Read More →
Tennessee can end its longest stretch of losing seasons in school history and finally snap a bowl drought on Saturday.Vanderbilt, amid an otherwise frustrating season, would find satisfaction in making sure none of that happens for its rival when the game kicks off at 3 p.m. (SEC Network).“It would be great for us to both be here just watching bowl games this year,” Vanderbilt nose tackle Vince Taylor said. “But there is even more to it than that. This is pretty much the state championship game.”The Vols (5-6, 2-5 SEC) must beat Vanderbilt (3-8, 0-7) to earn bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010. They have endured four consecutive losing seasons, tied for the longest such dry spell in school history. And to make matters worse, Tennessee has suffered back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt for the first time since 1925-26.All that could end by beating the Commodores, more than a two-touchdown underdog in its home stadium.“It is a big game for a number of reasons,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “It is a big game because it is the last regular-season opportunity that our seniors will have. It is a chance to build momentum in moving forward. We are fighting for bowl eligibility. It is an in-state rivalry game. So there is a lot on the line.“All of our focus and opportunity, even (athletic director) Dave (Hart)’s focus, is on Vanderbilt (rather than possible bowl bids) and trying to get a victory and scratch and claw on Saturday.”Per usual in the rivalry, the two teams tout a cross-section of some of the state’s recent top high school talent. Vanderbilt carries 18 Tennessee natives on its roster, while much of Tennessee’s crop of young standouts hail from the midstate – including running back Jalen Hurd (Beech), wide receiver Josh Malone (Station Camp), defensive end Derek Barnett (Brentwood Academy) and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Clarksville Northeast) among others.“It is definitely big for our program, to get to win number six,” Reeves-Maybin said. “We are just focused on that right now, not looking ahead to a bowl game. All eyes are on Vanderbilt, obviously. They got us the last two years, but there are a lot of guys on that team who haven’t been a part of that.”The rivalry is somewhat new to many on both teams. Vanderbilt has played 31 freshmen, true and redshirt combined, this year – the highest number in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Tennessee has played 23 true freshmen, which ranks highest nationally in that category.But some on both squads know how the last two meetings have felt, with Vanderbilt winning 41-18 at home in 2012 and 14-10 in Knoxville last season. Before that, the Vols had won 28 of the previous 29 meetings.“When you live in the state of Tennessee and heckled by those fans all the time, you’re glad to have a leg up on them for 364 days out of the year,” said Vanderbilt offensive tackle Andrew Jelks, a former Henry County standout that faced several current Vols in high school.Added Tennessee defensive back Cameron Sutton: “We can’t worry about the past. A lot of the guys on this team haven’t played Vanderbilt and don’t know much about Vanderbilt. We are just trying to tell the young guys the meaning behind the game.”First-year Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason will face the Vols for the first time. Earlier in the rivalry week, he refused to refer to the opponent by its name, opting instead to call Tennessee “that team out east.”Jones said his players have “bigger things to worry about,” such as ending a bowl drought. Both coaches, at least, agree on the stakes of the game.“This (Vanderbilt) football team has something to prove. I’m sure the team out east has something to prove, looking at trying to get bowl eligible,” Mason said. “It’s a big deal because it’s where you live, where you reside.“There is a lot riding on this game. So let’s push all the chips in and go play.Reach Adam Sparks at 615-259-8010 and on Twitter @AdamSparks. NEXT GAME TENNESSEE (5-6, 2-5 SEC) at VANDERBILT (3-8, 0-7)When: 3 p.m. SaturdayTV/radio: SEC Network/104.5-FM, 1510-AM, 95.9-FM Tennessee coach Butch Jones needs his Vols to beat Vanderbilt to earn a bowl bid for the first time since 2010. Running back Jalen Hurd, a former Beech High standout, is among a few Tennessee players from the midstate. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason will get his first taste of the rivalry with Tennessee on Saturday.