Fifteen losses in a row. That was the losing streak that the University of Tennessee suffered at the hands of the University of Alabama football team.
Last Saturday, that finally ended as Tennessee defeated Alabama in the final seconds at Knoxville by a score of 52 – 49. It could have gone either way. In fact, the lead changed several times.
Alabama has to possess the greatest college football dynasty of all time. Nick Saban has eclipsed Paul “Bear” Bryant as the greatest football coach, and he probably has more seasons to go. Neither Saban nor Alabama should be counted out.
It is a fact that, in college football, any team can beat any other team on a given day. In 2007, Appalachian State University stunned perennial powerhouse Michigan and, this season, shocked #6 ranked Texas A & M. I may be biased, but I believe that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) is the most difficult conference in the country. With the exception of Vanderbilt University, every team could, under the right circumstances, be a top ten team.
In the last 16 years, the national college football champion has been a southern team 15 of those years. As of last Sunday, six of the top ten teams were from southern universities. The other four teams were scattered across the nation.
It has been said that the two dominant religions in the South are the Southern Baptist Church and college football and that the Baptists are only glad that college football is not played on Sundays.
Part of the South’s fervor toward college football is that, until fairly recently, there was only one southern professional team and that was the Dallas Cowboys. The next closest team was the Washington Redskins. My favorite team in high school was the Green Bay Packers, mostly because they won a lot of games, and their fans were insane. As a Tennessee boy, I naturally pulled for the original UT in Knoxville, 99 miles away, not that usurper in Texas.
Another reason for the love of college football is that it gave Southerners an opportunity to strike back. After the War Between the States, the South was left impoverished. The economic situation did not even begin to improve for many decades. Southerners knew that the rest of the country despised, or at least dismissed, them for one reason or another. This attitude was reflected in movies, books, and even cartoons.
If an Alabama team could defeat a western team or, especially, a northern team, the burdens of Southerners were lightened somewhat. While that is no longer the case (even Yankees and Californians are moving south for work or retirement), there still is tremendous support for college football.
But back to Tennessee. The Volunteers have fielded a college team since 1891, or 131 seasons counting 2022. They rank #11 on the list of all-time percentage winners with a 862-408-53 won-loss-tie record and a .672 winning percentage. The Vols have appeared in 54 bowl games, winning 29, and have won 16 conference championships and claim six national titles, the latest being in 1998.
At Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium, which seats almost 102,000 people, Tennessee has won 478 home games for the highest home-field total in college football history for any school in the nation at its current home venue. Fanbuzz,com lists “Rocky Top” as the second best fight song in college football, even though the lyrics have nothing to do with college or sports. In 2014, Lake City, Tennessee, population 1,628, changed the name of the town to Rocky Top, Tennessee.
In the last few years, Tennessee, and the other SEC university football programs, have been in the shadow of Alabama. Even when Clemson, Georgia, or Auburn have won a national title, it was assumed that Alabama would rise again the next season. And, for the most part, that is what happened.
This may, again, be Alabama’s year. Don’t count out the Crimson Tide. One loss does not a losing season make. Tennessee must still face #1 ranked, and the defending national champion, undefeated Georgia Bulldogs. But, for the moment, Tennessee is undefeated at 6-0 and is ranked #3 in the nation behind Georgia and some Yankee school.
Here’s what is certain: 1) Tennessee will go to a bowl game. 2) Tennessee fans can now dream of another conference title and even a chance to be in the final four. 3) Tennessee beat #1 Alabama at home and the celebration continues. 4) “Rocky Top” will be the most popular song this week in Tennessee and the most hated song in Alabama. 5) Georgia will take Tennessee seriously this year.
What is also certain is that the season has a long way to go. The National College Football Championship will not be decided in bar room discussions, frat parties, or in opinion columns. It will be decided on the field of battle three months from now. In the meantime, I will celebrate the victory and keep hope alive.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streamed at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) and may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]