The Tennessee Volunteers

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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 davidepps@ctk.life.]

7 COMMENTS

  1. My mom was born in 1942 and she confirms that the Redskins was the preferred choice of Southerners. The team was based in Maryland and Virginia, and they are Southern States and will be until the end.

    More importantly, the legacy of Alabama vs Tennessee stands on it’s own merit. Long before the “Iron Bowl” became famous, (Bama and Auburn did not play each other from 1907-1948)Bama vs UT was THE game in the South east of the Mississippi River.

    One of Alabama’s best players from the 1930’s, Paul “Bear” Bryant, played against Tennessee despite having a fractured bone in his leg. He kept it secret and played. There was no way he would miss playing against the boys from Knoxville. Bryant would eventually become a coach and go on to take the place of his old antagonist, Tennessee’s legendary coach, General Bob Neyland. Both coaches, and both teams had great respect for each other and it showed on the field. The 3rd Saturday in October is sacred to those of us that wear the Crimson or the Orange, and may it always be so.

    I recommend a great version of the story of the first Alabama team to play in the Rose Bowl in the early 1920’s by the Alabama native Rick Bragg. It combines football politics, and at that time, the still painful legacy of the defeat of the South in “the war” sixty years prior. Enjoy, and Roll Tide!

  2. Re UT’s stadium, if it was configured like most college stadiums, ie seat width and distance between rows, it would not seat nearly as many as it does 10k less at least..it is as tight of a stadium I have ever attended for a college game.

  3. “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.”

    I have to respectfully disagree with that statement, Pastor Epps.

    Dallas was not the only southern NFL team. The Houston Oilers started the same year as Dallas (1960) and stayed until 1995 when they departed for Nashville. Granted, they were mostly terrible, but they did exist. Both Atlanta and Miami got franchises in 1965. You could argue that the Falcons were so terrible in the early years that no one paid attention to them, but they did exist. The Dolphins, on the other hand, were a great team. Remember the ’72 Dolphins that remain the only undefeated team to win a Super Bowl? Granted, Miami isn’t really considered “southern”, even though it is the southernmost city with an NFL franchise.

    Okay, maybe I’ve talked myself into agreeing with you. Dallas was the only “southern” NFL team that anyone paid attention to.

    I can tell you that my grandparents in Knoxville had season tickets back in the day and it was a thrill to go to Neyland stadium and hear 100,000 people dressed in orange stomping their feet and singing Rocky Top! Granddad would have been thrilled to see that game last Saturday!

    • Since Busy Bee brought up Houston here, there was another Texas team at that time as well, in Dallas … the Dallas “Texans” who would later move to Kansas City (Chiefs). Both the Oilers and the Texans in the early ‘60s were with the old AFL (not the NFL) at that time.

      Now, most know the Cowboys in Dallas got their NFL franchise in 1960, then Atlanta (& Miami) in 1965, but it seems you all forgot that … New Orleans, a true “Southern” city received their franchise two years later in 1967. And last on the short history lesson here … the Vols vs them Georgia Bulldogs last Saturday Rev Epps? Well better luck next year. Ouch.