Tennessee and Alabama will play forever, no matter the consequences

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

The SEC is bent over backwards to protect a historic rivalry with a great tradition, albeit one that's more historic than great right now.

Judged objectively, the scheduling format the SEC will keep using is pretty terrible. Teams are tied to an annual game with one cross-divisional opponent and see the rest sporadically over a six-year rotation. It's a mess, but it protects two old-school SEC rivalries: Auburn vs. Georgia and Tennessee vs. Alabama.

"The Third Saturday in October" is a wonderfully hateful affair, but not much in the way of quality football. The Vols-Tide rivalry has always been streaky, but lately it's been ridiculous. Alabama has won seven games in a row by an average score of 36-11. Only once in that span were the Crimson Tide unranked, or even ranked outside the top seven when this game was played. Meanwhile, Tennessee has only been ranked once in that span (in 2007), and the Volunteers have been through three head coaches.

That's what the league is preserving.

Vols head coach Butch Jones is understandably protective of the annual game, even if it makes Tennessee's schedule that much harder and creates perpetual imbalance for other teams (LSU vs. Florida, anyone?) in the process. Tennessee owned the Third Saturday in October from 1995 to 2004. Alabama won just once in that span, and for a stretch of it, the Crimson Tide weren't even nationally relevant. Tennessee was one of the SEC's big dogs, and it owned its biggest rival. National attention for the program was never higher than during that run.

"What makes college football special are the traditions, and it's been a traditional rivalry," Jones says. "Now, we have to get back to making it relevant, but it's a game in our DNA, for the fans at the University of Tennessee and Alabama. We understand the difficulty, but one of the great things about the SEC is the grind of the schedule, that there isn't a week off."

Tradition is a hallmark of Jones' PR campaign to rebuild Vol football, and it's starting to pay off. One sign of hope for the Vols: Tennessee's 2014 class ranked No. 7 in the 247 Sports Composite, and 2015's is up to No. 4. One incoming Vol even started firing shots at the Tide on Twitter.

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