Before we get to the gist of this, I must state in no uncertain terms that I hate Tennessee. My heart beats for 51 weeks a year — through sadness, pain, and ennui — simply to carry me to this week.
There is no bigger rivalry in the SEC: Not the Cocktail Party, not the Iron Bowl, not the Egg Bowl, not Barn-Dawgs.
Ignoring Alabama, no SEC team has won more games than the Tennessee Volunteers. Alabama-Tennessee, unlike many rivalries in the old south, has been played in very few places, with just three locations hosting the Third Saturday ever — Neyland, Legion, and Bryant-Denny. The antipathy is legendary. Beginning in 1901, when the TSiO was first played, Alabama dominated the series. This prompted Tennessee to hire a professional staff and focus on football. Since that meeting, the series has been played nearly every year, with Alabama holding a 53–37–8 mark.
Hate has always marked this series. 310 miles, and a world apart, Tuscaloosa and Knoxville have defined the SEC. And hate has never been had like it has been by these border cousins. Whether you speak of 5, 25, 35, 75, 115 years — the Vols and Crimson Tide have always despised one another.
Pathos? Oh yeah, we got that. If this doesn’t twist your gut, check your abdomen, check your pulse, and get back to me.
This year, for the first time in over a decade, Tennessee comes into the game living up to its considerable talent and hype.
We joke about the slow starts, the turnovers, the struggles against teams the Vols should handily dispatch. But, Tennessee is not living off luck. Tennessee manufactures that "luck" by being generally fundamentally sound across the board.
This squad has top-10 talent, and Butch Jones has coached exceptionally well this season. The team plays hard for 60 minutes and the players love and respect him, love and respect Tennessee’s tradition, and for the first time since Fulmer’s heyday, all of that shows.
The Vols have rebounded from the disastrous class of 2010 and the spotty Dooley efforts. Tennessee finally has elite SEC depth again. This begins with the Vols’ offensive identity and its elite depth in the running back corps, and an offense that averages 37 PPG against the nation’s 3rd toughest schedule to date.
Jalen Hurd is a big body and a banger with deceptive speed. Alvin Kamara is a game-breaker with amazing hands and is slicker than castor oil in the open field. Joshua Dobbs is second in the SEC in YPC, he also adds a nifty 17 TDs (9 passing, 8 rushing) and has engineered three game-winning drives. Emerging sophomore John Kelly maximizes his touches by being hard as hell to bring down at the line of scrimmage.
The wide receivers are huge to a man, and, finally, have emerged to be the game breakers we thought they could be, particularly the 6’5" former 5* Josh Malone, who is a load in the open field and can beat the jam from most DBs. Add to that an opportunistic defense that has picked off 8 passes, forced 10 fumbles and has one of the best CBs in the nation in Cam Sutton, and certainly has one of the best defensive linemen in the game in Derek Barnett.
Did we mention special teams? We should. The Vols are outstanding. Aaron Medley has rebounded from a poor 2015 and is hitting 72% of his kicks, with a long of 52 yards. Evan Berry, though banged up, is averaging 27 yards per kick return. Trevor Daniel boots his punts an average of 43 yards, with a long of 66 this season. Alvin Kamara has hit punt returns at nearly 16 yards per clip this year.This is not a gimme by any stretch, and anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded. The Vols are talented, tough, and will give Alabama hell for sixty minutes on Saturday.
But, at the end of the day, that is precisely why the hate is so real, so visceral. The teams have traditionally been so evenly matched in talent and the stakes have usually been so very high. For the first time in a long time, we can say again that this is the case.
How big has it been?
Let’s just say that when Nick Saban arrived the players made it known who Alabama’s rival is, and has always been. SPOILER: It’s Tennessee.
Who knows how game will play out or how this young Alabama team will play up or down to the challenge in Knoxville. But I, for one, am eager to see the most venerated matchup in the SEC return to its life-or-death stakes; the drama, the passion, championship dreams — as all are decided on a glorious October afternoon under an impossibly blue Southern sky.
So, do I respect this Tennessee squad? Begrudgingly, haltingly, and almost as much as I hate them to a man.
And that’s the way it should be.
For the next few months, we are creating #Strangewiches, unexpectedly delicious sandwiches that embody the spirit and culture of your favorite college town that you can't find on a menu anywhere! For the University of Alabama, our friends at SB Nation and Eater helped select the best ingredients to create the BEST, and most strange, #Strangewich for your tailgate in Tuscaloosa. Ingredients below!
Fried Green Tomato Sandwich: fried green tomatoes, bright mayo remoulade, whole grain mustard, micro arugula, brioche bun