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Tide vs. Vols: SEC classic on noted day

OPINION by Bob Wisener | October 13, 2022 at 4:01 a.m.
Tennessee running back Jaylen Wright (20) and teammates celebrates a 38-33 win against Florida Sept. 24 in Knoxville, Tenn. - Photo b y Wade Payne of The Associated Press

This may be a convoluted Saturday for some family members from Mississippi, both avid Southeastern Conference football fans.

The male is from Tennessee and understandably on edge for the Knoxville visit by Alabama. A pulpit minister, he does not bet but knows enough about odds, I think, to consider Alabama minus 7.5 points as a low number in a Crimson Tide game.

The female, a Magnolia State native, graduated from a Tennessee college but pledges allegiance to Alabama, possibly because two high school teammates played for the Crimson Tide in the Gene Stallings years.

These, by the way, are Olivia's parents, the dear soul born three months premature but now two months from her ninth birthday. Olivia, I suspect, never sits still long enough to watch a football game -- something she has in common with some adult women -- but is not caught up in sports like I was at the same age.

On the third Saturday in October 1963, as an 8-year-old, I watched Texas play Arkansas under the lights in Little Rock. The Longhorns were No. 1 in what would be an 11-0 season, giving coach Darrell Royal his first of three national titles. Arkansas would finish 5-5 but by November would launch a 22-game winning streak. Those '63 freshmen (Harry Jones and Loyd Phillips included) would go 29-3 the next three years, twice beating No. 1 Texas. On this night, the Longhorns proved much too strong, although what seemed an impending blowout ended 17-13.

Football does not form the focus in every Southern household but try telling that to someone weaned on the Third Saturday in October, the Iron Bowl and other important dates.

The third Saturday this month falls on the 15th, on which Arkansas beat Texas five times in eight games in a series UA trails 56-23. The late Mickey Cissell kicked a famous field goal at Austin on that date in 1960, propelling Arkansas to its first win over a Royal-coached team, 24-23. New coaches Lou Holtz and Fred Akers hooked up in 1977, a year after Royal and Broyles retired; Texas had Earl Campbell and won 13-9 at Fayetteville despite a 67-yard field goal by the late Steve Little, helped by a strong northern breeze at his back.

With both teams in the top 10, the Alabama-Tennessee series regains prominence on the Third Saturday. It is said that no one should expect a minister to perform a marriage or preach a funeral in either state on that high and holy day; what if he's a football fan and doesn't show up?

SEC expansion led to putting Tide vs. Vols on other Saturdays besides TSO, something of a shock. It fell on that date six times from 1995-2015 but was thus scheduled again from 2016-2019 and in 2022.

Alabama and Tennessee have been football rivals since 1901, that game ending 6-6. Alabama leads the series by 21 games, with eight ties, although Tennessee's 37 wins are the most against the Crimson Tide by any program.

Of many great coaches on both sides, two stand apart: Robert Reese Neyland at Tennessee and Paul William Bryant at Alabama.

Neyland Stadium rests beside the Tennessee River in Knoxville -- Peyton Manning, one whom Neyland never coached -- has a street named in his honor that runs by the stadium (speed limit 16, his Vols number). Besides coaching, Neyland designed the stadium so well that future expansion resulted in more than 100,000 seats.

More than any college coach, Neyland stressed fundamentals, especially on the defensive side. In time, he made his teams repeat "the Seven Maxims of Football," number one being "the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win."' His 1939 squad is the last NCAA team in history to hold every regular-season opponent scoreless. Sports Illustrated named Neyland defensive coordinator of its all-century college team in its "Best of the 20th Century edition."

A 1916 West Point graduate who achieved the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army, Neyland coached three hitches at Tennessee. Born in Greenville, Texas, Neyland (1892-1962) watched his teams play at home in a stadium now adorned with orange checkerboard end zones.

Bear Bryant never won a game against Neyland, going 0-5-2 at Kentucky, but went 16-7-2 against UT after "Mama called" him home (with Neyland retired) in 1958.

The series is loaded with streaks. Bryant won his last five games with Tennessee, which he first confronted as an Alabama player, during a stretch of 10 straight Tide wins on TSO.

Tennessee then won four straight, followed by Alabama with seven. The Vols won 10 of 12 in a stretch that included the Manning years.

Those feats seem as dated as a Roy Acuff record stacked against Alabama's ongoing streak of 15 wins over Tennessee. That dominance dates to 2007, when the Tide won its first of 16 straight against Arkansas. Nick Saban, you might say, has changed things in both series and on the SEC front overall. I think the Bear would approve. The general not so much.

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