The Commodores, the surprise team of college football during a 4-0 September start, have folded like a dollar bill since then. They bring a 4-6 record into the game, having seen their bowl hopes dashed by a home-field loss to Kentucky last weekend.
With their seasons unraveled, both teams must look pretty hard to find motivation. For instance, Tennessee's players don't want to be remembered as the team that lost to Vandy for the first time in 23 years. Two weeks ago, they became the first UT team in Phil Fulmer's tenure to lose to South Carolina.
"We feel bad about being ‘that team' against South Carolina," senior linebacker Jason Mitchell said, "and we don't want to be ‘that team' again. We don't want to be the team that loses to Vanderbilt or Kentucky, so we're playing a little bit more aggressively just for that reason."
Junior guard Rob Smith says the fact Vandy has a high-scoring offense provides added incentive for UT's offense to put up some points this weekend.
"Yeah, it does," he said. "Obviously, our defense is on another level. Our defense is mean but we, as a unit, want to uphold our end of it this week in order to win. That's crossed my mind a little bit."
Although Vanderbilt has blown its shot at bowl eligibility, head coach Bobby Johnson insists the Commodores will be plenty fired up for today's game.
"This game is just as important as it would've been if we'd beaten Kentucky," he said. "Until you start playing toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the league you're not going to make any progress."
More specifically, Vandy wants to prove it can go "toe-to-toe" on the road. The Commodores beat Arkansas in Fayetteville (28-24), lost a tough game at South Carolina (35-28) and lost in two overtimes at Florida (49-42). Beating UT in Knoxville would give them a 2-2 record in SEC road games.
"We played well at Arkansas, played well at South Carolina and at Florida," Johnson noted. "We didn't win the games at South Carolina and Florida but we got some things done. Now we've got to go over there, face that tough situation and see if we can play a whole lot better than we did last time we were over there (a 48-0 Vol romp in 2003)."
After facing Vandy three times previously, Mitchell knows the Commodores will kick it up a notch for today's game against their hated in-state rival.
"Everybody kicks it up a notch against us," he said. "Every team plays us to the best of their ability, and that's the way we expect everybody to play. Vanderbilt might kick it up two or three notches because we're 2 ½ hours up the road. That's the type of game it is."
Obviously, Vanderbilt is looking to break its 22-game losing streak in the series. Whether UT has enough motivation to match the Commodores' intensity remains to be seen. Smith thinks the Vols will have plenty of fire.
"From how we go about practice, you'd never guess how many losses we have," he said. "It's not like people are moping around with bad attitudes. A lot of times when teams aren't playing well you see that stuff, but I haven't seen that all year.
"You'd think it'd be tough to get motivated but it seems like we're motivated fine."