By: Randy Moore
In 1982, a superior Vanderbilt quarterback (Whit Taylor) combined with a suspect Tennessee secondary to produce a 28-21 Commodore victory. Twenty-two years later, the 'Dores again have a superior quarterback (Jay Cutler) and the Vols again have a suspect secondary.
While Tennessee is stronger in 2004 than it was in 1982, that team was good enough to stun second-ranked Alabama six weeks before it lost to Vandy. The '82 Vols were a capable team that simply came out flat against a program they'd beaten six years in a row. Imagine how flat the 2004 Vols are likely to be after beating the Commodores 21 years in a row ...
A review of the most humiliating upset losses in recent UT history shows a common thread: All occurred on days when the offense malfunctioned. There was a 21-14 homefield loss to North Texas State in 1975, a 13-7 homefield loss to Rutgers in 1979, a 17-12 homefield loss to Kentucky in 1984, a 25-21 homefield loss to Army in 1986, a 20-18 loss at Boston College in 1987 and a 21-17 loss at Memphis in 1996. In case you haven't noticed, the 2004 Vol offense has been malfunctioning lately. Tennessee has scored 21 points or less in five of the past six games. The running game is missing in action, and so are the top two quarterbacks.
Still, many fans are predicting a lopsided Vol victory Saturday in Nashville. Most offer the following reasons:
• ''Tennessee has the fastest and most talented wideout corps Vandy has faced.'' That's true. But even the best receivers are open for only a split-second, so a quarterback must deliver the ball with plenty of zip or else the defensive back has time to react. Rick Clausen is a heady quarterback and an accurate passer but he lacks the velocity to exploit Tennessee's big-play potential at the wideout spots.
• ''Clausen's experience will offset his physical limitations.'' What experience? Stuck behind older brother Casey, Rick didn't even start in high school till his senior year. After sitting out the 2001 season as an LSU redshirt, he started one 2002 game (vs. Ole Miss) but was pulled in the second quarter and never saw the field again. He sat out 2003 as a UT transfer and has played precisely two quarters (vs. Notre Dame) in 2004. Bottom line: The guy has played four quarters in four years.
• ''The supporting cast will rally around Clausen.'' Sure, like it did in the second half of the Notre Dame game ... when his linemen missed blocks, his backs missed holes and his receivers missed catchable passes. Yep, the supporting cast has really come to his rescue.
• ''Tennessee's ground game will take pressure off of the passing attack.'' WHAT ground game? After averaging 230 rushing yards in Games 1, 2 and 3, the Vols have averaged a modest 121 yards in the six games since. In two of the past three games UT averaged less than 2 yards per carry (34 for 53 yards vs. Alabama, 39 for 58 yards vs. Notre Dame).
• ''Tennessee's kicking game will provide the winning edge.'' Don't count on it. The once-potent kicking game has lapsed into mediocrity. Slowed by a hamstring pull, punter Dustin Colquitt has been average at best. Kicker James Wilhoit has made just seven of 12 field-goal tries, including a mere two of six between 40 and 49 yards. And Tennessee's return teams are downright inept.
• ''Vanderbilt stinks.'' No, Vanderbilt's RECORD (2-8) stinks. Because the Commodores lack depth, they tend to fade in the fourth quarter. They led Ole Miss 23-10 in the third quarter, led Rutgers 27-3 in the third quarter, led Florida 17-7 with 15 seconds left in the second quarter and led Kentucky 13-0 in the fourth quarter -- only to blow the lead each time.
• ''The Commodores will find a way to lose the game.'' That's entirely possible. But the Dores probably won't lose the game via turnovers. They rank 24th nationally and second in the SEC with a plus-6 turnover ratio (19 forced, 13 committed). Conversely, UT is a woeful minus-2 (16 forced, 18 committed).
Does all of this mean I think Vanderbilt will beat Tennessee? No. But I think Vol fans who expect a resounding victory Saturday in Nashville are likely to be disappointed.
