The commemorative soccer ball is prominently displayed in Josh Heupel’s office.

The inscription on its front (Tennessee 52, Alabama 49) is positioned, admittedly uncoincidentally, to face a large leather sectional sofa and table with chairs. Hard to miss, the football is a not-so-subtle reminder to those entering (ahem, recruits) that the Volunteers defeated the Crimson Tide in one of the most epic thrillers of the 2022 college football season.

“Everyone involved in our program finds out about that,” says Heupel. “There were a lot of cigarettes that hadn’t been lit in a long time. It means a lot”.

One hundred and seventy-one days ago, the Vols defeated No. 1 Alabama at Neyland Stadium to snap a 15-year losing streak against the SEC giant, sparking a cigar-smoking, pole-uprooting celebration that hadn’t been seen before. seen in Knoxville in over a decade. The victory, a crowning achievement in Heupel’s second season in charge, reverberated across the country and helped lead Tennessee to the program’s best season (11-2) since 2001.

More than five months after that night’s hysteria, other memories of her exist in this building. Before entering Heupel’s office, three giant photos from the game hang on the wall: the Vol Navy scene, a packed Neyland Stadium, and UT players preparing to run out of the famous Power T. Some of the reminders are etched into fire. Luke Jackson, a longtime fan, had a photo of Heupel smoking a cigar tattooed on his left thigh in the wake of the win. He visited Heupel last week.

It’s all a reminder of the passion that exists in the Alabama-Tennessee series, which has been played 105 times and every year since 1944.

The series, at least annually, could end soon if the SEC chooses to continue operating under an eight-game conference scheduling format when Texas and Oklahoma join the conference in 2024. Under an eight-game model, administrators are considering, each team would play one permanent and seven rotating opponents. They are also considering a nine-game conference format with three permanent and six rotating opponents.

In an interview with Sports IllustratedHeupel made it clear that he wants to continue the series against Alabama.

“We would love to play our storied rivals every year,” says Heupel. “It’s important to our fan base. Players want to play those games when they come to Tennessee. I don’t know what the programming model will be like, but we want to play against our historic rivals.”

The SEC’s future programming format has been a hotly debated topic in recent months. The league is divided on a decision and more talks are expected in the coming weeks ahead of their annual spring meetings in Destin, Florida.

In an interview with YES in March, Alabama coach Nick Saban expressed his disappointment in the three permanent opponents the conference has suggested for the Crimson Tide under a nine-game model. They are Auburn, Tennessee and LSU.

The league was expected to pick a team’s three permanent opponents based on primary and secondary rivalries, geographic footprint, and balance and parity. The conference uses a 10-year success metric to come up with the fairest combination of permanent opponents for each team, Saban says.

“They said they did 10 years whatever,” says the coach. “Well, some of those years, Tennessee wasn’t as good as it had been in the previous 10 years, but now they’re as good as they used to be before those 10 years.

“We have three teams, and two of them are in the top 10, and the other one is in the top 10 a lot,” Saban continues. “Look historically in 25-year history, the top three teams in the East are Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. You look historically at 25 years, Alabama, LSU and Auburn are the top three teams in the West. So we’re playing them all.”

While he has been a supporter of playing more league games, Saban says the eight-game model would allow the SEC to achieve a more balanced scheduling format. However, secondary rivalries will be lost on an annual basis, such as Alabama-Tennessee, Auburn-Georgia, and the revival of Texas-Texas A&M.

Heupel declined to say which format he prefers, but stressed the importance of the Alabama rivalry.

“Football unites people. Such a proud tradition,” he says. “That game, we are unique in the sense that we have a lot of different opponents… that, for sure, for the older generation, is the game.”

Tennessee’s win against Alabama and the overall 11-2 season “opened the doors” to recruiting, Heupel says.

“When we got here, we were talking about who we were and what it would be like. You now have tangible proof that this is a program that can and will compete with the best in the country,” says Heupel.

“It creates a narrative, which is real: We’ve grown so fast, and this is a program that’s going to recruit and develop at an elite level, and the kids are going to have a blast.”

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