NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Coach Derek Mason is embracing what a win Saturday night would mean both to his Vanderbilt Commodores and the program he's been building for three seasons.
No clich�s about trying to go 1-0, though his Commodores proved Tuesday they've learned that talking point well from their coach. No, when talking Tuesday about the game in both teams' regular season finales, Mason referenced the quote from the late John F. Kennedy about why settle for second when first is available.
''We're going to make sure for us we go get everything there to get,'' Mason said. ''We're not going to leave any meat on the bone. It's time for us to go eat. It's time for us to grow up. It's time for us to put down the little boy toys and pick up the big boy toys, and let's play football and let's try to find ourselves in the midst of doing something great.''
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Mason's Commodores have a high enough APR, Academic Progress Report, that they just might head to a bowl with the five wins they already have this season with more bowl slots than six-win teams . Beat in-state rival Tennessee, and academics will take a backseat to what the Commodores do on the football field.
This Tennessee-Vanderbilt rivalry has been lopsided for decades with the Volunteers dominating. In the past 10 years, Tennessee is 8-2. Each time the Commodores beat the Vols – 41-18 in 2012 and 14-10 in 2013 – they went bowling and finished 9-4 under coach James Franklin.
When Franklin went to Penn State, Vanderbilt hired Mason away from Stanford where he was defensive coordinator as a first-time head coach. Vanderbilt still is looking for both its first bowl berth and first victory over Tennessee. In his third season, the Commodores (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) are having their best season yet under Mason.
Beating Mississippi 38-17 last weekend marked the most points Vanderbilt has scored against an SEC opponent under Mason. That also got the Commodores their fifth win, and their SEC-best APR could have their bowl eligibility secured before kicking off against Tennessee.
Mason said winning not only means a sixth win for the Commodores but taking the next step in being relevant in the SEC.
''And to me right now that's where we're moving,'' Mason said. ''That's where we're headed, but this opportunity would really cement exactly what we've been able to do in terms of building culture.''
Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who has his Vols at 8-3 and 4-3 in his fourth season, noted four of Vanderbilt's losses this season came in one-possession games.
''When you look at Vanderbilt, Derek Mason has done a great job of really continuing to build that football program,'' Jones said.
Vanderbilt's last bowl came in Franklin's final game with the Commodores who beat Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 4, 2014. But Mason's Commodores weren't biting when asked about possibly being bowl-bound or knowing a win was necessary before kickoff. Linebacker Zach Cunningham said their focus is on Saturday night.
''This game is the only thing that's important to us right now,'' Cunningham said.
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