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The Tennessee-Georgia Series Is Bad. Let’s Fix That.

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On the creation of the Cool Wet Kiss Of Friendship Classic

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

The Georgia-Tennessee football series resumes this Saturday, and absolutely nobody is looking forward to it. Not the Bulldogs, coming in hot off thrashing Auburn and looking for their fourth straight win over their pokey division rival. Not Tennessee, sitting at 2-0 over two opponents whose combined record is 0-4. Not even, really, The Media, which ought to know better at this point than to psych up for this game, but is understandably antsy covering a COVID-depleted calendar and casting around for things to talk about. (We have helpfully solved that last problem ourselves, if you’re wondering.)

The rivalry is bad, is the thing. The series doesn’t have a name, or a traveling trophy, or a particularly interesting history. We’d like to change that. It’s long past time to put some damn sizzle on this steak. Let’s put some real stakes on this rivalry.

Let’s make Tennessee and Georgia play football for a year of water rights along their shared border.

On the chance you’re reading this and Not From Around Here: Yes, border disputes over water usage are still a thing in the 21st-century United States. In 1818, the story goes, a surveyor veered off the 35th parallel and set off a chain of events that put a longer swath of the Tennessee River in Tennessee’s control than Georgia might have liked. Two centuries later, Georgia’s still fussing about it.

Despite myriad attempts to lay the matter to rest (false starts, you might say), this one still isn’t solved after more than 200 years of squabbling. Yes, the whole thing has at times gotten uproariously petty; and yes, the mayor of Chattanooga coined the phrase “a cool, wet kiss of friendship” somewhere along the way.

What better title to affix to a series that has constant proximity, but no passion?

The most glaring structural issue with the Vawls-Dawgs rivalry is a lethal one: Generally speaking, when it comes to the attendant pageantry and mayhem that surround high-profile series, it is stupefyingly boring. Even the series’ neck-and-neck historical scoreboard – Georgia leads heading into the 2020 contest with 24 wins all-time to Tennessee’s 23, and two ties) – hasn’t done much to pump life into a bloodless matchup. Every once in a while, something funny happens. But only every once in a while.

The 2009 game comes to mind, wherein Lane Kiffin’s salvaged quarterback, Jonathan Crompton, threw for like 900 yards [citation needed] on a UGA defense whose aimless arm-waving would’ve been better suited to the outdoor pit of a Widespread Panic concert. The 2015 and 2016 iterations of the series offered up more than their fair shares of mayhem in their second halves. For their part, the Bulldogs have since inflicted back-to-back victories on the Volunteers under the tutelage of a guy sporting what, by all metrics, ought rightly to be the Tennessee state haircut.

If all this sounds like recency bias out for a cherry-picking stroll, please also note that there’s not that many decades’ worth of games to plumb in the first place. Despite featuring two flagship schools from neighboring states, and despite the first game between them taking place in 1899, this has only been an annual series since the establishment of a two-division SEC format in 1992. The ensuing annual streak of meetings now outstrips the number of times UGA and UT played between 1899 and 1991 by a decent margin. (The fight over water rights, by contrast, is decades older still, hailing back to 1818.)

Tennessee and Georgia are not markedly dissimilar, as SEC schools go, so there’s not a meaningful amount of othering to be done in order to enliven the proceedings, but they’re also not so similar as to inspire the kind of who-wore-it-best “YOUR STATE IS BACKWARDS” animosity that fuels feuds like Alabama and Ole Miss. As a result, neither program enters the season – or even conference play – with the other at the top of mind. Both schools’ loathing for Florida far outstrips their dislike for one another, and both have longer-running and higher-profile annual series with SEC West rivals. Hell, this isn’t even Georgia’s only water fight.

Vawls-Dawgs is also a rivalry characterized to a large degree by streaks, and streaks get boring the longer they go on. What if each passing year instead made each team’s mounting win or loss total more dire? Rivalry losses fester, but most do so in a passive manner. Now imagine every Georgia Golf Dad of your acquaintance, and all those your imagination can summon, having to abide by lawn-withering watering restrictions for the next 12 months, all because Kirby punted from the Tennessee 40 with two minutes left and the game tied! The physical manifestation of this angst can only result in delight, both for the winning squad and nonpartisan observers.

There’s an argument to be made that, especially in its current state, the state of this series is richly deserved. After all, you don’t hire Nick Saban’s chowder-headed children to coach your football programs if you’re looking to spice things up. (With the exception, SOMEHOW, of Ole Miss, where again we’re looking at the guy who gave us one of the only memorable meetings between these two teams of the early aughts.)

There’s another argument to be made that we could just … get rid of it? This year has proven over and over again that all decisions and boundaries in college football, even more so than in life, are made up. Release UT and UGA from these dry, meaningless couplings and let them find better matches in a new state.

That state, by the way, would be Virginia. Make the Tennessee-Virginia Tech game at Bristol Motor Speedway an annual Labor Day weekend event, and let Georgia and UVA clutch pearls over batch cocktails on their famously bucolic campuses. This, in itself, is a classic SEC move: Here, help yourself to an ACC opponent you can probably beat most years! (Not you, South Carolina!)

But no. Wishing has no real place in dystopia. We must live in the world we have. We must press on, and make the best of our traditions as they are. The fans of both teams feel they deserve better, so that’s two big-ticket items checked off the to-do list right away. Involve the aquariums adjacent to I-75 in both states to hike up civic interest. (If you’re uninvolved in this conflict but would like to choose a side, the Tennessee Aquarium is better, but the Georgia Aquarium is bigger; let your personal and spiritual values guide you to one or the other.) The state legislatures of both programs would surely follow with their support; there’s historical precedent for political interference in rivalry contests elsewhere in the SEC East.

How would this all even work? Look, I’m not an event planner or a politician, and if you want an engineer, please consult Tennessee alum and legendary Georgia rival Bobby Dodd. But the argument is sound. The evidence is clear. And the rest is up to the folks who actually make the deer sausage. So surrender to the Cool Wet Kiss of Friendship Classic, y’all, and let’s see where the evening takes us. (Besides into Nickajack Lake with a nine-iron.)