Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The First Third Saturday in October

UT's Gene McEver ran the opening kickoff back 98 yards for a touchdown.
The rivalry between Alabama and Tennessee emerged in the late 1920s when Robert Neyland took over the Volunteer program and created a serious rival to the great Crimson Tide squads of that era.

Neyland had been hired, not to topple Alabama, but to defeat in-state rival Vanderbilt who had an 18-2-1 record against the Vols at the time. UT's Dean of Engineering Nathan Dougherty told him, "Even the score with Vanderbilt. Do something about the terrible series standing."

The first season at Knoxville Neyland fell short of the goal winning every contest except the one with the Commodores. Along the way, the Volunteers earned no less than six shutouts and outscored their opponents 151-34. In 1927, they went undefeated and were Southern Conference co-champions.

Although Tennessee hadn't faced Alabama since 1914, Neyland scheduled the Tide for the 1928 season. At the time, the Crimson Tide were at the height of the Wallace Wade era. Between 1924 and 1926 the Crimson Tide had earned three Southern Conference titles and a pair of national championships. The 1927 squad had taken a step back and finished 5-4 but hopes were high in Tuscaloosa.

Neyland and his staff in 1926.
On Oct. 20, 1928 - the third Saturday of the month - the Volunteers travelled to Tuscaloosa to face the Crimson Tide. More than 15,000 were on hand at Denny Field for the Homecoming contest.

Before the game, Neyland approached Wade and asked if, in the case of a rout, the third and fourth quarters could be shortened. Wade agreed "in the unlikely even we have a halftime lead that requires such action."

It may have been a psychological ploy but it was a well-grounded one. The week prior, Tennessee eked out a 13-12 win over an Ole Miss squad Alabama had demolished 27-0 to start the season.

Any expectation of a Tennessee blowout was disabused when fullback Gene McEver ran the opening kickoff back 98 yards for a touchdown. From there the contest turned into a battle with the Crimson Tide scraping back within a point of the Vols but being undone by turnovers and an untimely safety.

Tennessee won 15-13 and gave Alabama its first home field loss in seven years. It had been such a tightly fought affair that Neyland, surrounded by reporters after the final whistle, was almost overcome.

"I know we won the game," he said. "But what was the score?"