Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
If you’re going to make it very long as the football coach at Tennessee, you have to beat Alabama, Florida and Georgia (probably in that order) more than they beat you.
It’s a big reason why Phillip Fulmer is no longer coaching the Vols and Lane Kiffin is.
In Fulmer’s last nine seasons, he was 11-16 against the Big Three, including a 3-9 record his final four seasons.
Kiffin has split with Florida and Georgia in his first season and gets a shot at Alabama on Saturday.
He’s already made a statement with the way he’s recruited, the way he’s gone after Urban Meyer from day one -- sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly -- and the way his first team at Tennessee has fought despite some obvious shortcomings.
But he could make his loudest statement by going to Tuscaloosa and knocking off the No. 2 Crimson Tide.
Kiffin is already immensely popular with the Big Orange Nation. They love his brashness. They love his work ethic. They love his ability to attract top-tier talent to Tennessee.
If he manages to ruin Alabama’s perfect season in his first crack at the Crimson Tide, you may see full-fledged sainthood bestowed on the first guy to coach in this storied rivalry for Tennessee who hasn’t played in it since the 1960s.
Kiffin knows how important this game is to Tennessee fans. They’ve reminded him at every turn. Ironically, it's the game that helped Fulmer take the Vols' program to new heights. For much of his career, he owned the Crimson Tide and went seven straight years without losing to them. But Nick Saban arrived, and the Vols weren't competitive with the Tide the last two years.
Making matters worse for Fulmer was that Alabama fans came in droves to Neyland Stadum last season and practically took over the place. The Crimson Tide rolled 29-9 on their way to an unbeaten regular season, and Fulmer's fate was sealed.
Kiffin doesn’t mind saying that what Saban has built at Alabama is a model for what he wants to build at Tennessee.
Of course, it’s also another way to get in a little dig at Public Enemy No. 1 in Kiffin’s mind -- Urban Meyer and the Gators.
“I think one poll got it right,” said Kiffin, quizzed this week on who was the best team in college football. “If you watch football and pay attention, I don't think there is any doubt who the No. 1 team is. I think it was very evident with the two teams playing Arkansas. Alabama is a great team. They are very well-coached, extremely talented, great on special teams, great on offense and great on defense.
“I love the style they play with. They play very physical. They’re in your face. They come downhill at you. That’s what we are going to do someday. I really like what they do.”
Now, if only he can figure out a way to beat them.
A 2-1 start against the Big Three, with only a close loss at the Swamp, would give Kiffin even more ammunition on the recruiting trail.
It would also serve notice that the Vols are serious about rejoining the elite in this conference … sooner rather than later.