Vanderbilt, once viewed as a "geek school" by a current Vol, really did open as a one-point favorite over the home-standing Big Orange for Saturday night's game at Neyland Stadium.
Vanderbilt really will go into the game with a better overall record (5-5 versus 4-6) and a better SEC record (2-5 versus 0-6) than Tennessee.
All of these developments are surprising to Vol fans and Vol players alike.
"To be honest, I always thought of Vanderbilt as just a geek school," freshman safety Brian Randolph said. "I didn't really follow 'em in football."
Asked how it feels to be an underdog to a "geek school," Randolph replied: "I don't know. We've just go to prove 'em wrong."
Veteran Vols are accustomed to being double-digit favorites against Vanderbilt, which has lost 27 of the past 28 meetings in the series. They are not accustomed to being underdogs to the perennial doormat Dores.
"Us versus Vandy ... us being underdogs is a little surprising but that's the way it is," senior linebacker Austin Johnson said. "That's (based on) the way we've played this year. We haven't proved that we're a great team, so we've got to come in and beat 'em."
Junior defensive back Prentiss Waggner said the Vols pay little attention to who's favored each week but conceded that "We know that Vanderbilt is a team that most people (historically) look forward to beating. Coming from Tennessee, we know this Vanderbilt-Tennessee game is a big game for the state, so we look forward to coming out with a victory."
Given Vandy's status as a long-time pushover, the fact the Commodores are oozing confidence as they prepare to face Tennessee seems a little odd.
"They're going to come in with a lot of confidence," Waggner said. "We know they're going to come out swinging, and it's going to be a tough game for us. But we're looking forward to playing for 60 minutes and, hopefully, coming out with a victory."
The 2005 Vols forever will be known as the team that lost to Vanderbilt, snapping a 22-game winning streak in the series. Johnson does not want the 2011 Vols to carry a similar stigma.
"Most definitely," he said. "I don't to be the senior class that lost to Vanderbilt and I don't want to have to say that. I have the most confidence in the world in this team. We're ready for the challenge and we're ready for Vanderbilt."
Junior defensive end Willie Bohannon says the stigma that goes with losing to Vanderbilt is one the Vols must avoid at all costs.
"We've got to win this game — no ifs, ands or buts," he said. "We don't care how good people say they are. We don't care how good they've been playing. We've got to go out there and beat them."
Asked if the stigma that comes with losing to Vandy is added incentive, Bohannon nodded emphatically.
"Yes, it is," he said. "It is. And I'm sure they want to be the team that beat Tennessee for the first time since '05. We've got to make sure that doesn't happen."
First-year coach James Franklin has done a masterful job revitalizing a Commodore team that went 2-10 a year ago. He didn't overhaul the roster in one year and he didn't make the players significantly bigger, stronger or faster in one year. What he did was instill a winning attitude in a program with a losing tradition.
"They've got a new coach; they've got a new spark," Bohannon said. "You can't really be surprised by the way they're bouncing back. I don't sit in their meeting rooms and I don't know what their coach is saying to get them motivated but I'm pretty sure he's had some good stuff because they've been playing hard."
Even watching on television, Johnson sees a more motivated group of Commodores than in previous years.
"I just see them with confidence," he said. "I see them playing well together. I think they've really bought in to what their coach has brought to the table."
Coming off a 30-point rout of Kentucky, Vanderbilt's confidence should be at a season high Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. That makes the Commodores especially dangerous ... unless the Vols can do something to shake that confidence early.
"Obviously, we've got to start fast," Johnson said. "That's kind of been our thing (trademark) all year. If we start fast and take some of that swagger away from them, we should be fine."
Few observers would have expected last August that Tennessee would be reeling and Vanderbilt rolling when the teams met in November. Asked about the Commodores rising above their losing image, however, Bohannon chose his words very carefully and very wisely.
"They're pretty good right now," he said. "And we can't sit here and talk about anybody because we've been going against the image of Tennessee for a while, so I can't talk about them going against their image."