Vanderbilt won’t address playing in another bowl game yet. Tennessee can’t address playing in another bowl game yet.
Neither of those things will prevent Steve Ehrhart and his Liberty Bowl staff from having their eyes glued on Saturday night’s matchup in Knoxville.
“It’s an amazing situation because two years ago these two coaches were in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl when Butch Jones was at Cincinnati and James Franklin was in his first year at Vanderbilt,” said Ehrhart, executive director of college football’s seventh-oldest bowl.
“These are two future rock stars in coaching. It’s ironic both spoke here during the course of this season and I had the honor of being able to introduce both of them.”
Ehrhart may be introducing one of these coaches again for his Dec. 31 bowl in Memphis. Saturday’s grudge match at 6 p.m. on ESPN2 will determine the odds-on favorite.
For Tennessee (4-6, 1-5 SEC), the picture is crystal clear. It must avenge a 41-18 loss to the Commodores last season and follow that up with a win at Kentucky to become eligible for any bowl.
Vanderbilt (6-4, 3-4) is vying to bolster its stock. It has already qualified for a third consecutive bowl and can double its pleasure by ending Jones’ postseason plans in his first year with the Vols.
Franklin’s teams have remained inside the state lines the last two bowl seasons, traveling to Memphis in 2011 and staying home for the 2012 Music City Bowl. Barring a twist of events, the Liberty Bowl could serve as the Commodores’ ceiling in 2013.
Tennessee could drop-kick Vanderbilt to the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham (Jan. 4), or even the Advocare V100 Bowl in Shreveport, La. (Dec. 31), if Florida or Mississippi State won out to finish 6-6.
“Confidence with wins is infectious,” Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels said. “I just think at the end of our seasons, we’ve grown so much through the first 10 weeks of the year that, really, we’re to a point that our confidence is at an all-time high.”
The Vols have grown accustomed to preparing for the Commodores with a sense of desperation. They carried a 4-6 record into the Vanderbilt game all three seasons of Derek Dooley’s coaching tenure and reached a bowl only once.
“We’ve been in this situation three times. This is our fourth time,” Vols senior offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “We want to win Tennessee, basically. We want to be state champs.”
Neither team becomes a lock for the Liberty Bowl with a win, but no bowl’s SEC options will be affected more by this game. Ehrhart will have two representatives at Neyland Stadium.
Alabama, Auburn, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas A&M are in line to fill the SEC’s first five positions through the Outback Bowl, assuming two SEC teams go to BCS games. LSU, Ole Miss and Georgia figure to make up the next pool, which would fill out the Chick-fil-A, Gator and Music City bowls.
The Liberty Bowl comes next. Vanderbilt could be the SEC’s last bowl-eligible team at that point.
But if Tennessee wins out, it would be no worse than one game back of Vanderbilt and would have a head-to-head win, plus the offer of bringing a potentially bigger crowd to Memphis. Ehrhart knows he couldn’t go wrong if it came to that decision.
“Our board people asked the same question,” Ehrhart said of 6-6 Tennessee or 7-5 Vanderbilt.
“If you were here two years ago, you saw how great the Vandy crowd was (attendance was 57,103). But don’t go to sleep on Mississippi State. What if Ole Miss comes out differently in the last two games? There’ll be some surprises.”