Tigers-Vols have produced some thrillers

Updated: October 2, 2003, 2:03 PM ET

AUBURN, Ala. -- For 35 years, it was a bitter rivalry of postgame snubs, thrilling comebacks and win-or-else stakes -- and then it faded.

Auburn and Tennessee meet again Saturday night, with a group of players who barely have an inkling of what the series once meant and the scintillating games it seemed to produce with regularity.

"The Auburn-Tennessee rivalry was once one of the greatest rivalries year in and year out Auburn ever had," Auburn athletic director David Housel said. "It would be our first conference game practically every year from 1956 to 1991.

"Very seldom did a team that lost that game ever become a serious contender for the crown."

The seventh-ranked Volunteers (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) are the East Division leaders while the Tigers (2-2, 1-0) were the preseason favorites to win the league before losing their first two games.

The teams ceased being annual foes after the 1991 game when the newly expanded SEC split up into Eastern and Western divisions with Auburn and Tennessee, once again, on opposite sides. Now, there's Florida-Tennessee and Auburn-LSU, rivalries that have picked up steam in recent years.

"If you became an Auburn fan in the '90s, you don't remember the Tennessee game being a big, big game," Housel said. "If you became an Auburn fan from 1956 to 1991, you remember how big the Tennessee game was.

"Your stomach would get tight just thinking about it, because it's so big for both teams."

Tennessee is 5-0-1 in the past six meetings, but the teams haven't met since 1999 and have played only three times since 1991. They'll meet again in Knoxville next season and then play on a rotating basis.

The tensions have dissipated, both teams reserving their animosities for other teams now. Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer will surely shake hands after the game -- unlike Shug Jordan and Bill Battle in 1973.

Jordan was angry because the Vols had punted on first down throughout the fourth quarter of a 21-0 victory, forcing Auburn's offense to repeatedly contend with a driving rainstorm. He also said Battle refused the pregame handshake.

The next year, Auburn fans taunted the Vols with chants of "Punt."

"People talk about crowd control and intensity and bitterness," Housel said. "Auburn-Tennessee in '70, '71 and '72 probably had as much animosity between those two schools as anybody else in conference, certainly even than Auburn and Alabama."

The acrimony is gone. The stakes remain high.

The Tigers are trying to redeem themselves from a dismal start. The Volunteers haven't lost -- or looked all that impressive in victory.

The oddsmakers clearly aren't sold, making Auburn a slight favorite in a game that could convince plenty of doubters for either team.

"I don't know when we don't have a bull's eye on us," Fulmer said. "And that's the truth. We've had enough success in recent years that everybody says, 'We'll circle Tennessee on our calendars.'

"Auburn is no different than us. They're fighting like heck for position in the conference, position in the national standpoint and respect in the national standpoint."

The game, he predicted, "will be a humdinger."

Anything else would be a surprise given the nature of this series.

Six of the last eight meetings were decided by 10 points or fewer, including ties in 1988 and 1990 and a 30-29 Peyton Manning-led Tennessee victory in the 1997 SEC championship game.

The teams combined for six league titles from 1983-90, with Auburn's last coming in 1989.

"I'm sure it's going to bring back a lot of memories for some of the oldtimers," Tuberville said.

The youngsters, meanwhile, are trying to make new ones.

"This is something we've been waiting for, working for all winter and summer, preparing to win the SEC West," Auburn defensive end Reggie Torbor said. "We want to see how good we are and how good we can be. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index