Last year’s 52-49 win by Tennessee Football over the Alabama Crimson Tide wasn’t just the first win for the Vols in 15 years in the series. It was also the first time in 30 years, going back to 1992, that the game cost one of the teams a shot at a championship, whether it be the division, SEC or national title.
By losing to the Vols, Alabama lost the West to the LSU Tigers after losing to them in November, and they also lost a shot at the College Football Playoff. For one of the oldest rivalries in the SEC, this isn’t a new trend. It’s the two most storied programs in the league, and their annual matchup is rarely, if ever, consequential.
All you have to do is look at the SEC Championship game itself. When the game first began in 1992 and Tennessee Football and Alabama were placed in separate divisions, you would have thought these two would meet more than any other for the title. They’ve never met in that game.
Even before that, though, the game didn’t mean what you might think. From the end of the Robert Neyland era until the split, which was 40 years, the game only cost a team a shot at a title eight times. Add in the last 30 years, and that’s only 10 times in 70 years a team cost themselves a title by either losing or tying this game.
For context, the Tennessee-Florida game cost the loser a shot at the SEC title 12 times since the teams began playing annually in 1990. It directly decided the conference or division champion 11 of those times, more than the Alabama game has been of any consequence the past 70 years.
Heck, the Tennessee-Georgia series has cost the loser the division seven times since they began playing annually in 1992. Sure, while Tennessee-Alabama isn’t a divisional matchup, it would still theoretically prove costly for the loser as a conference loss in their own respective division.
There’s a reason for this lack of magnitude, though. It’s actually the same reason this is known as a series of streaks. For whatever reason, Tennessee Football and Alabama have rarely managed to be at their peak at the same time, which made last year’s game so unique.
The Tide have enjoyed two dynasties of the modern era: one with Bear Bryant and another with Nick Saban. Bryant’s peak came in the 1970s, and despite a hot start, the Vols slid to a decade of irrelevancy as a program in the mid-70s with Bill Battle. During Saban’s dynasty, UT went through its worst period of the modern era.
Meanwhile, during the peak of the modern era for Rocky Top, from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, Alabama was in a state of disarray. They were placed on probation for three separate NCAA violations and ran through a series of coaches, all with the first name Mike, who just didn’t work out.
Because of this, since this series began annually in 1928 (except for 1943 due to World War II), one team has been ranked while another was unranked 48 of 83 eligible times. Even crazier, one team has finished the season ranked while the other finished unranked 51 of 86 eligible times since the AP Poll began in 1936. Simply put, these teams are never good at the same time.
This didn’t seem like it would be the case during the first 25 years of the rivalry being annually played. During those first 25 games, one of the teams cost themselves the title 13 times. This was the Neyland, Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas years, when both programs really were dominating.
Since that era, though, this game is played more ceremonially than anything else. Tennessee Football and Alabama are the two most successful programs in league history but have never been able to line up their success with each other on a consistent basis. That Saturday will mark them both in the top 25 is a rarity.