GAMEDAY: History lives in Alabama-Tennessee series, but not everyone likes it

Cecil Hurt
Tidesports.com

There hasn’t been anything good about the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Even what we might perceive as “good” has been a tribute to human adaptability and making the best of a terrible situation. People have found ways to work around the obstacles, but few people would refuse to turn the clock back to a day before the obstacles existed. 

So when one discusses things that seem “popular” in the 2020 college football season, remember that term is a highly relative one.

The fact is, however, that many rank-and-file fans really seem to like the 10-game  league-only schedule that the SEC has adopted. I’m not sure that coaches around the league like the prospect of having a 5-5 record rather than an 8-4 on the ledger. If your non-conference schedule is soft, that’s more or less the same thing. You break even in the league, rough up the cupcakes and it looks all right at several schools.

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Meanwhile, the Alabamas and Georgias, even if they have one strong non-conference opponent, miss the chance to occasionally play young players and see how they respond. Nick Saban has numerous freshmen who might not be ready for Georgia but could profit from playing Georgia State, with all due respect to the Panthers.

Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning leads the fans in their fight song "Rocky Top" after their 38-21 win over Alabama, Saturday, Oct. 18, 1997.

The SEC office has yet to indicate what it will do in terms of long-term scheduling. One important fact to note: last Saturday’s Alabama-Georgia game posted record-breaking ratings. Network executives like record-breaking ratings very much and probably don’t like to hear that the next Alabama-Georgia game (outside of the postseason) won’t come around until 2026 under the current eight-game, 6-1-1 rotation.

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That brings us by a long and winding road to Alabama vs. Tennessee.

The Third Saturday in October, being played on the fourth Saturday this year, is the most storied rivalry in SEC history, the one game that has involved by far the most eventual SEC champions. There are people who consider the series sacrosanct: SEC historians, almost all Alabama fans, most Tennessee fans and a fair representation of Auburn and Georgia fans who want to see their own series, preserved by the same format, continue.

The rest of the league? Not so much. 

Much of that unrest comes from people who are, to be blunt, sick and tired of Alabama’s success. The conspiracy theories about Alabama and the SEC office concerning scheduling and officiating are endless. Online Georgia fans (who do not, to be fair, represent the UGA administration, wrote countless screeds last week about the officiating conspiracy against the Bulldogs in a game whose first play from scrimmage was a Georgia interception that looked iffy on replay. James Carville, an LSU alum, ranted his way to national headlines on the topic in 2018. Colorful Mississippi attorney Dickie Scruggs recently proposed on Twitter that Alabama opponents take a knee and ruining TV ratings so the SEC would have to take action.

These “concerns” aren’t new. The same was heard during the Paul W. “Bear” Bryant dynasty. Esteemed Knoxville columnist John Adams opined in 2017 that maybe UT could do without an annual Alabama game for a while. Adams correctly noted that the series was cyclical but two more Crimson Tide wins since then and the “cycle” is now at 40 Alabama wins in the last 60 years and more than 5,000 days of Volunteer misery since Saban arrived at UA. 

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The rest of the league notices that. There’s not a strong groundswell of argument that Vanderbilt or Missouri could do much better, but everyone (the thinking goes) deserves a shot, and someone might fare better than 5,000 days in the desert  The athletic directors at the two schools do not favor change. Say what you will about Phillip Fulmer, but he is not one to back down from Alabama.

The SEC says it plans to return to the 6-1-1 format once the pandemic is over, but the longer-term picture isn't as clear.

The clamoring will continue. The nine-game or 10-game schedule (which has had no greater advocate than Saban) – perhaps on a 6-2-1 or 6-3-1 format – might be the best way to assure the series continues, short of Tennessee turning the rivalry around somehow.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt