There weren’t many memorable moments from Derek Mason’s tenure as Vanderbilt’s head football coach, but his 3-3 record against the Tennessee Volunteers is something that can’t be denied.
After all, Mason and James Franklin are the only Vanderbilt coaches with multiple wins and a .500-or-better record against the Commodores’ in-state rivals in the last 94 years.
But neither coach was ever arguably as invested in the ‘Dores-Vols rivalry like current VU coach Clark Lea, who experienced the ferocity of the annual meeting firsthand as a Commodore player from 2002-2004.
"This is about being a Nashvillian and being a Vanderbilt fan since I was a child,” Lea stated. “So, this game has always meant more and been something that we celebrated. Obviously, I grew up in black and gold and cheering on the Commodores. So, when I got to play in the game, obviously, it had a heightened sense of meaning to me."
As a player, Lea’s Vandy teams went 0-3 against the Vols. The ‘Dores snapped UT’s 22-game win streak against them the year after Lea graduated.
While Vanderbilt has made it more of a rivalry over the last decade — VU has won five of the last 10 meetings — the Vols have dominated the all-time rivalry with a 77-33-5 series record.
But as Lea stated, the goal is to get Vanderbilt closer to being the program with a .500 record against UT than the program with just eight wins over the last five decades.
“I think in general in these rivalry games, the closer the matchup is, the more fun it is for everybody,” Lea said. “We're excited to have our first go at this as a program. But yet, our focus is going to be on us and it's going to be on how we bring a level of performance to the game Saturday that allows us to win the game. We know the challenges Tennessee will present. We know the emotions that will be a part of this game. We embrace that. We'll have fun with that. But in the end, it's going to be about, do we have the ability to interlock all three phases?”
Vanderbilt hasn’t had much to celebrate in Lea’s first year. The season started with an embarrassing 20-point loss to FCS East Tennessee State at home, and has been highlighted by blowout losses to Stanford, No. 1 Georgia, Florida and Mississippi State.
However, the ‘Dores have looked to be much more of a competitive team down the stretch. They were a 36.5-point underdog against Ole Miss last week but played the Rebels competitively in a 31-17 loss. The week before that, VU was a 21-point underdog to Kentucky but kept that game to 34-17.
Vanderbilt also dropped close games to South Carolina, 21-20, and Missouri, 37-28. With a more inspired effort against ETSU, and maybe a few more plays that went their way in a couple other games, and the Commodores aren’t too far off from being 5-6 with two conference wins instead of 2-9 with an 0-7 record in the SEC.
While a win over the Vols doesn’t magically fix everything that’s wrong with Vanderbilt, it will instill optimism in the program’s future and send Lea and the ‘Dores into 2022 with something positive to build off.
"It's an emotional game,” Lea said. “It's one that means a lot to me personally. It means a lot to our team. We've been proud of how our program has performed in this game in the recent past. This is about Team 1 finishing the season on a high note. This is about us finding our highest level of performance.
“This is about us pouring into the relationships that we built and have really kind of pulled us through here to the finish and honoring those in the way we fight and the way we play on the weekend…But I think in Year 1, there's a special attention to us finishing the job for each other as Team 1 and really hoping to build to a crescendo here at the end.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_