Vandy-Vols battle has great meaning for both teams

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin might downplay Saturday’s game at Tennessee by claiming it has not yet reached the status of a true rivalry.

That’s because Tennessee has dominated Vandy by posting an overall record of 73-29-5 in the series, dating back to 1892, including a stretch of perfect dominance (1982-2005).

But growing up in Nashville and prepping at nearby Montgomery Bell Academy before becoming a four-year offensive line starter at Vanderbilt, senior left tackle Wesley Johnson and his family — all Vanderbilt fans — know what it means for the Commodores to beat Tennessee like it did last year for only the second time since 1982.

“I am hearing it from everybody, from family to friends, and it comes from all directions,” Johnson said of the upcoming 109th meeting between Vanderbilt (6-4) and Tennessee (4-6).

With last Saturday’s win over Kentucky, Vanderbilt became bowl-eligible for a school-record third straight year, while the Vols need to beat the Commodores and then win at Kentucky the following Saturday, to keep from missing a bowl game for a third straight year.

This isn’t lost on Johnson and his family, whom he claims were already Vanderbilt fans before signing with the Commodores and becoming one of the SEC’s most dependable and better offensive linemen. The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder will make a team-record 49th start Saturday and is projected as a mid-round NFL draft pick.

“Oh, yeah, they’re definitely all Vanderbilt fans,” Johnson said of his kin. “My mom (Arlene) actually went to Tennessee, but for whatever reason she really didn’t like the school, either.”

While anchoring a solid offensive line that features another local product in junior center Joe Townsend out of Hendersonville High, Johnson also admits hearing a lot about Tennessee’s vaunted offensive line.

Then again, he and Townsend are very familiar with two of the Vols — junior left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson (Pearl-Cohn) and senior center James Stone (Maplewood) — because they prepped locally, too.

In fact, the Tennessee offensive line was the first team strength noted by Franklin — like every other coach that faces the Volunteers this season — while previewing the game earlier this week.

“It’s one thing to have size, it’s one thing to have athleticism, and it’s one thing to have experience,” Franklin said of UT’s offensive front that features top prospects Richardson and senior right tackle Ja’Wuan James.

“It’s another thing to have a combination of all three of those,” Franklin added. “Those guys have been playing at a high level for a long time together.”

Yes, Johnson has heard plenty of praise all season long for the Volunteers’ offensive line. Then again, he feels the Commodores’ underrated front will help Vandy claim victory on Saturday and clinch consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1974-75.

“Maybe I do feel like we are under-appreciated,” Johnson said of the offensive line that includes sophomore left guard Jake Bernstein, junior right guard Spencer Pulley and redshirt freshman right tackle Andrew Jelks.

“But I feel like we can play with just about anybody,” he added, “and I think we’ve proven that on several occasions this season. I’m looking forward to this game, because it’s another opportunity to prove ourselves.”

Last week, Vanderbilt got senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels back after missing two games with a leg injury. He completed 19 of 24 passes for 189 yards and seemed to get stronger as the game progressed.

Commodores senior receiver Jordan Matthews, who leads the SEC and ranks eighth in the nation at 8.3 catches per game, had a career-high 12 receptions for 141 yards last week. He needs only four receptions to surpass former Vanderbilt receiver Earl Bennett’s league record of 236 career catches.

Projected as a possible late first-round or early second-round pick, Matthews already owns the SEC career mark with 3,358 receiving yards.

“What can I say, Jordan Matthews is as good as any receiver in the country,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “They do a tremendous job of finding ways and creative ways to get him his catches and get him the football.”

Defensively, the Commodores have 16 takeaways (nine interceptions, seven fumble recoveries) over the last four games to have a plus-nine turnover ratio — second best in the SEC and 20th nationally. Among SEC leaders, senior free safety Kenny Ladler is first in forced fumbles (four), tied for second in interceptions (four) and eighth in tackles (81).

“When I watch them defensively,” Jones said, “the first thing that comes to mind is their effort, overall strength and their physicality. They’re very talented in the back end of their defense.”

Tennessee counters with quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who is only the eighth true freshman to start at quarterback in program history. Dobbs will be making his third start after taking over four games ago during the loss at Alabama for injured starter Justin Worley, who is out for the season.

“I think in general he is smart, he’s athletic and he seems extremely poised as a freshman,” Franklin said of Dobbs, who he also recruited out of Alpharetta (Ga.) High School. “It helps that he plays behind such a big and athletic offensive line, but they’ve also done a nice job at putting good players around him.”

In three games and two starts against nationally-ranked Missouri and Auburn, Dobbs has completed 47-of-79 passes for 443 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions.

Senior running back Rajion Neal has become the bell cow of the offense, gaining a team-high 895 yards with 10 touchdowns, also a team best. The young receiving corps has shown promise lately with sophomore Pig Howard (team-high 40 catches for 357 yards) and true freshman Marquez North (37 catches for team-high 494 yards).

While Vanderbilt beat the Volunteers 41-18 last season at home and lost in overtime 27-21 two years ago in Knoxville, Franklin still feels the lopsided history of the series that tilts Tennessee’s way doesn’t make for that much of a rivalry just yet.

“People call it a rivalry,” said Franklin, whose team is 13-4 in its last 17 games. “I don’t think it’s at that point yet. It hasn’t been as competitive as it needs to be to be a rivalry at this point. But I know a lot of people are excited about this game.

“I think it’s good for the state. I think it’s good for Vanderbilt. I think it’s good for Tennessee. I think it’s good for the SEC.”

For Jones, he is most interested in getting a win Saturday to put his team in position to become bowl eligible with another win at Kentucky the following Saturday.

“It is a critical game because it is the next game on our schedule,” the first-year Vols coach said. “We are working to get to win No. 5. That is the way we approach it.

“It is big because it is the next game. Obviously, there are some other factors that go involved with that.”