Last year, Vanderbilt faced a win or go home scenario at Wake Forest. This year, it is Wake Forest that is staring at the exact same situation when the two teams meet in Winston Salem, N.C., at 2:30 p.m. CT (ESPNU) Saturday.
Just like Wake Forest had last year, the Commodores have already clinched bowl eligibility in 2012. Meanwhile, Wake Forest sits at 5-6 overall, one win shy of bowl eligibility.
Vanderbilt was fueled by the opportunity to extend its season last year and took it out on Wake Forest with a 41-7 drubbing to secure a berth to the Liberty Bowl. Now with the roles reversed, Vanderbilt expects nothing less from the Demon Deacons.
"That is something we are going to talk about with our team is the fact Wake Forest needs this game to get to what what everybody likes to talk about as the magical number, and I think they are going to be pretty motivated," Vanderbilt Head Coach James Franklin said.
Vanderbilt's players lived it last year and fully understand the sense of urgency Wake Forest will play with.
"Everyone is trying to make it to a bowl game at the end of the year and they are going to be hungry to get that sixth win," senior offensive lineman Josh Jelesky said. "We are going to get their best and we are going to bring our best too and try to be ready for them."
Wake Forest has lost two straight games - both on the road - but have been significantly better at home than away. The Demon Deacons are 4-2 at home with wins over Liberty, North Carolina, Army and Boston College. Away from home, Wake Forest is losing by an average of 24 points per game and is coming off losses of 31 points at NC State and 38 points at Notre Dame.
The Demon Deacons are led on offense by junior quarterback Tanner Price, who the Commodores held to 16-of-34 passing for 157 yards last year. Their running attack is paced by junior Josh Harris, who has 608 yards and five touchdowns.
So far this year Vanderbilt is 2-1 in non-conference games, but Saturday's meeting will be unlike any of the previous non-conference games. Vanderbilt and Wake Forest will be playing for the sixth time since 2005. Of the current 14 teams in the SEC, there are only six schools that Vanderbilt has played more frequently since 2005 than Wake Forest.
The familiarity on the field extends even beyond the games played between Vanderbilt and Wake Forest. Coach Franklin along with offensive coordinator John Donovan and special teams coordinator Charles Bankins faced Wake Forest while at Maryland, and Vanderbilt receivers coach Josh Gattis played at Wake Forest.
The familiarity will be an asset for Vanderbilt as it enters the game with a five-game winning streak - its longest since the start of the 2008 season. The Commodores have not won this many games in a row to close the regular season since winning five straight in 1982. Overall, a win Saturday would give Vanderbilt its longest winning streak since 1955.
The streak aside, Franklin knows that winning Saturday will provide the team a good boost heading into a bowl game.
"This game I think has a little bit more significance because it is the last game of the year," Franklin commented. "Last week we had our last home game with our seniors. That was an emotional deal, but this is our last game of the year, so we want to make sure we end this thing on a real positive note."
Praise for Kent
One of Vanderbilt's best weapons all season long has been senior punter Richard Kent. Kent has consistently flipped the field position in favor of the Commodores with his ability to punt directionally.
"To me, it's not just the kicks, it is the location," Franklin said. "He's had a few kicks a game that I don't think the location has been good, but for the most part it has been unbelievable. He's kicked it close to the sideline, which allows us to help with our coverage and really gives the returner only one option."
Kent's current punting average of 44.8 yards ranks fourth in school history and 11th in the nation. Kent has 16 punts of at least 50 yards, including four of 60-plus yards. Maybe most spectacular is the fact that just 18 of Kent's 53 punts have been returned all season. Kent has also put 36 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line.
With Vanderbilt being out of class this week, Franklin is using the extra time to teach more than just Xs and Os. Instead of spending hours in class, players are spending more time together in McGugin Center. And while they are together, Franklin is hoping to teach a few life lessons.
"As a team we are watching the documentary 'Broke' right now," Franklin said. "That is something I'd seen that I thought was really important right now. We actually went out and bought all of the ESPN 30 for 30 series because I think there are really good lessons in them.
"It's one thing we've all heard stories about professional athletes that have struggled financially and blown their money, but it is another thing when you watch that documentary - it is one guy after another guy, after another guy from all different backgrounds. We are watching that right now; taking advantage of some of this extra time that we have this week."
Secondary Steps Up to Challenge
Throughout the season, Tennessee's receivers have been showered with praise, and rightfully so given their production. Leading up to the game, Vanderbilt used that adulation as motivation for its secondary.
"Coach Shoop did a great job of trusting the talent that we have on the outside and put us in position to make plays," senior defensive back Trey Wilson said. "He challenged us all week, especially those in the secondary, more from a statistical standpoint by showing the numbers Tennessee had put up.
"He tried to place the fate of that game in our hands and we did a great job of accepting that challenge and stepped up to it."
The end result was three interceptions and just 154 yards passing by Tennessee. Throughout most of the season, Vanderbilt has been especially stingy against the pass. The Commodores and rank second in the league and 10th in the nation in passing defense. Vanderbilt also ranks ninth nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Vanderbilt's success against the pass can be attributed to many variables, and one that the defensive backs refuse to overlook is the talent they face each day in practice. Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews lead the SEC with a combined receiving average of 167.1 yards per game.
The talented duo has been a force the last two seasons and has even earned the nickname The Biletnikoff Twins among teammates. Biletnikoff is in reference to the award given out each year to the nation's top wide receiver. The award is named after former Florida State All-America wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff.
"People wanted to make a big deal about us going against Tennessee's receivers (last) week, talking about how talented they were, but I said it a while back that I don't think we play against any receivers that are more talented than what we practice against each day," Wilson said.
Vanderbilt is 3-2 on the road this season and is already guaranteed to finish no worse than .500 on the road this season.
A win Saturday at Wake Forest would give Vanderbilt four road wins, which would be the most since the 1948 team went 4-1-1 on the road. The 1927 and 1902 teams also won four games on the road.
If you are wondering, the school record for road wins is five by the 1895 team that won games at Central (Ky.), Auburn, Nashville AC, Georgia and Sewanee.
Spear's Hit Making Headlines
Good luck finding a kicker who is more reckless with his body on kick returns than Vanderbilt kicker Carey Spear. At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Spear is not the most physically intimidating player, but not many lay the wood like he does.
On each kick return, Spear sprints toward the returner, squares him up and tries to deliver a crushing blow. Saturday, Spear had one of his more memorable hits to date when he popped Cordarrelle Patterson in the third quarter. The hit was the No. 9 play on SportsCenter's Top 10 and made waves with fans.
Some of Spear's aggressiveness comes naturally, but it has also been nurtured by the coaching staff. Throughout the year, Vanderbilt's specialists participate in tackling circuits with the defense and also lift weights and condition with the rest of the team.
"I really don't want guys that look at themselves as specialists," Franklin said. "I want guys that look at themselves as football players who happen to kick the ball through the uprights, or punt the ball. Carey is probably the first guy that I've been around that completely embraces that."
Spear's ability to assimilate with the rest of the team is in part why he has been voted captain the last two years.
"He's not your typical specialist," Trey Wilson said. "He wants to be treated as a football player and not as a kicker, so that's how we treat him."
Spear's aggressiveness has also earned him a reputation around the league with media, fans and even players.
"He's a great teammate, a great personality to have in the locker room and we respect everything he does," Wilson said. "You saw when he got up even some of their players were patting him on his head and you have to respect somebody that is willing to fly down the field full speed and put their body on the line like that."