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Tennessee football: Rivalries should remain at the heart of the SEC

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Tennessee is just one of many schools that will be dramatically affected by a massive overhaul of the SEC’s schedule now that Texas and Oklahoma are joining the conference sooner rather than later. The Vols don’t know exactly who they’ll play in 2024 when the Longhorns and Sooners join the conference. However, it’s clear that things aren’t going to get any easier for anyone.

The question that will always revolve around a scheduling change and Tennessee is its permanent series with Alabama. It’s an every-year rivalry that has been defined by streaks. Bama had won 15 consecutive games before the Vols up-ended the Crimson Tide last season. However, Bama isn’t going anywhere as long as coach Nick Saban is in Tuscaloosa. Alabama ended up nearly making the College Football Playoff despite the loss to the Vols and just signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. So, Tennessee should be afraid of Bama, right? No, not anymore.

It’s not as if the Vols are destined to reel off another decade-long winning streak like they’ve done in the past. However, Tennessee should be competitive as it has been for much of the history of the rivalry.

The Alabama-Tennessee series needs to be looked at for more than just one win, one recruiting class or even one winning streak. It needs to be viewed as one of the things that makes college football special. Therefore, it may behoove Tennessee if Bama falls off the schedule, but it can only hurt college football, which is in a tenuous position.

College football is becoming more like a professional sport than anyone could have dreamed possible just a few years ago. Players are more like free agents as NIL money flows and transferring from school to school, even rival to rival, has become commonplace. I’ve long thought players should be paid and have more freedom. However, there is an intrinsic problem with the direction that college football is heading.

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College fans are different than professional fans. College fans identify with their favorite players and will most often give them the benefit of the doubt because they are perceived as part of the family. They were just amateur athletes after all. Those days are gone.

There’s certainly no putting that toothpaste back in the tube, but there’s reason to stop squeezing out certain traditions, like the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry. Along with the Auburn-Georgia rivalry, the Vols playing Bama every year is a must. It’s one of the few things that makes college football special.

It’s always amusing when NFL analysts talk about rivalries. Do you really think players get as amped for the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins “rivalry” as college football fans get when their beloved team faces off against a bitter rival? They don’t. There’s more passion in the Ole Miss-Mississippi State rivalry than any professional series.

The SEC should take a close look at NASCAR before it buries some of the rivalries that have made college football so special. NASCAR officials didn’t think that pulling races from historic tracks like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham would hurt their growth. They were wrong. NASCAR’s popularity has tanked based on attendance and television ratings.

Just like those races, the Alabama-Tennessee game is one that fans tune in for despite how the series might be trending or even if it’s a matchup of ranked teams. For fans of those schools, SEC fans and college football fans, that’s a game that stands out on the calendar. The Bama-Tennessee game is one of the games that speaks to the diehard college football fan whether that person lives in Knoxville, Tuscaloosa or Timbuktu. That can’t be manufactured like a preseason kickoff game. It took 100 years to make a game into a tradition.

Tennessee has long been known as a team with more rivals than Davy Crockett can count on one hand. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Vanderbilt have all been referred to as rivals. However, there are only three that should still be considered as such: the Crimson Tide, Gators and Bulldogs. Kentucky isn’t a rival in football just because it wants to be and Vandy hasn’t been a true rival since the mid 1900’s.

So if you’re looking for an easy route to win a national championship, this might be the wrong place to look. Somehow, someway, the Vols have to keep Alabama, Florida and Georgia on their annual schedule. They define who Tennessee is and vice versa.

Florida actually supplanted Bama for a short time as Tennessee’s top rival. Georgia has always been amongst the Vols’ most hated counterparts. Plus, the exposure in that state from playing the Bulldogs is invaluable for the Vols.

One could make the argument that keeping Alabama, Florida and Georgia on the schedule permanently would make things more difficult Tennessee. That’s selling the Vols short. From a foundational standpoint, UT can compete with any of those schools. At different times, the Vols have proven that over recent history. They’ve had success over each of those schools in the past 25 years and there’s no reason that shouldn’t continue to be the case.

Here’s the other thing to keep in mind with the College Football Playoff set to expand to 12 teams in 2024. Tennessee, nor any other team, doesn’t have to be perfect to have a shot at winning a national championship. Teams will certainly be able to lose one game and, perhaps, two or three and still make a 12-team field, but what will become of those teams once they make it?

Facing the best teams in the SEC and, subsequently, the best teams in the nation will only make Tennessee – or any other team – better. If you can survive an SEC schedule with Alabama, Florida and Georgia as highlights, you can more easily handle teams from around the nation. Moreover, imagine a schedule chock full of top-tier SEC teams. Who cares about the non-conference opponent if that’s the case? Make that easy. Does Pacific still have a football program? If so, sign them up.

Tennessee fans have been through a lot over the past decade. Their fandom has been beaten down to the point in which many fans don’t think the Vols can survive a tough schedule. Those days are over. It’s best for Tennessee to play their rivals no matter how good they might be. It’s also best for college football. 

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