Heading into our final week
At last, we have arrived at our final destination of this long and winding trip of Neyland Nightmares. Coinciding with this finale is also the finale of both Tennessee and Vanderbilt’s football seasons in the annual grudge match tomorrow between the two in state “rivals.” While the overall series matchup screams anything but a rivalry (Tennessee leads all time 78-31-5), The past decade has actually seen a dead even split between the two teams, with the series at five games a piece in the last ten. Break it down further and the total points scored between them is deadlocked at 273-273. I told this fact to my friend who went to Tennessee and it ruined his week.
Each team’s season has gone largely as expected going into the SEC schedule’s final week. Vanderbilt has tried to scrap together a moral victory here and there, building from Derek Mason’s ruins. Tennessee turned a couple of heads beating UK a few weeks ago, but otherwise has won the games they were supposed to in Heupel’s first season in Knoxville. Looking towards Saturday, however, all indications point towards a blood bath in Neyland. Unfortunately for Clark Lea’s depleted roster, a Tennessee rebuilding year still features a team full of solid recruits that largely outgun Mike Wright and company. Vandy enters the game a 31 point underdog and with just a 3% chance at victory according to ESPN’s FPI.
This article will serve a purpose other than looking ahead to impending doom this week, though, as instead we’ll do what any Tennessee fan does when faced with the reality of a bad football team: bask in the high moments of years past. Join me at Dudley Field in 2016 for a game where Tennessee lost everything at the hands of your Vanderbilt Commodores.
Part V: Vanderbilt 45, Tennessee 34 (2016)
Five years ago on a clear and cold November night, Tennessee came to Nashville where they would face Vanderbilt in the season’s final game. Vanderbilt entered the game at 5-6, so one more win would cement bowl eligibility in Mason’s third season. They had technically secured it before kickoff due to a loophole that year where a few 5-win teams were eligible due to their APR score, but for dramatic purposes we’ll say they needed the win.
Vandy’s season had featured the kind of team that Commodore fans love but other SEC teams hate. Their defense boasted the SEC’s leading tackler in Zach Cunningham who singlehandedly would keep them in games, while their offense was just dangerous enough to put them in striking distance of a weaker than usual SEC East. Apart from only one double-digit loss at the hands of Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt competed in every game they played in and even beat UGA on the road.
Conversely, Butch Jones’ Tennessee team carried a 8-3 record into Nashville come late November. The team had a few signature wins, including their first victory against Florida in over a decade and a dramatic Hail Mary win on the road at Georgia. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs had hit his full stride in his senior year as the anchor of this Vol team that reached a national ranking as high as 8th in the country midway through the season. Their three losses had come against top 10 teams in Alabama and A&M plus a head-scratcher at South Carolina.
What stood out the most for the Vols before this game, however, was that one win against an inferior Vanderbilt team would position them for the Sugar Bowl come New Years. With Auburn losing to Alabama in the Iron bowl prior to kickoff that day, Tennessee would be in great position to be the highest ranked SEC team after Alabama at season’s end to punch their ticket to New Orleans. Simply put, Tennessee playing in an A-list bowl game would cement for many that Butch Jones had fully returned this program to elite status in his 4th season.
Vegas put Vanderbilt as a 8 point underdog, given that Tennessee objectively boasted superior talent and a better pedigree. The game started out as anticipated, with Tennessee jumping out to an early 21-7 lead on Alvin Kamara’s 2nd touchdown run and Vandy seemingly unable to tackle anyone wearing orange and white. What nobody saw coming, though, was a Vanderbilt offense that would ignite starting in the second quarter. In a bit of a coming out party for Vanderbilt’s best quarterback since Jay Cutler, Kyle Shurmur surpassed 400 yards passing for the first time in his career and for the first time at Vanderbilt since Chris Nickson did for Vandy way back in 2006. Combine the passing game with a humming Ralph Webb, and the Commodore offense suddenly posed a threat.
Leading 34-31 in the 3rd quarter, Vol QB Joshua Dobbs fumbled the ball at midfield in a play that was overturned on replay to give Vanderbilt possession in good position to take the lead. What ensued in the fourth quarter was a touchdown for Vandy to go ahead, a missed field goal that doinked off the upright by Tennessee, and a final exclamation point for Vandy when Ralph Webb scampered 28 yards to put Vanderbilt in front for the game’s final margin, 45-34.
A funny cherry on top for this game’s ultimate ending occurred on a late desperation drive attempt for the Vols, when future NFL star Alvin Kamara somehow forgot the yardage to gain on a fateful 4th and 4, when he rather anticlimactically ran out of bounds short of the yardage to gain to end the game for good.
The game’s result always warms my heart simply because of how much Tennessee football lost that day. A Sugar Bowl appearance would have given them the stature that they’d so long salivated for, and all they needed to get there was a win against a team that they don’t even want to associate themselves with. Some of my Tennessee fan friends from high school had already booked a non-refundable hotels for the Sugar Bowl weekend in an effort to beat the crowd before the “inevitable” clinch on that Saturday.
I had the privilege of not only being at the game, but also being one of those mischievous college students on the front lawn playing Rocky Top on loop as car after car with Volunteer fans inside drove right in front of us after Vandy won. The clip of that video that went semi viral is only 30 seconds long, but we probably played Rocky Top repeatedly for at least an hour and a half as the poor logistics of Vanderbilt’s stadium experience actually led a seemingly endless trail of defeated Vol fans to drive right in front of us in the hours after the game. As we rubbed salt in the wound, I counted at least two dozen flip offs, a handful of items thrown our way, and even one full moon from the bed of a rusty F150. Needless to say, I am biased in that this is my favorite Vandy win of all time since I got a front row seat to see just how badly it hurt my least favorite fan base.
Writing a five chapter hit piece on Tennessee football’s moments of infamy certainly isn’t something I’m very proud of on a Vanderbilt blog. In an ideal world, I’d love to just write on how great our teams are and how incredible it is that fans are packing the stadium week after week. For any Tennessee fan reading (congratulations on making it this far, by the way), I hope that I’ve at least portrayed some degree of self awareness through the lens of a Vandy supporter.
The truth is, the odds that Vanderbilt football ever competes for an SEC or national championship in my lifetime are extremely small. I’m at peace with that. This doesn’t mean, however, that Vanderbilt football doesn’t hold enormous power. Wins like Vanderbilt had in 2016 against middle-tier SEC teams are certainly a possibility and carry significance in that they have the ability to literally ruin the year for hundreds of thousands of fans. To me, there’s something special about reminding these teams that they have no business thinking they’re in the same category of the national championship contenders.
So like Vanderbilt can do from time to time on the field, I like to do from an anonymous location behind the wall of a computer screen: remind some of these teams that they aren’t even that good. Tennessee carries special significance for me because 1) I grew up around Tennessee fans and 2) They wear a particular sense of entitlement that is based on nothing accomplished on a football field in the past 20 years. Vanderbilt may be Tennessee’s little brother, but the age difference between us two is much smaller than it is between UT and the Alabamas and Georgias of the world.
Reminiscing on the sustained irony of Tennessee football’s expectations vs their on field performance throughout my life, I decided that these five games stood out to me the most. In these moments, Tennessee held belief that they could regain the magic of the 90s, only to have those hopes ripped from them due to sheer incompetency. I have certainly missed a few more of these moments which I’d be more than happy to recap with you in the comment section below. Perhaps next on the list will be Clark Lea’s first SEC win as a 31 point underdog - who knows?