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UT test pivotal for Tide

When I was growing up as a huge college football fan back in the late 1970's and also during the 1980's in my birthplace of Tuscaloosa, there was little doubt whom the main rival was for the University of Alabama gridiron program.

Other than some older-generation members of the Crimson Tide nation who vividly remembered the storied battles between football coaching legends Paul "Bear" Bryant of Alabama and

General Robert "Bob" Neyland of Tennessee and still despised the Volunteers above all other universities, most Tide fans seemed to reserve the brunt of their hatred for the Auburn Tigers.

This, of course, was during the peak years of the Alabama/Auburn game, when it was still played in Birmingham football shrine Legion Field, with the 50-50 ticket split between both schools. Otherwise when the game was actually still the "Iron Bowl."

And while the rivalry with Auburn is still a bitter one for the majority of Tide fans, the movement of the series from Legion Field to a home-and-home affair has diluted the game somewhat, while seven consecutive wins by the Volunteers in the storied southern rivalry have squarely placed Tennessee back on top of the Crimson Tide's Most-Hated List.

The seven-game win streak by the Vols over the Tide also is a good indicator of the fortunes of the two schools over the past decade or so.

Since Bama's last win in the series, a 17-13 victory in Knoxville in 1994, Tennessee, under the direction of Phillip Fulmer has become a perennial power, both in its recruiting prowess and also in its generally ranked in the Top 10 in the country.

Meanwhile during that same period, the Crimson Tide program has undergone the effects of probation, coaching dissension and other negatives which have at times diluted the Tide's talent base while also staining the once-pristine image of the Alabama program.

The reverse in the fortunes of the two programs has also played out in the current Vol streak over the Tide, which began in 1995 with an ugly 41-14 pasting in Legion Field led by former Tennessee All-American Peyton Manning and continued with a 35-21 win by the Vols in Tuscaloosa's Bryant-Denny Stadium last season.

During the win streak, Tennessee has physically handled the Tide basically the way Alabama has historically beaten its opponents, with a smash-mouth, clock-running ground game and a smothering defense.

Last year's Tennessee victory is a prime example of how the series has gone as of late, with Bama carrying a 24-21 lead into the fourth quarter, only to have the Vols score two touchdowns in the final period to frustrate Bama fans yet again. The Vols kept the ball for 12 of the 15 minutes in that final period, with the exhausted Tide defense unable to find any solution to stopping the Tennessee ground assault.

Last year's Tennessee win, like several other in the current Vol win streak, epitomized the current talent gap between the two rivals, with Alabama's talent being good, but simply not good enough to measure up to the Volunteers for an entire 60 minutes of play.

The gap appears to be narrowing somewhat as Dennis Franchione has been successful in bringing talented players, and most importantly some sense of pride back into the Tide program, but one still gets the feeling that if Alabama does not break the current Tennessee stranglehold over the Tide, it may be a few years before it actually happens.

Alabama has a roster filled with talented seniors, such as Tyler Watts, Kendall Morehead, Jarrett Johnson and Kenny King, who have never beaten the Tide, and Alabama is also likely filled with confidence after drubbing Ole Miss last weekend 42-7.

Tennessee, on the other hand, has been hurt by the injury to sophomore quarterback Casey Clausen, has had to deal with player dissension, and has already had to deal with disappointing losses to Florida and Georgia.

Although Knoxville, and fabled Neyland Stadium is always a particularly imposing place to try and gain a victory, it would appear that Saturday's nationally-televised showdown on ESPN is Bama's most legitimate shot at topping the despised Volunteers and silencing the cries of "Rocky Top" in several years as this Tennessee team does not appear as formidable as many of Fulmer's recent squads.

Thanks to another round of NCAA probation, the Tide's talent base will once again be diluted and we will likely be looking at extremely thin Bama teams over the next few several, making it virtually impossible for Bama to compete with talent-rich schools such as Tennessee in the near future.

It is almost foolish to place too much importance on a single game, but there is little doubt that Saturday's game in Knoxville is a critical one for the Tide program.

With little more to play for than pride this season and next, ending the Volunteer streak is one of the major goals for Franchione's players, especially for the seniors.

A win over the Vols would also go a long way toward establishing credibility for Franchione's program, and alleviate much of the bitterness and frustration resulting from seven years of non-stop "Rocky Top."

For Bama to break the streak, it perhaps must play its best game of the season, as Tennessee has yet another very physical squad, especially on defense.

As far as how the game will go, I have quickly learned it is best not to even attempt to pick a winner in this very unpredictable year of SEC football.

It should be fun to watch anyway.

Stan J. Griffin is a reporter and columnist for The Andalusia Star-News.