Silverberg: Alabama hasn’t been Tennessee’s biggest problem

Alabama at Tennessee / Credit: UA Athletics

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

The longer the streak goes, the louder the cries of unfairness.

Tennessee fans have watched their team lose to Alabama in eleven straight years. The two teams don’t play in the same division, but are scheduled to play every season as a result of the league’s cross-division rivals.

The protest from Vol Nation is the scheduling is unfair. No other team in the SEC East has to play Alabama every year. It’s not uncommon to hear a Tennessee fan comment that the Vols begin each season 0-1. UT supporters are frustrated that Alabama perpetually keeps Tennessee from competing for the SEC East.

Except it doesn’t.

Since division play started in the SEC in 1992 the Vols have won the SEC East five times, but have had some close calls that could’ve led to more appearances in the SEC Championship Game. A closer look at several of those years will show that Alabama isn’t the biggest culprit behind keeping the Vols out of Atlanta.

Below is a breakdown of every season where the Vols have finished no more than two games behind the SEC East champ and in the same year lost to Alabama.

1992

Tennessee’s regular season record: 9-2 (5-3)

SEC East Champion: Florida

Why Tennessee didn’t win the division: Tennessee dropped three straight games by a combined nine points after a 5-0 start. After wins over Georgia and Florida in consecutive weeks the Vols lost to Arkansas at home. The Razorbacks would go on to finish 3-7-1. The following week Tennessee lost to No. 4 Alabama by seven in Neyland. The Crimson Tide went undefeated and won the National Championship. A week later Tennessee suffered another one-point loss on the road to a South Carolina team that finished 5-6.

The Vols would’ve won the East if… They had taken care of business against either Arkansas or South Carolina. A win over either team would’ve given Tennessee a head-to-head tiebreaker over both Florida and Georgia. Two wins would’ve given the Vols a rematch with Alabama in the SEC title game. Winning the Third Saturday in October would’ve also captured the East for the Vols, but Tennessee had two gimmes it failed to take advantage of.

1993

Tennessee’s regular season record: 9-1-1 (6-1-1)

SEC East Champion: Florida

Why Tennessee didn’t win the division: The Vols tied No. 2 Alabama, but lost to the No. 9 Gators in The Swamp by a touchdown.

The Vols would’ve won the East if… They had beaten Florida. Even a win over the Crimson Tide wouldn’t have given the Vols the SEC East crown due to the head-to-head tiebreaker in favor of Florida.

1994

Tennessee’s regular season record: 7-4 (5-3)

SEC East Champion: Florida

Why Tennessee didn’t win the division: The Vols lost to No. 1 Florida in Knoxville 31-0 and dropped a three-point game to No. 23 Mississippi State on the road the next week. Three weeks later Tennessee lost by four to the Crimson Tide at home.

The Vols would’ve won the East if… Beating Alabama wouldn’t have been enough in the SEC East this year. The Gators were 7-1 in the division, two games ahead of Tennessee. The quickest route to Atlanta for Tennessee would’ve been to have beaten Florida, making both teams 6-2 in SEC play and giving Tennessee the tiebreaker to go to Atlanta.

2002

Tennessee’s regular season record: 8-4 (5-3)

SEC East Champion: Georgia

Why Tennessee didn’t win the division: The Vols lost by three scores to Florida, lost to Georgia in Athens 18-13 and lost by 20 to Alabama. Tennessee finished third in the division while Georgia went on to win the SEC Championship and the Sugar Bowl and finished third in the final AP Poll. Florida went 6-2 in conference play and finished second.

The Vols would’ve won the East if… Tennessee would’ve needed more help here than simply beating Alabama. Had the Vols won the Georgia game it would’ve created a three-way tie in the division, which would’ve gone to Florida based on the Gators beating both Georgia and Tennessee. A win over Alabama would’ve also required Tennessee to beat one of its own SEC East rivals to win the division.

