KNOXVILLE – Tennessee has won six straight and 28 out of 29 against Vanderbilt (6-4, 4-3 SEC).
Despite the streak, the rivalry perhaps hasn’t been more intense in the modern era. Several factors contribute to that.
First, the margin of victory has shrunk dramatically for the Vols (4-6, 0-6). After putting up scores such as 65-0 (1994) and 62-14 (1993), the Vols’ last five wins have come by an average of just 9.2 points per game. That includes a 27-21 dramatic overtime win over the Commodores in 2011.
“They have done a great job,” coach Derek Dooley said of Vanderbilt. “I guess it is good for the rivalry, it makes better games, but they are doing a good job. They did a good job before [coach] James [Franklin] got there, they did a really nice job recruiting and he has done a nice job of bringing some really good energy to the program. They are playing with a lot of confidence.”
That 2011 victory threw a log on the fire of the growing rivalry. An interception and return for a touchdown by Tennessee gave the Vols a dramatic win. Cornerback Eric Gordon was originally ruled to have had his knee down after the interception, but a replay conclusively showed that he was still up and the Vols were awarded the walk-off overtime victory.
It got even more interesting after the game. A video of Tennessee’s post-game locker room celebration leaked to the internet. In the video, Dooley and the Vols are shown celebrating wildly and Dooley is heard screaming, “The one thing Tennessee always does is kick the s*** out of Vanderbilt.”
Franklin wasn’t amused when he discussed the video at his press conference the following Monday.
“We’ll talk about it next year a lot,” Franklin said on Nov. 21. “We’ll watch it as many times as we need to watch next year. That’s a wound we’re going to leave open.”
A year later, Franklin softened his stance.
“I’ve matured dramatically since that game,” he said this week. “That wound is heeled.”
Dooley also downplayed the significance of last season’s wild game and the video as a source of motivation for the Commodores this week.
“I don’t think Vanderbilt needs a lot of motivation to come and whip us,” he said. “I am sure they have plenty of motivation that they don’t need that. I can’t take that back.”
Regardless of the results on the field, the proximity (approximately a three-hour drive) between the two schools always adds to the rivalry. Seven UT scholarship players – Gordon, Tiny Richardson, Zach Rogers, Jacob Carter, Ben Bartholomew, Alex Bullard and James Stone – hail from the Nashville area.
Bullard, a teammate of Vanderbilt cornerback Derek King at Brentwood Academy, said he almost transferred there when he left Notre Dame, but he ultimately decided to choose the Vols. Despite the connections, he said he has to stay focused on the game itself.
“It’s a big rivalry game,” Bullard said. “They’re standing in our way of a bowl game. We just have to focus on beating Vanderbilt, which we’re more than capable of doing.”
Bray says Dooley will stay the rest of the season: Quarterback Tyler Bray said he doesn’t have any reason to believe Dooley won’t finish the season as the coach.
“He’s going to be here for the rest of the season,” Bray said. “The team already kind of knew that, there was a little team meeting after the game on Sunday. We’re ready to get these last two for him.”
NFL analyst could see Jon Gruden at Tennessee: File this one away for if/when Dooley is officially relieved of his duties.
NFL insider Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com sparked a lot of discussion Tuesday afternoon with some comments he made to 106.7 The Fan in Washington D.C., involving former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden.
“I think if he [Gruden] ends up anywhere it may be the University of Tennessee,” La Canfora said (full audio here). “I don’t see an NFL job that would appeal to him. I think the Tennessee job, the University of Tennessee, may be where he ends up.”
Gruden, who current is an analyst for ESPN, will certainly be one of the top candidates if the Tennessee job does come open. Gruden began his career as a graduate assistant with the Vols in 1986-87.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.