The 10 games that define the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry

  • College football reporter
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2007
  • Graduate of the University of Tennessee

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s been at least two decades, and arguably three, since the Third Saturday in October was engulfed by this much anticipation.

Alabama and Tennessee, two of the SEC’s most storied rivals who traditionally meet this weekend of the season, square off Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Neyland Stadium in a top-10 matchup that marks the first time since 1989 that both teams have been unbeaten going into the game. For perspective, at that time Nick Saban was still an assistant coach in the NFL … with the Houston Oilers.

It hasn’t been much of a rivalry on the field lately, certainly not since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007. The Crimson Tide have won 15 in a row, by an average margin of 25.9 points, and the Vols have been at least a two-touchdown underdog in every game going back to 2008, when Alabama was a 5-point favorite and left Neyland Stadium with a 29-9 win.

But this year, there’s genuine hope on Rocky Top that the Vols, fueled by one of the country’s most explosive offenses, may finally be the ones passing out victory cigars in a smoke-filled locker room, another tradition of a rivalry that was first contested in 1901.

Let’s take a look back at 10 of the most memorable (and defining) games in the rivalry as well as five worthy of honorable mention.

1. Tennessee 35, Alabama 28
Oct. 16, 1982, at Knoxville

The smile on former Tennessee coach John Majors’ face says it all in the iconic image of him being carried off the field by his players and leaning down to shake Bear Bryant’s hand. It was Bryant’s final game in the rivalry and one of the biggest upsets. The unranked Vols, who lost to Duke and Vanderbilt that season, snapped an 11-game losing streak against the No. 2 Tide. Chuck Coleman’s 34-yard touchdown run was the big blow offensively for Tennessee, and the Vols’ Mike Terry intercepted a pass in the end zone with 17 seconds remaining to preserve the win. It was bedlam at Neyland Stadium, as fans stormed the field and ripped down the goalposts within minutes.

2. Alabama 17, Tennessee 17
Oct. 16, 1993, at Birmingham

In the days before there was overtime in college football, No. 2 Alabama and No. 10 Tennessee played to a memorable 17-17 tie at Legion Field in Birmingham, snapping the Crimson Tide’s 28-game winning streak. The game felt more like a loss for the Vols, who turned the ball over five times, including a James Stewart fumble at the 1 when it looked like he was going in for a touchdown. With no timeouts, Alabama drove 83 yards in the final minutes and pulled within 17-15 on quarterback Jay Barker’s 1-yard plunge. David Palmer aka “Deuce” moved from receiver to quarterback on the 2-point conversion try and sprinted around the right end of the line and into the end zone to tie the game with 21 seconds remaining. The game was later forfeited to Tennessee because of NCAA sanctions levied against Alabama.

3. Alabama 25, Tennessee 0
Oct. 19, 1935, at Knoxville

Before he was a record-setting coach at Alabama, Bryant was a tough, hard-nosed left end for the Crimson Tide and played one of the best games of his career against the Vols. Both teams were down that year, but the Bryant legend was kindled in that game when he played despite having a cracked fibula that he suffered the week before. That same mental and physical toughness would go on to define his teams at Alabama. After the game, Bryant famously said, “It was one little bone.”

4. Tennessee 41, Alabama 14
Oct. 15, 1995, at Birmingham

Peyton Manning beat Alabama three times during his career, but none of those wins was more soothing for Tennessee fans than the 1995 blowout of the Tide. The Vols had gone nine straight years without beating Alabama. And on the first play from scrimmage, Manning hit Joey Kent on an 80-yard touchdown pass — “Play No. 1,” as legendary Voice of the Vols John Ward described it — and Tennessee never looked back. It was the Vols’ most lopsided win over Alabama since 1969, and Manning, who threw three touchdown passes, directed the Tennessee band after the game.

5. Alabama 9, Tennessee 6
Oct. 20, 1990, at Knoxville

The No. 3 Vols were riding high and a prohibitive favorite at home against an Alabama team that limped in at 2-3 in Gene Stallings’ first season as coach. Tennessee fans were eager for a celebration after four straight losses in the series. But Alabama’s defense had other ideas and shut down a Tennessee offense loaded with talent. The finish to the game was bonkers. With the game tied at 6-6, Tennessee lined up to try a 50-yard field goal with 1:35 to play, but it was blocked by Stacy Harrison, who came knifing up the middle. The ball ricocheted back 23 yards, all the way to the Tennessee 37, where Alabama recovered. A few plays later, Phillip Doyle drilled a 48-yard field goal to win it for the Tide.