2010

Tennessee’s regular season record: 6-6 (3-5)

SEC East Champion: South Carolina

Why Tennessee didn’t win the division: The SEC West was loaded and Tennessee actually got lucky drawing Ole Miss, which was the only West team not to finish the season ranked in the final BCS rankings. The Vols beat the Rebels, but lost to eventual division champ No. 17 South Carolina, No. 10 Florida, No. 12 LSU, Georgia and Alabama.

The Vols would’ve won the East if… Despite five conference losses the Vols would’ve tied Florida and South Carolina with a 4-4 record had Tennessee beaten the Gamecocks with all three teams having a 1-1 record against the other two. BCS ranking would’ve come into play and likely kept the Vols out of Atlanta. Tennessee’s next best chance at a conference win was LSU, but Derek Dooley sent 13 men on the field to play defense and the rest is history.

2015

Tennessee’s regular season record: 8-4 (5-3)

SEC East Champion: Florida

Why Tennessee didn’t win the division: The Vols blew a 13-point lead with less than five minutes remaining against Florida, including giving up the go-ahead 63-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with less than two minutes to play. Tennessee also lost at home to Arkansas by four and dropped a road game to Alabama by five. The Gators finished 7-1 in the SEC.

The Vols would’ve won the East if… Tennessee goes for two to go up by 14 instead of 13, Tennessee’s defense doesn’t give up two touchdowns three minutes apart, Aaron Medley hits a miraculous 55-yard field goal, Butch Jones uses better play calling and better clock management, etc. The list goes on and on, but if any of these things happen Tennessee beats Florida and wins the SEC East with the head-to-head tiebreaker. Beating Alabama only puts Tennessee a game behind the Gators in the division.

2016

Tennessee’s regular season record: 8-4 (4-4)

SEC East Champion: Florida

Why Tennessee didn’t win the division: After a 5-0 start, Tennessee lost three straight conference games. The Vols nearly overcame seven turnovers to force overtime against Texas A&M, but lost to the Aggies after two extra periods. Tennessee was rocked by Alabama before suffering an inexcusable loss to South Carolina. The Vols finished the regular season with an 11-point loss to Vanderbilt. Both the Gamecocks and the Commodores wouldn’t have been bowl eligible had Tennessee beaten them.

The Vols would’ve won the East if… They win two of the three very winnable SEC games they lost. Injuries plagued Tennessee in the second half of the year, but there was still no excuse to lose to South Carolina and Vandy. If Tennessee hadn’t dug itself into a 21-point second half hole the Vols might’ve beaten Texas A&M.

What if only the divisional records counted towards the SEC standings?

Tennessee would’ve only benefitted from this in the 1992 season when both the Vols and the Gators went 4-1 in the SEC East with Tennessee winning the head-to-head matchup. The losses to Alabama and Arkansas, along with division foe South Carolina dropped Tennessee to third in the division. Not counting the cross-division games would’ve put Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game.

However, the Vols would’ve missed out on going to Atlanta in 2007. The Vols lost to Florida and Alabama and finished 6-2 in conference play. Florida suffered losses to Auburn and LSU, knocking the Gators out of the conference title game. So even with the conference only counting division games in the race to Atlanta, Tennessee would still have the same number of appearances in the SEC Championship.

Closing Arguments

Alabama is 15-10-1 in the series since the SEC began divisional play. However, none of those 15 losses for Tennessee have kept the Vols from winning the SEC East. Having Alabama on the schedule every year is certainly an uphill battle, but the bigger issue for Tennessee has been taking care of its own division.

In any season where Tennessee has missed out on winning the division by a single game or tiebreaker there was a weaker opponent than Alabama the Vols could’ve taken advantage of, but didn’t. Any year the Vols finished two games behind the division champ the Alabama game wouldn’t have helped Tennessee.

So while Alabama should continue to be hated and loathed in Big Orange Country, making the permanent cross-division rivalry the scapegoat for Tennessee’s lack of conference success is simply wrong. Those arguing Tennessee begins the year with a disadvantage in the SEC East race have no leg to stand on.

Note: Check out the conversation on this topic from Hour #2 of the August 4 edition of Saturday Sportstalk here.

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