KNOXVILLE – It hasn’t been too long since Tennessee’s annual November bout with Vanderbilt was little more than an afterthought on the schedule.
Times have changed.
For the third straight year, Tennessee comes into the Vandy game needing a win to keep bowl hopes alive. The level of competitiveness has changed as well. After coming into last year’s game against the Commodores with 28 wins in the last 29 tries, the Vols were crushed 41-18 in what turned out to be Derek Dooley’s final game as a head coach.
A series that has been decidedly lopsided in Tennessee’s favor since the 1930s, all of a sudden has become competitive. The Commodores lost by two scores or less in every matchup against Tennessee from 2007-2010. The 2011 game was a narrow overtime victory for UT.
“I feel like they’ve got a great program right now,” said Tennessee senior center James Stone, a Nashville native. “They play hard. They play for each other and they’ve garnered a lot of respect for that.”
"It is a big game, it is a critical game because it is the next game on our schedule,” added UT coach Butch Jones. “We are working to get to win number five. That is the way we approach it. Obviously there are some other factors that are involved with that.
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for what they have been able to accomplish and Coach [James] Franklin. Like I have said, I have been able to watch it from a far, I have been able to compete against them and some friends on that staff. For us, it is just another opportunity to compete and go out there and work to play our best football game, which we have yet to play to date. They are a good football team."
Jones and several members of the current UT staff got an up-close look at the Commodores in 2011 when Jones’ former team, Cincinnati, squared off with them in the Liberty Bowl, a contest the Bearcats won 31-24.
That month of bowl prep gave Jones plenty of time to dissect Vandy’s program, which at the time was in its first season under Franklin.
“Anytime you go to a bowl game you get a chance to spend some time with the other team's staff and I have known Coach Franklin for a while,” Jones said. “That was a time when we spent a lot of time together. There is one particular individual on their staff, [offensive line coach] Herb Hand, that we coached together at West Virginia and I consider him a very good friend. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Franklin and what he has done at Vanderbilt."
And what Franklin has done at Vandy is change the fortunes of a program that had been a perennial cellar dweller. The Commodores had only been to four bowls before Franklin’s arrival. They just reached eligibility for their third in the last three years with last week’s win over Kentucky.
They hadn’t won at Florida since 1945 before the ‘Dores knocked off the Gators two weeks ago in the Swamp. This season marks the first time in school history that they’ve knocked off Florida and Georgia in the same year.
Still, Franklin knows it takes more than one win in a series to erase decades of dominance by the opposing side.
“People call Tennessee–Vanderbilt a rivalry,” Franklin said at his Monday press conference in Nashville. “I don't think it's at that point yet. It hasn't been as competitive as it needs to be to at this point.”
A win on Saturday would give Vandy its first back-to-back wins in this series since 1925-1926. If records start to fall that have stood since before the Great Depression, consider the rivalry officially back on.
Carta-Samuels expected to start at QB for Vandy: Injuries have forced some quarterback shuffling in Nashville, but both sides are anticipating that senior QB Austyn Carta-Samuels will start for Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Carta-Samuels (ankle) missed two games before making somewhat of a surprise return for the Kentucky game. Patton Robinette, a native of Maryville, Tenn., is the backup quarterback. Carta-Samuels is listed as the starter on Vandy’s official depth chart for this week.
"We'll prepare for [Carta-Samuels],” Jones said. “We'll prepare for both quarterbacks, but he was their starter until he had an injury and he played the full game. We fully anticipate him being their starting quarterback, but we will be prepared for both quarterbacks."
• Jones expects defensive end Marlon Walls (knee) and offensive tackle Tiny Richardson (knee) to both be available for Vandy. Walls missed the last game against Auburn and Richardson didn’t participate in practice during the bye week.
• Freshman Riley Ferguson is listed as the backup quarterback for Saturday behind Joshua Dobbs, but Jones said that redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman would likely be the first QB off the bench if something were to hold Dobbs out of the game for a short period of time. Ferguson currently still has his redshirt and the Vols would like to keep it that way for the rest of the season if possible.
• Tennessee’s game at Kentucky on Nov. 30 will be a 7 p.m. ET kickoff on ESPNU.
• Monday is the one-year anniversary of the firing of former head coach Derek Dooley.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga