987-90. “We’re their circle-the-date thing.”
The Iron Bowl was played at Birmingham’s Legion Field until 1989, when Auburn – in a move that drew consternation from Alabama fans – took its home game to campus for the first time, starting a process that would result in all Iron Bowl games being played in the schools’ home stadiums starting in 2000.
Alabama holds a 45-35-1 edge in the series and won nine in a row from 1973-81. Auburn won six in a row from 2002-07. Since that time, Alabama has won six of the last eight.
But it still comes back to proximity. Most every fan in the state lives or works or goes to school alongside a fan of the other team. The pride of victory and sting of defeat lingers for a full year.
“You know Auburn is just an in-state team and that’s why I think it’s really important,” said UA senior tight end O.J. Howard, who is from Prattville. “It’s our rivalry in the same state so only one person can have bragging rights for the whole year.”
The Case for LSU
The idea of LSU being a chief rival for Alabama is a recent phenomenon.
From the LSU side, strong feelings were aroused when the Tigers’ former coach, Saban, came to Alabama 10 seasons ago. He left LSU for the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League, then landed at Alabama after only two seasons in the pro ranks.
When Saban made his first visit to Baton Rouge, La., as Alabama’s coach in 2008, he was burned in effigy at an event attended by, among others, LSU’s costumed mascot, Mike the Tiger.
But those hard feelings weren’t what fanned the Alabama-LSU flames: It was the rise to prominence of both programs at the same time. Alabama and LSU played in a series of high-profile games with national championship implications, and even played each other for the 2011 national title, with the Crimson Tide coming out on top. Alabama, which has won five in a row in the series dating back to that championship win, owns a 51-25-5 advantage.
Since 2007, at least one team has been ranked in the top five going into the game, which has become a regular prime-time event, broadcast nationally by CBS. Both teams have been ranked in the top 10 six times in the last 10 meetings, with both ranked in the top five three times and two No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdowns.
“LSU has been the game for so many years now, the game you had to win in order to stay in the running for the SEC championship or the national championship,” Roberts said.
Those high-profile matchups made an impression on Ross Pierschbacher, a redshirt sophomore offensive lineman from Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“I’d probably say LSU to be honest,” he said when asked who Alabama’s biggest rival is, “because it has the most implications year-in and year-out as far as playoffs and stuff like that.”
The Case for Tennessee
The Alabama-Tennessee series dates more than 100 years, with the teams playing every year since 1928 with the exception of 1943, when there was a break for World War II. The late Paul W. “Bear” Bryant famously played a role in the rivalry as a player long before he did as a legendary coach at Alabama.
“Alabama-Tennessee is a rivalry that goes back 66 years,” John Underwood wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1967. “It was once and has probably become again the biggest game in Dixie. Like most great rivalries, it inspires and provokes. Bryant himself played in this game with a broken leg. It was 1935 and Alabama won.”
Ray Perkins, who played under Bryant in the 1960s and followed him as head coach in the 1980s, picked up on the importance of the game to his college coach.
“A lot of people thought with Coach Bryant (that) Auburn was the big deal, but I don’t necessarily think so,” Perkins said. “I think when you really get down to it, Coach Bryant, secretly, thought about Tennessee before he did Auburn.”
The Tennessee series grew in importance during the period when Alabama and Auburn didn’t play. Even when that in-state series resumed in the late 1940s, it took time for it to gain traction.
“Heck, I can remember the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry before I graduated from high school in 1939 in what’s Chesapeake, Va., now,” said Taylor, the 95-year-old retired professor and pastor who has a master’s degree from UA.
Until Saban took over, most UA coaches emphasized the importance of the game during practices, with scout team players clad in orange and loudspeakers blaring the “Rocky Top” fight song.
“Played it everywhere: practice field, weight room, the cafeteria, Bryant Hall (athletic dormitory), you name it,” said Shultz. “It got to the point that I actually liked the song. I’ve probably heard that song more than my favorite song ever.
“This goes way back. This was the rivalry, I’ve always felt it was the biggest rivalry.”
On the UA campus, there has been an unofficial “Tennessee Hate Week” leading up to the game for the past several years. Coaches, players and even some fans celebrate a victory over the Vols by lighting up cigars. Although scheduling has changed so it doesn’t fall on the same weekend every year anymore, the game has traditionally been played on the Third Saturday in October, and is known by that name.
