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A Requiem for The Third Saturday in October

By Matt Smith
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At the moment, it’s pushing 40 years old to find a Tennessee fan who can truly appreciate the storied history of the Third Saturday in October rivalry with Alabama.

Every once in a while, often in the winter doldrums of the offseason when there is little news to discuss, a debate begins.

Who is Tennessee’s biggest rival?

It’s an interesting question, in that different generations have different viewpoints. The conventional answer is that those above a certain age think it’s Alabama, and those below that think it’s Florida.

The tipping point age is a moving target as we all grow older. At the moment, it’s pushing 40 years old to find a Tennessee fan who can truly appreciate the storied history of the Third Saturday in October rivalry with Alabama. If you were born in the ‘80s, you don’t remember a time when the series would go back and forth on an annual basis.

It’s the third week in October. That means the Volunteers and Crimson Tide will meet on Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). Like most meetings in recent decades, the programs are miles apart. Alabama is a five-touchdown favorite as it goes for its eleventh straight win in the series.

This rivalry simply can’t catch a break. It has been a victim of the cyclical nature of college football in which even the blueblood programs go through dry spells. For Alabama and Tennessee, when one has been up, the other has been down.

From 1986-1994, Alabama did not lose to the Big Orange, going 8-0-1 under Ray Perkins, Bill Curry and Gene Stallings. As NCAA sanctions hit Alabama, and Phillip Fulmer and Peyton Manning got things going in Knoxville, the rivalry did a 180-degree turn. The Volunteers won 10 of the next 12 as Alabama suffered through “the Mike years”, as a Tide fan friend calls them, which includes four seasons under Mike Dubose and four more under Mike Shula.

Tennessee went 5-6 in 2005, its first losing season since 1988. Despite bounceback seasons in 2006 and 2007, it was clear that the Vols program was on the downswing. That just so happened to coincide with Alabama hiring Nick Saban in January 2007.

Saban has won all 10 meetings with Tennessee by an average of 23 points, while the Vols have made three coaching changes, with a fourth likely imminent. Only the 2009 “Rocky Block” game and the 2015 meeting were decided by seven points or less.

Those that bleed orange and crimson still care deeply about this rivalry, but unlike those Tennessee-Florida games that captured the nation for so many years in the ‘90s and 2000s, the Third Saturday in October barely moves the meter.

Until last year, when Tennessee was ranked No. 10 and Alabama No. 1, the teams hadn’t met with both having even the slimmest of national title hopes since 1999, when No. 5 Tennessee defeated No. 10 Alabama, 21-7, in the teams’ first meeting in Tuscaloosa in 69 years.

Last year’s game turned into a dud, as the Crimson Tide rolled through Neyland Stadium, 49-10. That’s a completely realistic score projection for Saturday’s game as well.

Perhaps we’ll see both programs at their best at the same time yet again. Alabama is a monster that isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and Tennessee has the infrastructure to compete for championships with the right leader.

Every rivalry goes through stretches of dominance by one team. For The Third Saturday in October, it’s in the middle of a third straight long streak, none of which were separated by a period of competitiveness.

While Alabama fans would probably love for this imbalance to continue indefinitely, for Tennessee fans, other SEC fans, and college football fans all over the country, it would be best for this series if it becomes a game where the winner can’t easily be predicted beforehand.

It won’t be Saturday, and it may not be in 2018 or 2019, but it will happen again. I just hope it’s before nobody under the age of 50 can remember the last time it was.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.