Tennessee football fans want Alabama to stay a rival. Ducking Tide would be 'coward's decision' | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

Tennessee fans clung to aging cigars for years, waiting for the chance to light up to celebrate a victory against Alabama.

Nick Saban – around Tennessee, some swap the third letter in his surname for another letter later in the alphabet – won’t allow it.

Fifteen straight times, Alabama defeated Tennessee.

On most occasions, it wasn’t close. The Vols haven’t come within three touchdowns of Alabama since a five-point loss in 2015.

But while Tennessee’s program wandered through the desert and cycled through one floundering coach after another, its rabid fan base wasn't easily extinguished.  

And Vols fans told me clearly this week: They want ‘Bama – now, and on future schedules after the SEC expands to 16 teams.

HOW THE RIVALRY BEGAN:A controversial call. A mob. A halted game. How Tennessee vs. Alabama football series started in 1901

TOPPMEYER:Why Auburn football should be inspired by Josh Heupel's success at Tennessee

ADAMS:Tennessee football looks like a better coached team than Alabama. Yes, I said it.

Josh Heupel breathed life into Tennessee and produced a team worthy of the eternal support it receives. If Vols fans felt lukewarm about Heupel’s hire, they burn for Tennessee’s second-year coach now.

For good reason.

With a nation-leading offense, No. 8 Tennessee (5-0, 2-0 SEC) profiles as the biggest threat to date to No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0), which already endured two white-knuckle victories.

Saban has never lost to Tennessee at Alabama, but he’s not napping on Heupel’s Vols.

“Tennessee's got an outstanding team,” Saban said Monday. “Josh has done a really, really good job. They're probably one of the most explosive offenses, if not the most explosive offense, in the country.”

Before we get to the specifics of Tennessee fans’ desire to keep Alabama on the annual schedule after the SEC grows to 16, let’s back up.

Since the SEC split into divisions in 1992, the Vols generally have had a tougher draw than others in the SEC East, because of their annual date with Alabama. That became especially evident starting in 2012, after the SEC expanded to 14 teams, when each team was assigned one interdivision rival that it would play every season.

Alabama and Tennessee got paired.

The existing schedule model scores high marks for rivalry preservation, but not for fairness.

Last year, Vols fans were ready for a schedule change. When I asked more than 200 Vols fans, in August 2021, if they’d prefer the existing schedule model that has Tennessee playing Alabama annually, plus one rotating SEC West foe, or dump the game against the Tide in favor of two rotating SEC West foes, more than 60% of the poll respondents chose the latter.

But when Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC, which will happen by 2025, the SEC will change its schedule model.

Divisions will be eliminated in favor of a cohesive 16-team league. One of the top models being considered is a nine-game SEC schedule that would have each team play three designated rivals annually, plus six additional games against SEC foes that would rotate.

In this proposed model, whom do Tennessee fans want on their rivalry docket?

Oh, they want ‘Bama.

(Before you think Vols fans are getting out over their skis, they also want Kentucky and Vanderbilt.)

Heupel, when asked at SEC Media Days about Tennessee’s three potential rivals in a nine-game SEC schedule, pointed first to Alabama, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

If that’s how it shakes out, Tennessee would dial back to playing Georgia and Florida once every two years.

The three teams on Heupel’s list are UT’s longest-running series.

With Heupel’s list in mind, I posed this question to Vols fans: If Kentucky and Vanderbilt are two of Tennessee’s three rivals, would you want Alabama as the third rival?

Of 205 fans polled, 62% said, yes, let it be the Tide.

“Saban won't be there forever, and the series runs in streaks,” one fan responded.

True. Alabama has beaten Tennessee 15 straight times, all under Saban. The Tide also beat the Vols 11 consecutive times from 1971-81. But, the Vols enjoyed seven straight cigar lightings from 1995-01.

“It would be the coward's decision not to pick Bama,” another fan answered. “It makes the most sense. Maybe things will get better once Coach Satan retires.”

There’s that surname letter swap.

Vanderbilt and UK would be a favorable draw. The Vols enjoy a massive lead in those series. Others will have a stouter rivalry dance card. Consider, Alabama may draw Auburn, LSU and Tennessee. Auburn likely would have Alabama and Georgia as two of its three rivals.

In a second poll question, I removed the Vanderbilt and Kentucky guardrails and asked Vols fans to select their three preferred annual SEC rivals in a nine-game conference schedule model.

And, still, most Vols fans want Alabama … and Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Kentucky was the leading vote-getter, appearing on 72.4% of the ballots, followed by Vanderbilt (60% of ballots) edging Alabama (57.2% of ballots).

Florida followed as the fourth most-popular choice, with Georgia next.

Saturday will mark the 105th installment of an Alabama-Tennessee rivalry that began on a gorgeous Thanksgiving Day in 1901 in Birmingham. The game ended prematurely after a mob of Alabama fans stormed the field to protest a series of penalties. Police failed to restore order, and the game was halted in a tie.

A rivalry was born, and the teams have played annually without interruption since 1944.

Don't interrupt the rivalry now, not after Tennessee is competent again.

Bring on Bama.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Also, check out his podcast, SEC Football Unfiltered, or access exclusive columns via the SEC Unfiltered newsl