“This is Tennessee week. It’s about the cigar and everybody celebrating together in the locker room,” Shultz said. “Third Saturday in October, I don’t think anybody had to tell you, ‘Hey dude, this is a big game.’ I think you figured it out.”
Current Alabama players embrace the hoopla and tradition around the contest.
“Even as a little kid, Third Saturday in October was Tennessee weekend,” said Shaun Dion Hamilton, a junior linebacker from Montgomery. “That’s the game. Pretty big game.”
And, of course, there’s the reward of a cigar on the line.
“Oh yeah, man. That’s probably one of the richest traditions in the country,” Hamilton said.
The series, which Alabama leads 53-37-8, is notable for its streakiness: Alabama has had winning streaks of seven games (twice) and 11, and also went unbeaten against the Vols with one tie over nine games from 1986-94. Tennessee has won four in a row three times, seven in a row once and had its greatest period of dominance in going 9-1-3 over 13 years from 1948-60.
Peyton Manning drew the ire of Crimson Tide fans in 1995 when he led the UT band in playing “Rocky Top” after a 41-14 victory in Birmingham. UA supporters took a strong dislike to former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer for his role in turning in Alabama for NCAA violations, which led to UA going on probation in 2002.
With Alabama’s current winning streak, however, the feelings haven’t been as harsh.
“It’s probably diminished. It’s been 25 years since Peyton Manning and Phil Fulmer were there,” said Shultz, who was off by a few years on his math.
The rivalry has also taken a hit with Alabama’s dominance coming during a downturn for the Tennessee program. The Vols, at No. 9, are ranked while playing Alabama for the first time since 2007, when UA’s current streak began against a 20th-ranked UT team.
“As superior as it’s been for the last nine years, only two of the games have been close. It’s hard to think of it as much of a rivalry,” said John Adams, columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel since 1987.
Said Shultz, “They haven’t been good. They’re not really relevant.”
The Other Side
Just as Alabama has rivalries with Auburn and LSU to contend with the Tennessee series, the Volunteers have another top rival in Florida. That rivalry gained a lot of steam in the 1990s, when the Gators ruled the SEC and head coach Steve Spurrier delighted in needling a Tennessee program that couldn’t seem to beat him.
“When he had that championship run from ’93 through ’97, the players all liked to pop off and it was great fun for Florida,” Adams said. “I think Florida is so in you your face. You’ve seen that the last couple of years with them tweeting things and it’s so annoying from a Tennessee fan’s perspective.”
Entering the 2016 season, Tennessee had lost a combined 20 games in a row to Alabama and Florida. Last month, the Vols came from behind to end the Gators’ 11-game winning streak in that rivalry.
Adams says there are others factors at work in the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry.
“I think the Florida rivalry has surpassed it in some ways,” he said. “Once you went to division play the game became more paramount.
“Go back to the offseason this year and any fan I was talking to, the consensus I heard was, ‘We’ve just got to beat Florida.’ I didn’t hear anybody say, ‘We’ve got to beat Alabama.’ I think Alabama has almost reached the level that you can’t point and say, ‘We’ve got to beat Alabama,’ because they’re the best team in the country. I think Alabama has elevated beyond the SEC.
“Beating Florida, that’s something that’s very attainable. You can’t look at Alabama and say it’s attainable.”
The Tennessee rivalry is held in highest esteem by the older generation of Alabama fans. Newer fans are more likely to say LSU is Alabama’s biggest rival.
“There’s probably more in the middle (generations) saying Auburn than either end saying Tennessee or LSU,” said Roberts.
An informal social media poll conducted in a 24-hour period by The Tuscaloosa News this week showed that 49 percent of the 433 respondents believe Auburn to be Alabama’s top rival, with 40 percent picking Tennessee and 9 percent choosing LSU. Two percent chose another school, with Ole Miss and Notre Dame splitting those votes.
Life experience, however, plays a huge role in how people view Alabama’s rivalries. Roberts talks about growing up in Fayette, where his barber was a Tennessee fan.
“I’d go to a Tennessee game in Knoxville, come home late Saturday night and get up early on Sunday and go to church,” Roberts recalled. “After church I’d wait for him and hold up a sign with the score on it.”
Roberts’ feelings were solidified at a 1960s basketball game where he felt Tennessee ran up the score on Alabama.
“For me, our biggest rival is Tennessee,” he said. “Auburn is a very, very close second.”
So, is it Tennessee? Auburn? LSU?
Depends on who you ask. Because it’s personal.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224. Ben Jones, Aaron Suttles and Tim Gayle contributed to this report.