Vanderbilt's trip to Tennessee on Saturday feels different than most other trips to Neyland Stadium have for Commodore fans, and for good reason. The Volunteers are in a tailspin, having lost five of their last six and the Commodores are looking better by the game.
Vanderbilt enters Saturday's game on the verge of earning bowl eligibility with a 5-5 record, while Tennessee (4-6) must win its final two games in order to qualify for a bowl. For one of the rare times in a series that has been steeply slanted in the direction of the Volunteers, Vanderbilt is entering the game with a better record than Tennessee.
It happened in Nashville in 2008 when Vanderbilt had six wins and Tennessee had three. But to find the last time the Commodores entered Neyland Stadium with more wins than the Volunteers you have to go way back to 1955. Vanderbilt's last win in Knoxville came in 2005 when both squads had four wins.
But no matter how big Saturday's game is to alumni and fans, Head Coach James Franklin remains steadfast in his approach of treating each game with equal importance.
"This is a really big game for us because ... it is the next game," Franklin said.
All year long, Franklin has approached each game with an equal amount of urgency and has passed along the same mindset to his team. Now, even with two games remaining in the regular season, he has no plans on changing his ways. Even if it is against an in-state rival.
"I think there is (more to this game) for the public, I think there is for the alumni and people that work on this campus, but our approach for our players and our players is going to be consistent, and that has been our message all year long and it is not going to change," Franklin said.
Maintaining the same mindset each game, no matter the opponent, can be a difficult one, especially for Tennessee natives who grew up around the annual meeting.
"I think it is a huge rivalry from our perspective, but we are just going to treat it as the next game," Nashville native and Vanderbilt offensive lineman Wesley Johnson said. "We don't really want to change our mindset ... it has been working so far. We just have to keep acting the same and treating Saturdays the same."
Johnson admitted that doing this can be especially challenging at times.
"It takes a lot of discipline to realize it is just the next game; it is not what people are making it out to be," Johnson said.
But what defines a rivalry? Is it when schools share the same state lines or when the series is filled with competitive games that go either way? It probably depends on who you ask.
"To be very honest, and I don't want to offend anybody, but it is probably more of a rivalry for us than it is for them," Franklin said. "A rivalry, I think needs to be extremely competitive and to be honest with you, they have had a lot of success."
On Saturday, Franklin will get his first taste of the Vanderbilt - Tennessee series, and maybe then he and the Commodores can start to make the annual meeting more of a rivalry by his definition. After all, the Commodores have won just once in the last 28 years.
Rush Defense Nearing History Vanderbilt ranks 22nd in total defense this season, and a big reason for the team's success on the defensive side of the ball has been because of their ability to stop the run. The Commodores rank 32nd nationally in rushing defense and fourth in the SEC.
"Stopping the run is everything to us," defensive end Walker May said. "Once you stop the run and force them to throw the ball a little bit, Coach (Bob) Shoop can dial up his crazy blitzes and then we can get back there and affect their decision making."
The Commodores are surrendering just 122.9 yards per game on the ground and just 112.4 per game against SEC foes. If the defense can keep up its current pace with two games to play, it will rank among one of the best rushing defenses in school history.
Currently, the Commodores have surrendered 1,229 yards for the season. If Vanderbilt maintains its average of allowing 122.9 yards per game, it will give up just 1,474.8 yards for the season. The total would be the fewest yards allowed since 1997 (1,169).
In the modern era, the only other seasons in which the Commodores have surrendered fewer yards in seasons that spanned at least 11 games were 1993 (1,453), 1955 (1,296), 1948 (993).
The previous two seasons, Vanderbilt gave up more than 2,300 yards on the ground each year. The personnel is very similar as it has been the last two years, so what has changed?
"Everything," May said. "It is a whole new mentality. We are more confident and more excited about it. It's the same guys with more confidence and more swagger."
Preparing for Tyler Bray During Tennessee's weekly press conference on Monday, Head Coach Derek Dooley confirmed that quarterback Tyler Bray has been cleared to practice and listed him as questionable for the game.
"I really won't know (if he will play) until we start practicing to see how he can take a snap, how accurately he can throw it," Dooley said. "He's going to have a little learning curve coming back because he has been out of ball."
Bray has missed five games after breaking his right thumb on a pass against Georgia on Oct. 8. Bray is 7-3 as a starter for Tennessee dating back to the end of last season. Without Bray, the Vols have lost four of five games this season.
Despite any uncertainty as to whether Bray will play this weekend or not, Vanderbilt Head Coach James Franklin said on Monday that the team will prepare as if Bray was going to start.
"Our expectation and what we are going to plan for is to face Tyler Bray, and I think that will give them a spark of energy," Franklin said. "
If Bray does come back, it will be difficult to know how successful he can be given his time away, but Franklin believes his presence can provide an emotional lift to the Volunteers.
"When you are able to get a guy like that back on your roster, I think it has an effect on coaches in terms on confidence in what they can call when they have an experienced quarterback," Franklin said. And then receivers seem to run better routes when they've go their guy, tight ends same thing, o-line seems to protect better, so it will have a spark for them for sure."
Johnson Continues to Showcase his Versatility Vanderbilt _____________ (fill in appropriate position for the week) Wesley Johnson has been a jack-of-all-trades on the Commodores' offensive line throughout the season. After playing left tackle last season, Johnson began the year starting at center for Logan Stewart, who missed time due to illness. Once Stewart returned, Johnson returned to his left tackle position.
On Saturday, Johnson added left guard to his resume when he filled in for Ryan Seymour who was out with an injury.
He does not have the glamorous statistics that Zac Stacy or Jordan Matthews have, but Franklin said Monday that Johnson could be considered the team's offensive MVP to this point in the season.
"I think you can make that argument," Franklin said. "You talk about a guy that not only played one of your more critical positions at left tackle and played it well, but then has also had the flexibility that we've been able to fill him in for whatever holes we think we have to get the best five offensive linemen on the field. He's created a lot of flexibility."
For the season, Johnson has made five starts at center, four at left tackle and one at left guard. His ability to play every position on the line has not only come because of his knowledge and skill set, but also out of necessity.
"We haven't had as much depth as I think was necessary in the past so we were all forced to learn a lot of positions," Johnson said. "It is kind of the expectation that we are all able to play multiple positions."
Franklin Defends Stewart's Play Vanderbilt center Logan Stewart was the recipient of another personal foul penalty on Saturday - his second in as many games. On Monday, Head Coach James Franklin defended Stewart for his play, while also pointing out he was not being critical of the officials.
"What Logan is getting called for is not an illegal block per se," Franklin said. "What he is getting called for is a block they are considering once the play has ended. So he is throwing a legal cut block on a defender, but they are considering it after the play has ended.
"The way we teach our guys here and the way we've always taught our guys is that you play from the time the ball is snapped until the whistle has blown. That block occurred before the whistle had blown, but what I am finding out is that the way we are officiating that is he is supposed to know when the play has ended and the whistle does not signify the end of the play."