By Mark Nagi

The Tennessee/Alabama rivalry will be renewed on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

It is always one of the most anticipated games on the schedule for the Vols, despite the fact that they haven’t beaten the Crimson Tide since 2006, and have rarely been competitive during this recent victory drought.

I’ve covered my share of these games over the years, and while there is a mutual respect between the programs, the pure, unadulterated hatred among fans is truly special. To this day, Bama fans call Phillip Fulmer a snitch for telling the NCAA what he knew about the infamous recruiting of Albert Means in 1999/2000.

But everything this time around just feels… different.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m pleased as punch to be able to watch any college football this season. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still seeing games played across the country. The Big 10 and PAC 12 have done an about face and will begin their seasons this weekend as well. (This is the point in the article in which I’d normally make a joke about the excitement of a Rutgers/Michigan State game in Lansing, but I’m not going to do that. Nope. Not gonna do it.)

The SEC has had to adjust like everyone else, and recently the Missouri/Vanderbilt and LSU/Florida games were postponed because of COVID outbreaks around the Commodores and Gators programs.

But the biggest news came on Wednesday, October 14, when it was announced that Alabama head coach Nick Saban head coach had tested positive for COVID-19. Saban has done public service announcements imploring fans to wear masks and practice social distancing. During games this season, Saban could be seen on the sidelines wearing a mask in the proper form, something that a lot of college football coaches are failing to do.

So the fact that Saban can get it, someone that seemingly was taking all the proper precautions, shows how easily this can spread.

At the time I was writing this article, Saban said that he had no symptoms. That is obviously great news for him, especially since he is 68 years old. He was scheduled to miss the Georgia/Alabama game on October 17.

According to CDC guidelines, Saban should self isolate for 10 days, which would mean that in theory, he’d have the ok to be on the sidelines for the Tennessee/Alabama game this Saturday. Keep in mind, I’m not a doctor or a scientist or an epidemiologist (and the odds are you aren’t either), but with those numbers in place, I’d imagine you’d see Saban back with his team this weekend in Knoxville, barring any setback or new revelations.

This is a traditional southern rivalry. Tickets are available (last check going to $154 a piece on Stubhub). Fans will get together and enjoy camaraderie and beverages across the South.

But it just feels… different.

Look, sports matters. I was a sportscaster for more than 15 years and cringed whenever I was told that sports is the candy store of a newscast. Sure, it might not be as important as a Supreme Court ruling, but you can’t tell me that it doesn’t matter.

And these days… it matters more than ever.

Imagine going through this Fall without football. We’ve already missed out on so much in our daily lives. There are loved ones that we can’t visit for fear or getting them sick. There are vacations we can’t take because of border closures. Our favorite bars and restaurants have had enough starts and stops to fill up the end of a NASCAR race at Daytona.

But football is there.  In a weird, uneven form… but it is there.

So on Saturday… whether Nick Saban is on the field or not, whether the Vols pull the upset or get blown out, in the grand scheme of things it’s just good to have the game there for us on our televisions.

I hope that everyone is staying safe and healthy.