As the season winds down, this year hasn't quite gone as most Vol fans would have thought it would. After Tennessee's sixth consecutive SEC loss, the Vols now turn their attention to instate rival Vanderbilt. Well, instate, yes; rivalry, not so much.
The Vols lead the overall series with Vanderbilt 72-28-5 with the Commodores last victory coming in the dreadful 2005 season. Normally, this game means very little in the grand scheme of things, but as we all know, this isn't a normal season for the Big Orange.
The Vols need to win their last two games to become bowl eligible. Which means Saturday has a lot riding on it.
This is a different brand of Commodore football. There is an edge and attitude to this team that hasn't been seen in my lifetime for sure. Typically, Vandy is a doormat. On occasion it will give a higher caliber team or two a slight scare in a season's time, but these Commodores have been pushing teams to the edge.
They have gotten in post game scuffles, they have pushed the Razorbacks, UGA, and Florida to the brink and thumped Ole Miss and Kentucky. Vandy has been so impressive this season (and the Vols so uninspiring since Bray's injury), that boys from Nashville are favored on the road at this point right now. Again, this is something I have never seen. In 2008, Vanderbilt was favored in Nashville, but I can't recall a time when they were favored to win inside the confines of Neyland stadium.
There is a lot of speculation that Tyler Bray will be starting for Tennessee on Saturday. If that is the case, the Vols have a realistic chance of winning. That isn't a guarantee though. Bray practiced for the first time on Tuesday morning, and though he was out there, he isn't 100-percent "Tyler".
Derek Dooley said the sophomore quarterback "isn't even close to where he was five weeks ago" but that he was "better than expected". He struggled with taking snaps under center though, so the coaches used him in shotgun and installed the pistol.
If he can't go then the nod will probably go to true freshman Justin Worley for the third straight week. He showed some flashes of what he can turn into against Arkansas, but is still far from where the Vols need him to be at this point. Unfortunately, it's the best option if Tyler can't go.
In the grand scheme of Tennessee football, a loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday will do very little to change anyone's opinion of the big brother/little brother aspect of this yearly game. For this season though, it is a monumental matchup.
For one, if the Vols drop this home tilt, they will be eliminated from any hope of going to a bowl. With that loss would go the coveted extra bowl practices that mean more for a young team like Tennessee than the actual bowl game itself.
There is so much youth that could benefit greatly from the extra work. Seniors care a lot about bowl games as well. It's their last chance to wear their school colors on the football field and represent their college in front of millions. This means more than some might think.
A loss Saturday could also set up this program's third 5-7 season since 2005 (that's assuming UT beats UK the following week). Which is also the last time Vanderbilt won in this series.
James Franklin would certainly be getting a feather in his cap if he beat the Vols in Neyland in his first season as the 'Dores head coach.
Dooley's name is struggling enough against Franklin in terms of head to head instate recruiting battles, and several pundits and fans are wondering if Franklin isn't the better coach and recruiter of the two. A loss would not do anything to quiet these naysayers, and those with a microphone would beat their anti-Dooley drum even louder.
It could also hurt on the recruiting trail. You never know if not making it to a bowl would deter those high priority, uncommitted recruits from signing that letter of intent in February. All in all, it's just better if Tennessee wins this game. Knoxville will not be a fun place for this program in the offseason if the outcome isn't a favorable one.
National perception is a big deal for a program like Tennessee because it has to recruit nationally. Dooley has worked hard to repair the brand and image of the Vols and a win against the upstart Commodores would do a lot leading into what should be an easy victory of UK.
A second straight bowl appearance would look great on the staff, especially considering the hand that it was dealt these past two years. The confidence gained in getting an upset (yes, it sounds as weird as it reads) over Vanderbilt is priceless.
A win over Franklin wouldn't completely change the outlook of Dooley and the staff, but it would definitely quiet those who are on the James Franklin bandwagon. It would also show recruits, the fanbase, and the administration that this is still Tennessee and regardless of anything else, Tennessee still beats Vanderbilt.
In his Monday press conference, Dooley stated that a loss Saturday will not do anything to change the course of this program, and he may be right. It doesn't help his cause though, and it does have a potential to slow the train down some.
If failing to reach a bowl means it slows player development down slightly and deters some priority recruits from committing to Tennessee, that will hinder the quality depth that this team still so desperately needs and will push the potential oncoming success back another season.
No one involved in this program wants that.
Vanderbilt is dangerous, and they very well could beat the Vols on Saturday like the oddsmakers expect right now. This game is about pride, tradition, and the refusal to give up.
In the long run there may or may not be a ton riding on this contest, but for the current players (especially the seniors), showing the world that they have not quit on this staff or this season should be no clearer than what should happen on Saturday.