published Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

Much at stake as Tennessee Vols host Commodores

VANDERBILT (6-4, 3-4 SEC) AT TENNESSEE (4-6, 1-5)

7 p.m. * Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn. * ESPN2/106.5 FM

The matchup

Though Tennessee offensive line has received some criticism this season, the Vols, averaging 185.9 per game, need 141 yards to register only the program's third season with 2,000 rushing yards since 199, and tailback Rajion Neal needs 105 for the 1,000-yard season his linemen wanted to help him reach.

Vanderbilt is sixth in the SEC in run defense, but the Commodores' defensive strength is an experienced secondary, which has seven interceptions the past two weeks and faces Josh Dobbs, Tennessee's true freshman quarterback.

"I feel like we've played decently," right guard Zach Fulton said, "but we all say that we haven't put together our best game as an offensive line."

Tonight would be the perfect time to do it.

One to watch

"We'll be as good as Dan McCullers goes."

Those were first-year Vols coach Butch Jones' words on July 31 before Tennessee's first preseason practice, and they've held true into November. The mammoth defensive tackle has one tackle in each of the past two games. Not surprisingly, Missouri and Auburn combined to rush for 783 yards in routing Tennessee.

Against Georgia and South Carolina -- the Vols' best defensive performances of the season -- McCullers registered 4.5 tackles for loss and half a sack.

The Commodores are 10th in the SEC in total offense, and while the challenge Tennessee's defense faces isn't close to some of the others its seen this season, the Vols still need McCullers to play well to slow Vanderbilt.

In the end

For the first time since South Alabama came to Knoxville in late September, Tennessee isn't facing a ranked team. The Vols welcomed an open date last week after facing four teams ranked in the top 11 of the Associated Press poll and need to win tonight and at Kentucky to reach bowl eligibility.

Since a 3-3 start, Vanderbilt has won three of four games, with the only loss coming at Texas A&M. The Commodores rallied to beat Georgia for its first win against a ranked team since 2008 and registered the program's first win at Florida since 1945. A nine-win season remains attainable for Vanderbilt.

The Commodores have thrived off turnovers, as its experienced defense has helped a wobbly offense, and that could be the biggest factor in this game.

Prediction: Tennessee 24, Vanderbilt 23

KNOXVILLE — Don't be fooled by the coach-speak.

Tennessee's Butch Jones and Vanderbilt's James Franklin can say tonight's game between their teams is important simply because it's the next one or suggest it's just another game, but there's more to it than that.

Much more.

From in-state supremacy on the field and in perception to the Volunteers' bowl hopes and desires for revenge and the Commodores' chance at history, there's no shortage of storylines and plenty at stake when the two programs square off in Knoxville.

"We want to win Tennessee basically and be state champs," Vols right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "This is a big game for our tradition. We want to keep the tradition going and go out here and play as hard as we can for this university.

"Like any game, you want to get the win, but games like these that are rivalry games you play each year that are in state, you want to win this one."

Vanderbilt last beat Tennessee in consecutive seasons in 1925 and 1926, the latter of which was Gen. Robert Neyland's first season as the Vols' coach. The Commodores clinched bowl eligibility last week against Kentucky and will play in their third bowl under Franklin after playing in just four before his arrival.

Since Franklin took over in Nashville following a three-year stint as Maryland's offensive coordinator in December 2010, Vanderbilt is 21-15 overall, 10-13 in the SEC and 8-2 in November.

In that same period, Tennessee is 14-20 overall, 3-19 in the SEC and 4-6 in the regular season's final month.

Since his arrival last December, Jones has referred to Tennessee as "the state institution" and made in-state recruiting a priority, but he downplayed the importance of needing to win tonight to back up those claims and re-establish the Vols as the state's top dog.

"I think it's the next game," Jones said. "We're trying to get to win number five. We're trying to continue to build our football program, and that's another brick, it's another step in what we're working toward, and it's a great opportunity for our seniors.

"It's just another part of developing and building our football program."

Multiple Vols used the word "disbelief" to describe their reaction to the Commodores' 41-18 dismantling of them in Nashville last season, and though it was only Vanderbilt's second win against Tennessee in 30 years, another win over their in-state rivals would further the argument the Commodores are currently the better program.

"We're very motivated not to let that happen again," Vols defensive end Marlon Walls said.

It's not the first time Jones and Franklin have faced each other. At the end of his second season at Cincinnati, Jones coached the Bearcats to a 31-24 win against the Commodores, who were 6-7 in their first year under Franklin.

After Chris Boyd scored on a 68-yard touchdown pass to give Vanderbilt a 21-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, Ralph David Abernathy returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

Jones was an assistant at West Virginia with Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand for two seasons (2005-06) and called him a "good friend."

"I like Butch; I know Butch; I know guys on his staff; I knew guys on his staff at Cincinnati," Franklin said. "We've got guys here at Vanderbilt that have worked with him and some guys on that staff as well. I know the fans of both teams get all worked up and think there's hate and all that kind of stuff, but there really isn't.

"I know from our perspective, there's respect toward their staff, there's respect toward their team, the traditions and the history of that place, all those things. Then obviously, both representing the state of Tennessee, we take a lot of pride in that. I'm looking forward to seeing Butch before the game and shaking his hand and wishing him good luck and going from there."

Jones will shake the hands of 28 seniors before the game, and a class that's experienced a coaching change -- two in some cases -- and a revolving door of assistant coaches and strength coaches has a chance to win two more games and finish their careers in a bowl game.

"I'm going to try to stay focused on the game, and I'm sure it'll hit me the next day or something like that," Walls said. "My mom, she's calling and reminding me every day, so I've been trying to fight her off. You don't want to play with emotions. You just want to go out there and try to win this game.

"It's a must-win game for us, and you don't want to get your emotions involved."

With what's at stake for both Tennessee and Vanderbilt, emotions figure to be part of the proceedings.

"This is going to be," Jones said, "an intense football game."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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