Vandy enjoys momentum while preparing for Vols
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)
The Commodores opened as a 1-point favorite this week for their Saturday meeting with the Vols in Knoxville, marking just the second time in 26 seasons they've been favored against the in-state opponent that's beaten them 26 times in the last 27 seasons.
''It's expected'' for Tennessee to win, Vols linebacker Austin Johnson said. ''The fans know it, we know it, and we've just got to beat them. They're a good team this year, and they're going to be expecting to beat us. We've just got to go in there with confidence and play our game.''
Tennessee and Vanderbilt seem to be experiencing a bit of a role reversal heading into the last two games. The Commodores (5-5, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) have all the momentum with a dominating defense, an offense that's recently found some rhythm and a new coach that's led them to the brink of bowl eligibility.
Meanwhile, the Vols (4-6, 0-6) are alone at the bottom of the SEC East and reeling from arguably their worst conference season in history, and Saturday's 42-point loss to Arkansas, now ranked sixth, ranks as the Vols' biggest margin of defeat since a 44-0 rout by Georgia in 1981.
Tennessee needs wins over both Vanderbilt and Kentucky to earn the bowl berth that orange-clad fans consider their birthright. Vanderbilt has played in a bowl just four times in program history; Tennessee has missed out on a bowl game just four times in the past three decades and has gone to a total of 49.
''Whatever happened in the past doesn't really matter anymore,'' Tennessee defensive end Willie Bohannon said. ''We can't sit here and say we have a mental edge over anybody.''
Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers certainly feels like he and the Commodores have the edge after beating Kentucky by 30 points and nearly upsetting Florida, Arkansas and Georgia in the previous four weeks. Vanderbilt lost those three games by a combined 13 points.
''With how much we've improved, I think it's a good time for us to be playing anybody,'' Rodgers said. ''I feel like we've gotten to the point that we can get a win against anybody we face if we play how we know we should and execute how we should. We go into every game thinking we should win, we should be able to compete.''
On paper, the Commodores seem to have a slight statistical advantage. Though Tennessee is averaging 7.7 yards more on offense, Vanderbilt is averaging 5.1 more points. On defense, the `Dores are allowing 31 fewer yards and 2.4 fewer points than the Vols.
But they also know being the favorite doesn't guarantee victory. Vanderbilt also was favored in the 2008 meeting in Nashville - longtime Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer's second-to-last game - but lost 20-10.
''It takes a lot of discipline to realize this is just the next game. It's not what people are making it out to be,'' Vanderbilt offensive lineman Wesley Johnson said.
That's the kind of attitude both Tennessee coach Derek Dooley and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin are preaching to their players. Despite the bowl ramifications for each school, the coaches want their players focused on the task at hand.
For Franklin, that means having the Commodores keep the number six in mind, representing the average number of seconds it takes to run a single play.
For Dooley, it's about keeping his players from worrying so much about a game's outcome while they're in the middle of playing it or how the outcome of a game might affect an entire season.
''We need to stay on Vandy, and that's it. We'll get through the Vandy game and see how we perform, and then we can worry about the next one,'' he said. ''I don't think the outcome (against Vanderbilt) is going to change how I'm thinking in the next year or two. It's certainly going to change how we feel this year. And I'm sure it will change how a lot of people feel externally, about me and where we're headed, and that's OK.
''But this one game is not going to impact our entire program the next three years.''
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville contributed to this story.