Normally, however, when Vanderbilt and Tennessee collide in their annual football rivalry, there's no need to do anything rash with the record books. The Volunteers entered Saturday's contest between cross-state rivals with 21 straight wins in the series, and had shut out Vandy for the past three seasons. On a cloudy afternoon, Vanderbilt's most faithful fans dutifully showed up for the contest, but few were expecting anything to be much different.
OK, so Tennessee made it 22 straight and clinched the SEC East championship. Yeah, Vanderbilt, to the surprise of no one, fell short in the end and lost close.
OK, so the Vols probably had 60 to 70 percent of the crowd. (Vol fans had complained all week about the steep $55 ticket prices, but that didn't keep thousands of them from showing up. Tennessee fans, not generally the smartest lot, failed to take the hint.)
But the way it happened was anything but expected. Along the way, the Commodores (2-9, 1-7 SEC) gave the 32,312 patrons enough interesting moments to keep their fans talking for an entire off-season.
For starters, the plucky Commodores actually put some points on the board, unlike the previous three years (Jay Cutler's fade to Marlon White in the first quarter broke the scoreless streak). Not satisfied, Vandy did what most people figured was impossible by actually making a game of it in the fourth quarter. Having been outscored 78-7 in the fourth in ten previous games this season, the Commodores outscored Tennessee 13-0 in this one's final period. Faith and begorrah!
And having been blanked the three previous years by a collective 110-0, the Commodore offense mustered 33 points and managed to break off a number of big plays against a rugged Vol defense. Jay Cutler threw for over 300 yards for the first time all season. Brandon Smith, in his final game wearing the black and gold, turned in the biggest performance of his career with 160 receiving yards and an 80-yard touchdown catch. In total offense the two teams were virtually even, with UT edging VU 425-420.
So surprising was Vandy's performance that UT head coach Phillip Fulmer was almost apologetic about the way his team had won. "All I know is that we're the Eastern Division champions of the SEC," he said. "We dodged a bullet. I told the team that."
But two factors ultimately tilted the contest Tennessee's way: Vandy could never stop the Vols' power running game; and the Commodores committed four crucial turnovers.
Midway through the second quarter UT led 28-6, and one could forgive Vandy fans for flashing back to the past three years. But in this, their last home game of the season, the Dores looked deep within themselves and refused to go down without a fight.
First Brandon Smith went 80 yards with a slant pass, and after a Dominique Morris interception, Cutler drove Vandy 83 yards to cut the score to 28-20. At halftime the Dores realized the Vols had gotten 14 easy points on short drives after fumbles, yet led by a scant 8.
"We weren't about to quit," said sophomore linebacker Kevin Joyce, who had eight tackles and an interception in a starting role. "There's not a person in our locker room who knows the meaning of that word."
In a second half of twists and turns, Vanderbilt was never able to seize the lead-- but neither were the orange-wearing hordes who invaded Dudley Field able to rest easy. Tennessee stretched its lead to 38-20, but Cutler masterfully directed the offense on another long touchdown drive, and Joyce's interception early in the fourth quarter once again gave Vandy reason to believe.
Bobby Johnson's Commodores would pull to within 38-33 with 4:30 left, and of all things, Vandy's defense forced a Tennessee punt. With 2:16 left, Vandy found itself 80 yards away from a touchdown, and from one of the biggest celebrations in the school's long sports history.
But just as has happened so many times over the past three years, the Commodores found themselves unable to execute a game-winning two-minute drill. On first-and-10 at the Vandy 20 Cutler was pressured by UT's Parys Haralson, and his weakly thrown pass was easily intercepted. Game over.
What to make of the 38-33 final score? It was a game that more resembled Tennessee's 28-26 victory four years ago than the last three (those who took the Vols and the points lost big). In a game presumed as a mismatch, Vanderbilt kept the crowd on the edge of its seat for the greater part of four quarters. It showed character by not folding when down 28-6. It gave true believers a ray of hope as Vandy looks toward Johnson's fourth season.
But as pessimists will no doubt point out, ultimately the Commodores' victory was merely "moral". It may have been enough to make Phillip Fulmer nearly soil his orange trousers, but it was hardly enough to redeem a season marked by near-misses.
For the fourth straight season, and the third straight under Johnson, Vandy failed to exceed two measly wins. Even after five losses by a total of 15 points, there's no way the season can be viewed as anything but a huge disappointment.
"Coach Johnson thanked everyone for their effort all year," said Joyce. "He knows everyone gave 100 percent every game. Losing these games, we all made technical errors. He thanked the seniors for holding strong and buying into the Coach Johnson way of doing things."
After the game Johnson was asked bluntly, are you just as confident as ever that you can turn Vanderbilt football around? "Yes, I am," he said, without a second's hesitation. "We'll go back and assess what we need to improve, and what we need to get done.
"We feel like we're better. We just didn't get things closed out in certain games. It was a season of a lot of what-ifs. We're gonna keep working at it. We've got a great school to recruit to. We're going to get on the road immediately. I think we can get some good players to come here and play."
For Tennessee (8-2, 6-1), one more home game remains vs. Kentucky, then a chance at the conference crown in Atlanta. For football-weary Vanderbilt fans, it's another long off-season of pondering the what-might-have-beens.
Fourteen Commodore seniors were recognized before playing their last home game at Vanderbilt Stadium: Bill Alford (DB), Kenan Arkan (OL), Eric Byrum (LB), Aaron Carter (DL), Matt Clay (DL), Robert Dinwiddie (DL), Justin Geisinger (OL), Brian Kovolisky (OL), Clark Lea (FB), Norval McKenzie (RB), Marty Morgan (LB), Lorenzo Parker (DB), Brandon Smith (WR) and Chris Young (WR).
Jay Cutler's streak of passes without an interception came to an end at 177. Cutler finished 22-of-33 with three touchdowns and two interceptions.