Vols aiming to color October’s third Saturday orange

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee football players celebrate with fans following their 38-33 victory over Florida on Sept. 24. The No. 6 Volunteers are hoping to repeat that scene Saturday afternoon when No. 3 Alabama comes to Knoxville.

There isn't a rivalry in college football that typifies autumn more than Alabama-Tennessee, which takes place this weekend inside Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

The series that has spanned 104 meetings is referred to as "The Third Saturday in October," often when fall foliage can be at its zenith around the Southeastern Conference's 11-state footprint. Even the clashing colors of the two schools, crimson and orange, can resemble a backyard leaf pile.

Of course, there has been a lot more crimson recently, as Alabama has won 15 consecutive series meetings entering Saturday's showdown. All 15 victories have transpired in the Nick Saban era that has produced six national championships, while Tennessee counterpart Josh Heupel will give it a second try after losing last year's game 52-24 in Tuscaloosa.

"When you talk to different Tennessee fans, different generations and different people have who they think their biggest rival is," Heupel said earlier this week. "I think that's one of the unique things here, but Alabama is obviously a big one for everybody. This means a lot to our fan base, and obviously it means a lot to us inside this program, too.

"We've worked to this point to have this type of setting inside of Neyland Stadium, and we're excited about that opportunity."

The setting is the first top-six matchup in the rivalry's history, as Alabama's 6-0 start has yielded a No. 3 ranking in this week's Associated Press poll, while Tennessee's 5-0 start has resulted in the Volunteers being No. 6. Heupel's Vols were expected to show improvement over last year's 7-6 team that lost to Purdue in the Music City Bowl, but this season's abrupt ascension includes victories over three ranked teams at the time in which they played -- No. 17 Pittsburgh, No. 20 Florida and No. 25 LSU.

Tennessee's 38-33 win over Florida on Sept. 24 was accompanied by a national television audience on CBS and ESPN's popular "College GameDay" traveling show, and the networks have returned for more. The Vols are coming off their most dominant showing of the season, last Saturday's 40-13 shellacking of LSU in Baton Rouge.

This undefeated start for Tennessee follows a six-season run in which the Vols were a combined 27-33 and dismissed unpopular coaches Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt.

"I'm definitely taking it all in, especially with it being my last year," Tennessee sixth-year defensive tackle LaTrell Bumphus said. "I've been through all the ups and the downs. At times it has been hard, and a lot of times you might ask yourself, 'What am I still doing this for?'

"These past few weeks, I've been able to see a lot of stuff that I haven't been able to see since I've been here, and it would be great to win this week. I'm a Tennessee boy, so I know what this rivalry is all about."

When Tennessee blanked Alabama 24-0 in Knoxville midway through the 1970 season, the series was tied 23-23-7, but then the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant led the Crimson Tide to 11 straight wins. The Vols would post the slight advantage in the 25 meetings from 1982 to 2006, bolstered by seven straight wins from 1995 to 2001, but Saban arrived in 2007 and promptly closed the door.

Alabama's current streak of 15 includes 13 victories decided by double digits, but this is the highest-ranked Tennessee team Saban has faced, and it's a Tennessee team that is believing more and more in itself and that the door could finally be opened.

"Being complacent is a bad thing in any field that you're in," Vols sixth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker said of this year's rousing success. "Continuing to push forward and persevere through compliments or failures -- you never know which side you'll be on -- and just continuing to do your job and keeping your eyes on the main goal is the main thing."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

  photo  Crimson Tide photos / Alabama takes the field before last season’s 52-24 win over Tennessee at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.