6. Alabama 11, Tennessee 10
Oct. 15, 1966, at Knoxville

The “Snake” was a key part of some of Bryant’s best teams at Alabama before he went on to stardom with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. Of course, the “Snake” was none other than Ken Stabler, who did a little bit of everything in leading a fourth-quarter rally in the rain to keep Alabama unbeaten. He scored the Tide’s only touchdown on a 1-yard run, then hit Wayne Cook with a 2-point conversion pass to pull Alabama within 10-8. Stabler then moved the Tide into field goal position in the final minutes. The holder on kicks, Stabler, was able to get a low snap in place on the muddy field, and Bill Davis knocked home a 17-yarder to put Alabama ahead. The Vols drove right back down the field. Gary Wright’s 19-yard field goal attempt from a tough angle appeared to sail over the top of the right goalpost, but his kick was ruled no good.

7. Alabama 12, Tennessee 10
Oct. 24, 2009, at Tuscaloosa

The biggest player on the field made the biggest play. Alabama nose guard Terrence Cody charged through the line to block Daniel Lincoln’s 44-yard field goal attempt as time expired, preserving the Tide’s win. Lane Kiffin was in his only season as Tennessee’s coach, and the Vols were huge underdogs. But they went toe-to-toe with the Tide, who went on to win Saban’s first national championship at Alabama. At their postgame handshake, Kiffin told Saban, “We’ll get you next year.” As it turned out, the next time Kiffin walked on the Alabama field, he did so as a Crimson Tide assistant coach.

8. Tennessee 16, Alabama 14
Oct. 19, 1985, at Birmingham

The “Sugar Vols” are one of the most beloved teams in Tennessee history. They went from unranked to start the season to winning the SEC championship and routing No. 2 Miami in the Sugar Bowl. The Vols didn’t lose again after upsetting No. 15 Alabama. Linebacker Dale Jones, now the defensive coordinator at Appalachian State, made a play that Tennessee fans will remember forever. With Alabama driving, Jones batted Mike Shula’s pass not far from the line of scrimmage and cradled the ball just before it hit the ground. Alabama still had one last shot, but Van Tiffin’s 61-yard field goal attempt was short.

9. Alabama 17, Tennessee 10
Oct. 21, 1972, at Knoxville

After No. 3 Alabama pulled within a point of No. 10 Tennessee on a Wilbur Jackson 2-yard touchdown run with 1:48 to play, Bryant was thinking about going for two points, but assistants Ken Donahue and Mal Moore (from the booth) and Pat Dye (from the sideline) convinced him to kick the extra point and tie the game. On the Vols’ ensuing possession, Mike DuBose, the Tide’s future head coach, forced a Condredge Holloway fumble that was recovered by John Mitchell. Alabama quarterback Terry Davis then raced 22 yards out of the wishbone for the winning touchdown. Alabama had integrated its football team the previous year, and Jackson and Mitchell were the Tide’s first Black players.

10. Tennessee 51, Alabama 43 (5 OT)
Oct. 25, 2003, at Tuscaloosa

The longest game in the series didn’t end until Tennessee defensive back Jason Allen tipped away Brodie Croyle’s fourth-down pass in the end zone in the fifth overtime. Tennessee had taken the lead on its possession in the fifth OT when quarterback Casey Clausen stretched out his left arm to reach the pylon for a 1-yard touchdown run. The Vols became the first visiting team to win three straight times at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Amazingly, it was a 6-3 game at halftime with Alabama leading, but things got wild after that in a back-and-forth marathon that took well over four hours to play.

Five more that just missed the cut

Tennessee 21, Alabama 0
Oct. 21, 1939, at Knoxville

Johnny Butler’s zigzagging 56-yard touchdown run against the Tide is still considered one of the greatest runs in Tennessee football history.

Alabama 34, Tennessee 3
Oct. 21, 1961, at Birmingham

This was Bryant’s first win over Tennessee as Alabama’s coach and the Tide’s first win over the Vols since 1954. Alabama went on to win Bryant’s first national championship that season.

Tennessee 20, Alabama 13
Oct. 26, 1996, at Knoxville

The No. 6 Vols rallied from a 13-0 halftime deficit to beat the No. 7 Tide. Jay Graham’s 79-yard touchdown run in the final minutes against the SEC’s top-ranked defense was the difference.

Alabama 41, Tennessee 17
Oct. 20, 2007, at Tuscaloosa

Saban set the tone for his dominance of Tennessee by kicking onside to start the game. The Tide recovered to set up a field goal and have never looked back. It’s the last time the Vols (a 1-point favorite) have been favored in this game.

Tennessee 24, Alabama 13
Oct. 21, 1967, at Birmingham

With Alabama driving and looking to take the lead, Tennessee’s Albert Dorsey intercepted a pass and returned it 31 yards for the clinching touchdown in this battle of top-10 teams. Dorsey was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week, and the Vols went on to win the SEC title.

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