Gotta disagree with James Franklin on this one.
Of course, Vanderbilt-Tennessee is a rivalry.
Why? Because of James Franklin.
Yes, you can argue that one team has to beat another more than twice in 30 years to maintain a rivalry. Point taken.
Cue Franklin: “People call it a rivalry. I don’t think it’s at that point yet. It hasn’t been as competitive as it needs to be to be considered a rivalry at this point.” Sorry, Coach, but we live in a current-event sports world. Vanderbilt beat UT last season. The Commodores lost in overtime in 2011 at Neyland Stadium. On top of that, Vanderbilt has won some in-state recruiting battles.
College football rivalries run deeper than final scores and recruiting rankings. Rivalries are fueled by personalities. And that’s where Franklin comes in.
He is Vanderbilt’s version of Bruce Pearl. If he’s your coach, you love him. If he’s the other team’s coach, you hate him. But even if he’s coaching the other team, you have to admit he’s good for the game.
For years – decades, really – UT fans had difficulty working up a strong disdain for Vanderbilt coaches. Gerry DiNardo got a rise because he wouldn’t say the word Tennessee. Rod Dowhowerwas too dull to dislike. Woody Widenhofer was mildly irritating because he structured a defense that made life miserable for Peyton Manning. Bobby Johnson broke a 17-year streak but ultimately went 1-7 against UT. Robbie Caldwell had one foot out the door by the time his team lost to the Vols.
Really now, if you’re a UT fan, what opposing coach engenders the most dislike? Nick Saban is feared more than hated. Those hard feelings against Steve Spurrier have faded a bit since he left Florida. Mark Richt beats you but doesn’t rub your nose in it. You want Will Muschamp to survive out of fear the Gators will hire a better coach.
What does that leave? Gary Pinkel? Mark Stoops? That brings us back to Franklin, who seems more than willing to embrace the role of Vol villain.
Remember the 2011 game? As he approached the south tunnel at Neyland Stadium, Franklin was observed in a rather heated exchange with some orange-outfitted well-wishers.
That little matter was obscured in part because a locker room video surfaced showing then-Vols coach Derek Dooley proclaiming to his players: “The one thing Tennessee always does is kick the stuffi ng out of Va ndy.” Or words to that effect.
One year later, Tennessee failed to kick the stuffi ng out of Va ndy, a nd Dooley started collecting checks on a $5 million buyout. Nice work if you canget it.
The 2012 game was a role reversal. Vanderbilt did unto UT what the Vols had done unto the Commodores many times over the years. And it left a mark. To many UT players, it was the low point in a miserable season.
“For me personally, I wanted to make sure something like that never happened again,” Vols kicker/punter Michael Palardy said. “On national television, getting beat like that, it’s something that you don’t want to happen.” Some of this is due to the current state of Vol Ball. Tennessee used to focus on Alabama and Florida wh i le fi xati ng on conference and national championships. Now the Vols must beat Vanderbilt to stay in the running for alower-tier bowl.
Vanderbilt’s rise under Franklin has coincided with UT’s dip amid coaching chaos. Butch Jones is the fourth Vols coach since 2008. He should’ve worn a hazmat suit to his introductory press conference, considering the mess he in herited.
UT hasn’t won a game in a month. A loss Saturday would doom the Vols to a fourth straight losing season, which hasn’t happened since 1903-06.
And then there’s the hangover from last year’s game.
“I’m pretty sure they’re going to be a little more motivated,” Vanderbilt offen sive t ac k le We sley Johnson said.
In sum they’re treating it like a rivalry.
Which it is.