The Tennessee Volunteers appear to be back among the elite of college football

In 2015, they came within four plays of being undefeated at 12-0 and possibly, working their way into the College Football Playoff.What most younger people don't know is the Volunteers are emerging from the longest period of Football irrelevance of their long and storied history. Their last two SEC titles came in 1997 and 1998. They finished 1997 at 11-2. In 1998, when they also won the national championship, they were 13-0.

The rivalry's other half:

A few years prior to the decline of Volunteer Football, the mighty Alabama Crimson Tidebegan a tough stretch of their own. Fans old and young have witnessed the amazing run the Tide has been on since year two of the Nick Saban dynasty. In 2007, Saban began had his only non double digit winning year of his tenure (7-6). Since then it has been --insert your preferred superlative here-- of all- time.

From the late 1980's through 2005, Tennessee had a great run. Not up to Alabama's current win percentage mind you, but very good.

Even though there were still a good many wins, the titles -- other than occasional divisional -- came to an end in 1998.For the Tide, they fell on hard times in the mid 1990's and it lasted -- with the exception of the 1999 conference title -- until 2008. During this time, the Volunteers won 10 of 12 games in the series. Tennessee could claim 11 wins in 12 games because Alabama was forced to vacate their win from 2005, but that would not be in the spirit of this rivalry.

Prior to the latest Bama run, the rivalry was close.

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In 2006, the last time the Vols won, the all-time record stood at Alabama 43 - Tennessee 38 and seven ties.

15 years of championship futility:

Tennessee, ranked #1 in the nation at the time, played for the SEC title in 2001. They lost to LSU after leading for over three quarters. Had they held on, the Volscould have met Miami for the national championship.Tennessee was back in the SEC title game in 2004, this time losing to Auburn, 38-28. That Auburn team finished the year 13-0 and were not considered for the Bowl Championship Game.

Instead, USC played Oklahoma and won the title, 55-19. Obviously, being undefeated and SEC Champion didn't mean as much then.Tennessee made one last trip back to the SEC Championship Game in 2007. That year, they fell to LSU 21-14. LSU at 11-2, went on to play in the B.C.S. game and won the title from #1 ranked Ohio State, 38-24.

What made the rivalry:

Well before ESPN and the 24 hour news cycle, The Third Saturday in October was well-known--especially throughout the South--as the date of game that most often decided who would win the Southeastern Conference Championship.

In addition, it featured some of thegame'sbiggest stars as players and coaches.Bear Bryant was once asked at what point inthefall did he know what kind of team he had. He told the questioner he always knew what kind of team he had right after the third Saturday in October.

For Tennessee to become relevant in the rivalry again, it really comes down to whether Butch Jones can compete with Nick Saban. While he certainly hasn't gotten there yet, it is only just becoming time to compare.I give the guy a pass on the first two years simply because Tennessee had a hill to climb on talent and experience, especially compared to Alabama.

Even now, they fall well short when comparing recruited talent on the rosters. But, that is part of the overall package and who knows when or if Tennessee will compare player to player in the three and four deep talent list.

Last year, the Vols kept it close. Never mind they got more than their share of breaks in the game and Bama was distracted some, Tennessee still had to perform and they did that.This is the year for the Vols. They return almost the whole roster, they play in Knoxville and they know how to do it.

But, so does most everyone else. We'll see if U.T. can get back into the rivalry now.

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