The average Tennessee fan's line of defense going into tomorrow's game as a 1.5 point underdog has been a simple one: this is still Vanderbilt, and we still own these guys. They've earned the right to dismiss this team. Vanderbilt has beaten the Volunteers just once since 1982. Their overall record in the series is a pathetic 28-70-5. Things have been so one sided that the annual November matchup hasn't sparked the animosity to give this rivalry a proper name like the Iron Bowl or the Big Shootout or Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. Wikipedia knows it only as the "Tennessee-Vanderbilt Rivalry."
In the past decade, the Volunteers have shut Vandy out three times. They've won by two possessions or more seven times. Vanderbilt has won once, in Neyland Stadium, and needed a future NFL quarterback and the SEC's career receiving leader to do it. History, even in Bobby Johnson's years of near-prosperity, does not reflect kindly on these Commodores.
James Franklin can change all that. He's already accomplished more than any faithful fan could have hoped for in getting Vanderbilt to 5-5 on the season. He's beaten three BCS-conference teams and evolved the team's offense from Robbie Caldwell's pile of turkey guts into a dynamic group of playmakers who can hang with SEC defenses. As impressed as longtime Vandy and SEC fans have been, this change has yet to be reflected in Nashville, especially when it comes to filling the stands at Dudley Field.
Nashville's football culture won't allow the city to get lured back to Commodore football so easily. Not when there's over 50 years of futility that the team needs to erase. Not after a team that started 5-0 in 2008 and brought College Gameday to campus proceeded to crash and burn to a 6-26 record in the two and a half seasons immediately afterward. Especially not after the team's only bowl win since 1955 ended with a punter (!) being crowned the game's MVP.
But beating Tennessee? That would get fans attention. It would give Vanderbilt jerseys precedence over their hideous orange counterparts in stores across Music City. A victory in one of college football's most lopsided rivalries would be the definitive proof that things are changing over at Natchez Trace.
It wouldn't be immediate, but it would set the plans in motion for next year, when an influx of talent will hit Dudley Field and make one of the best Commodore teams in recent memory even stronger. The effect of a win at Neyland Stadium would ripple across Tennessee. It won't be a changing of the guard, but it would sure as hell be a warning shot. And it would be loud enough that fans and recruits across the south could hear.
I offer only these words of encouragement (language NSFW):
Staff predictions and your SEC Upset Pick of the Week are after the jump. Be forewarned - rationality has no place in Vandy/Tennessee.
Train Island - Despite not being listed on this week's depth chart, it seems to be all but a certainty that Vanderbilt will be facing a mostly-injured Tyler Bray when they face Tennessee Saturday night. Bray, when healthy, has the tools to be an All-SEC quarterback, but he has missed the team's last five games with a thumb injury. His accuracy will be put to the test against a defense whose strength lies in guys like Casey Hayward and Trey Wilson - defensive backs who can pull down interceptions and then gain big yardage on the return.
If Bray's big arm can find open receivers like A.J. McCarron and Tyler Wilson did before him, the Volunteers can turn this game into a shootout. And somehow, Vanderbilt will be equipped for that. While the Vols have been strong against the pass, allowing fewer than 200 yards per game through the air, they've shown weaknesses in stopping opponents' running games.
South Carolina backup tailback Brandon Wilds ran for 137 yards against them in a late October matchup. Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead rushed for 155 yards on just 11 carries early in the season. Buffalo quarterback Chazz Anderson was effective as a scrambling quarterback against the Vols in that same month, gashing them for a 68 yard touchdown run and 79 total yards in a loss. These problems will play into Vanderbilt's strengths behind Zac Stacy and Jordan Rodgers.
Tennessee's defense has been an up-and-down story all season. They've done well to dominate lesser teams in their wins, but the SEC's more explosive teams have hung plenty of points on them. Arkansas, Alabama, LSU, and Florida all scored 33 points or more on them while teams like Georgia, South Carolina, and Cincinnati were limited to 23 points or less. Vanderbilt fits more cleanly into that second group (and that's being generous), but the team's offense since Rodgers took over at QB (32.75 points per game) makes me optimistic that the Commodores can win if Tennessee puts up three touchdowns or more.
Let's talk best-case, most dramatic scenario here, though. Vanderbilt enters the fourth quarter, trailing by two touchdowns. Jordan Rodgers is forced out of the game with a minor, one-week injury, and Larry Smith comes in to take the reigns. He hits Udom Umoh on an 85-yard deep route to pull within seven, then ties the game with 45 seconds left on a seven-yard scramble after executing the most perfect two-minute drill the Commodores have ever seen. Then, right as we think we're going to overtime, Chris Marve tackles Tyler Bray so hard in the end zone that his kidneys go back in time and save a dying seven-year-old girl via transplant. Vanderbilt wins, Commodore season tickets sell out in 2012, and that girl grows up to be Marisa Miller.
TI's Prediction: Vanderbilt 33, Tennessee 31
TI's SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Citadel, Furman, Georgia Southern, and Samford over Alabama. I am betting that these four teams combined can outscore the Crimson Tide. Don't let me down, Southern Conference!
KingJamesIV - Since I've been alive, every game Vanderbilt has won over the Volunteers (I could have used "both"...) has come by 28 points. 28-21 in 1982. 28-24 in 2005. THIS SHALL BE NO DIFFERENT.
KJIV's Prediction: BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL, VANDERBILT 28, TENNESSEE 10. (Counting on someone for an epic Jordan Rodgers/He-Man photoshop). Vanderbilt Stadium is torn down. A new stadium is built. Castle Greyskull. Derek Dooley replaces the orange dog statue with a mummified body. When the Volunteers "feed the mummy" it eventually reanimates and becomes known as Skeletor. The tides of victory swing back to Commodorus Major. The one-sided nature of this rivalry returns to our favor, and the Commodores even the series 78-78-6. It is at this time that the rivalry finally earns its name -- the Flip Cup.
KJIV's Upset Pick of the Week: No upsets? Booooooooooooooooooooo.
SectFRow1Seat30: I'm incapable of intelligible commentary about this game. I'm going to be drinking vodka tonics starting around 2 and watching Victory in Knoxville on repeat until kickoff.
Prediction: Commies 35 Vols 10 - Big games out of Zac Attack and Jordan 2 Jordan.