In many ways, Saturday night’s game in Nashville was a microcosm of the Vanderbilt Commodores’ 2016 football season.
The Commodores’ first drive of the game ended on a failed fourth-down conversion, followed by a five-play touchdown drive for the Vols and a quick 7-0 hole that took all the air out of the stadium. And Vanderbilt opened the season with a deflating loss to a South Carolina team that most observers thought Vanderbilt should have beaten.
In the past, the three-letter acronym that we dare not use would have folded. But this Vanderbilt team followed the South Carolina loss with a relatively easy win over Middle Tennessee, and this Vanderbilt team answered Tennessee’s first blow with a touchdown drive of their own.
But after that... well, Vanderbilt did start the season 2-4, and Vanderbilt did fall behind 21-7 as the Commodores matched a mistake by Tennessee with a mistake of their own. Vanderbilt showed upside in a road win over Western Kentucky (who, in spite of the name, is currently the 14th-best team in the country per S&P+) but otherwise couldn’t get out of its own way in the 2-4 start.
With the season on the ropes, Vanderbilt found a way to win at Georgia; and with the game on the ropes Saturday, Vanderbilt answered with a couple of big touchdown drives to tie the game at 21.
We dare not speak the name of the three-letter acronym, but we all know it when we see it. Blow winnable games against South Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri? Answer a big play by the defense by throwing an interception? Fold your hand and go home because you fell behind by two touchdowns in the first half, or because you started the season 2-4 with losses to two of the East’s supposed worst teams, and a no-show at a middling ACC team? That’s what we’re talking about.
There were times in the past when these things would have happened, and they’ve probably happened at times this season. When Tennessee saw Vanderbilt’s best shot in the first half, the Vols came back and scored on a brilliant touchdown drive to take a 31-24 lead into the locker room. And then, after the teams traded punts to start the second half, Tennessee got a, let’s say, friendly ruling from the officials on what was probably a fumble that extended a drive to go ahead 34-24.
This game, and this season, was a test of Vanderbilt’s intestinal fortitude. After the win over Georgia, Vanderbilt mailed it in in a win over Tennessee State to get back to .500, then showed promise in a loss to Auburn — but that was followed by an inexplicable loss to a bad Missouri team. That left Vanderbilt at 4-6 with two games to go.
But with the season on the line, Vanderbilt responded by hammering Ole Miss. And with Saturday night’s game on the line, down 34-24 in the third quarter, Vanderbilt put together a 10-play, 83-yard touchdown drive, then got a big play from the defense to set up the go-ahead touchdown. And then, it was Tennessee’s intestinal fortitude that was put to the test, and the Vols failed: Aaron Medley doinked a 37-yard field goal off the upright, and after another Vanderbilt TD made the score 45-34, the Vols’ last-ditch drive ended on a fourth-down failure.
When the game was on the line, Vanderbilt made the plays it needed to win and Tennessee didn’t. That’s occasionally been true in the long history of the two teams playing, but not like this.
Oh, sure, Vanderbilt has beaten Tennessee before. The Commodores ended a 23-year losing streak to the Vols in 2005, when Jay Cutler led a late touchdown drive to win in Neyland. There was, of course, the 41-18 game in 2012, and Patton Robinette’s jump pass in a 14-10 win in 2013.
But what those games had in common was that those were bad Tennessee teams. The Vols started 2005 ranked 3rd in the country, but by November they were 4-5 and had fallen out of the top 25. The 2012 game was the game that put Derek Dooley out of his misery, and the 2013 game was in Butch Jones’ first year, when Tennessee’s roster was mostly composed of Dooley’s recruits.
Oh, sure, Vanderbilt has beaten good teams before. It had been since 2013 when Vanderbilt beat #15 Georgia (which was, actually, James Franklin’s only win over a ranked team at Vanderbilt), but Bobby Johnson managed to beat four top 25 teams from 2006-08.
But entering Saturday night, Tennessee had come into the Vanderbilt game ranked in the top 25 on 38 occasions. Vanderbilt’s record in those games: 0-38. Yes, you are reading that correctly. Since the AP poll started in 1936, Vanderbilt had never beaten Tennessee when the Volunteers were ranked in the top 25.
That’s no longer the case. You can certainly argue whether the Vols deserved to be ranked, but this wasn’t euthanizing the Derek Dooley era or stopping the worst of the Clausen brothers; this was ending Tennessee’s Sugar Bowl hopes (however dubious those might have been.) This wasn’t just the biggest win of the Derek Mason era. Given that it was literally the first time that Vanderbilt had ever beaten their rival when they were ranked in the top 25, you have a credible argument that this was the biggest win in Vanderbilt history.
Yes, celebration is acceptable.