21 STRAIGHT AND COUNTING
By: Jeffery Stewart
There's no secret to Tennessee's overwhelming success against Vanderbilt over the decades. The Vols simply field teams with significantly more talent than the Commodores. The same holds true for virtually any team UT has played in the month of November since 1985 — an 18-year span in which the Volunteers have compiled a sensational 73-5 mark.
On those few occasions over the last 30 years in which the talent gap between Tennessee and Vanderbilt has been marginal, the Commodores have played the Vols on even terms. For instance: from 1973 to 1975 these intrastate rivals went 1-1-1 in head-to-head contests and tied 55-55 in points scored. The Commodores won the 1975 meeting 17-14, which means UT has won 27 of the last 28 games in this one-sided series.
Vandy didn't beat its hated rival again until 1982 and that was a Tennessee team that finished 6-5-1 after opening the season with a home loss to Duke. However, what's often overlooked about that long ago Vandy victory is that the Commodores finished the regular season 8-3 and earned a trip to the Hall of Fame Bowl. If memory serves that was Vanderbilt's last winning season and its last bowl appearance. On the other hand, Tennessee has suffered only one losing season since 1980.
When the Commodores had some quality talent under defensive coordinator and then head coach Woody Widenhoffer, they played UT a trio of competitive games in 1995, 1996 and 1997, but averaged only eight points a game and lost all three contests.
But for every example of Vanderbilt playing Tennessee close there are three examples of the Vols slamming the Dores i.e. three straight shutout wins by a combined score of 110-0 in 2001, 2002 and 2003. In Phillip Fulmer's first two years as head coach the Vols beat Vanderbilt 62-14 and 65-0. In Johnny Majors first four seasons the Vols beat Vanderbilt by a combined score of 165 to 45.
Here's another way to think about it: Vanderbilt has earned two bowl bids in the last 49 years and both of those teams beat Tennessee. The Commodores are 2-8 this season and headed nowhere in a huge hurry.
Any chance the Vols would overlook Vanderbilt went out the window against Notre Dame, while a bye week to rest weary legs and heal nagging injuries has given UT the break it desperately needed after eight straight weeks of tough games. Odds are Tennessee will be focused and prepared to take care of business with an SEC East title on the line.
Conversely, this is Vanderbilt's 10th game in as many weeks, an especially difficult pace for a team as thin as the Commodores. Vandy's lack of depth has been exploited in come-from-behind victories by Ole Miss, Florida and Kentucky. But against SEC teams with winning records — South Carolina, Georgia and LSU — Vanderbilt never had the lead and lost by scores of 31-6, 33-3 and 24-7, respectively.
Tennessee is a team with a winning record that has played its best ball on the road the last four seasons. But what makes UT truly different from those other winning SEC teams that dominated the Dores this fall is the fact the Vols occupy the same state as their adversary. Losing to a program you live with carries consequences beyond the norm and any Tennessee fan old enough to remember the 1975 and 1982 losses can attest to their dire nature.
As a native of middle Tennessee with 30 years in UT's football program, the significance of losing to the Commodores isn't lost on Coach Fulmer. That's a big part of why he hasn't had a team lose to Vanderbilt. That's also a big part of why Tennessee won't lose to Vanderbilt this year.
There may also be some lingering resentment caused by comments Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson made at the SEC meetings in Birmingham last August, when he responded to a question about Fulmer's absence by quipping that he wasn't stopped at the border going into Alabama.
Maybe Johnson was heady with all the preseason talk about Vanderbilt being a bowl team. Ideally, it seems unwise to tweak a man who owns the nation's best record among active coaches with at least 10 years experience, especially when you have a Division I winning percentage of .176.
Whether Johnson has retained his sense of humor after going 6-28 in his first three years in Nashville is another matter. The guess here is that Fulmer gets the last laugh and the Vols extend Vandy's misery streak to 22 straight years.