We arrive once more at the most important game of Derek Dooley's tenure in Knoxville. These days "must-win" is a term that gets used in Week 2 of the NFL season; while some will undoubtedly throw it around this week, it's not the best way to describe the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game on Saturday. Dooley said as much in his weekly press conference yesterday:
"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'rd headed, and that's OK. But this one game is not going to impact our entire program the next three years. I'm not approaching it that way.
Everything that was true in this post two weeks ago is still true today. The ultimate fate of Derek Dooley and Tennessee Football will not be decided on Saturday, but in 2012. Tennessee could lose to both Vanderbilt and Kentucky and Dooley will still keep his job. The bigger goals for this season were lost long ago when Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray went down.
In this bizarro world, this game matters for bowl eligibility for Tennessee, but not Vanderbilt. The Dores could lose on Saturday but still get their sixth win against Wake Forest next week. So it's not a must-win for Vanderbilt either.
So why is it the most important game of Dooley's tenure?
See, here's the story that's been playing out all season: poor Vanderbilt hires young and exciting coach. He's different, he's in-your-face, he plays dodgeball with his team. Gets off to a 3-0 start against lesser competition, then the offense disappears against better teams. So they bring in the Super Bowl MVP's younger brother at quarterback, and the offense comes alive. Now, not only are they beating the bad teams on their schedule, but they're so close to breaking through in the games that truly matter. Almost beat Georgia. Almost beat Arkansas. Almost beat Florida. Can't quite get over the hump, but you can just feel it coming.
Meanwhile, Tennessee and their lovable loser head coach with the great hair and the orange pants and the quick wit and the crazy mother just can't catch a break. Best players get hurt one after another, just in time to play four Top 15 opponents in five weeks. The offense literally can't score two touchdowns in an SEC game. What else could go wrong?
Only one important game left for Vanderbilt to truly break through. Only one real test left for Tennessee to find a way to lose. So this is how it's supposed to end, right? James Franklin carried off the field after finally getting the win that would mean the most to his program, Derek Dooley staring off into the sunset and offering more Shakespeare in the postgame. Because Vanderbilt should beat Tennessee, right?
This is where I'd normally type, "With all due respect," but that's exactly the point.
If Vanderbilt wants Tennessee's respect, they'll have to take it by force on Saturday night.
Until then? You're still Vanderbilt, and we're still Tennessee.
This is not the week for Tennessee to feel sorry for themselves. This is not the week to continue the "woe is us" narrative that we seem to find impossible to escape from. This is also not the week to find our own big win. Beating Vanderbilt isn't a revelation around these parts. It's simply what we do. And we are very good at it.
Don't give me 2005. That was six years ago and every single person involved is gone from both sidelines. You get a four year window of opportunity to celebrate a victory like that. But once all the players involved are gone? Now all you're left with are the cold hard facts of a five game losing streak and 27 out of 28.
Tennessee owns Vanderbilt. And on Saturday, the Vols need to run through the T and play football like they believe it.
You think James Franklin has changed anything? Prove it.
From the inside, the voices offer nothing but praise for Franklin's work. Anchor of Gold - which is a terrific site - offered the following yesterday in two different posts:
James Franklin, in eleven months, has done more for Vanderbilt football than anyone in decades. Never mind the brief renaissance under Steve Sloan, or the All-American years when Bill Wade was QB - we're talking maybe Dan McGugin. He could be the transformation of our program. This could be the vindication of everything we’ve hoped for. This could be our chance to do things the right way and WIN while doing it. We got the results we dreamed of and now it's time to settle up and order the next round.
No fooling around. No taking chances. Stack the dollar bills as high as the stars and make the buyout inconceivable.
If James Franklin gets Vanderbilt to a bowl game in his first year - without players he has recruited, with an almost entirely new staff, and coming off a pair of 2-10 seasons - would he be the most impressive rookie coach the Commodores have had in the modern era? Hell, would he be their most impressive coach, period?
While games with Elon and Army have helped pad the team's record, Vanderbilt has proven time and again that they can not only compete with the NCAA's top programs, but also win.
So far, the team has been all-in. If they beat UT, the fans will follow.
I don't doubt for a second that Vanderbilt fans feel this way about their coach. If I was a Vanderbilt fan, I'd be drinking the kool-aid just as heavily. And there's something to be said for having everyone in the program buy in so quickly. I don't blame Vandy fans for feeling the way they do about him at all. Good for them.
But from the outside, I see a man who is simply losing in more exciting fashion.
There's no denying that Vanderbilt has made progress under Franklin's watch, but again, his victories are over Elon, UConn, Ole Miss, Army, and Kentucky. It was just three years ago that Vanderbilt beat two ranked teams, lost four other games by ten points or less, and won the Music City Bowl. And it was just six years ago that Vandy beat five teams, including the Vols, and lost four other games by one possession.
Franklin has fired up the base, beaten bad teams, and been close. But until he wins one of these important games? Vanderbilt is still Vanderbilt.
And until he wins one of these important games, his greatest attributes will be out of the School of Chest-Bumping for Coaches. This is why this game is so important for Derek Dooley: not just because of the bowl game and not just because none of us want to go through an offseason questioning our head coach. But if Franklin beats Dooley, there will be plenty among us who will turn our eyes toward Nashville and be seduced by the School of Chest-Bumping: "We should go get James Franklin!" "Why?" "I don't know, I just really like his energy!"
That's why the "James Franklin is Bruce Pearl" comparison - being made back in April by Anchor of Gold and pushed by many others since then, including Clay Travis - is so absurd. It's insulting, really.
Are their personalities similar? Okay. You know why people really loved Bruce Pearl?
Because he won big games.
Pearl walked into Austin in his sixth game and blew the doors off of #6 Texas by 17 points. Then he beat the Florida team that would go on to win the National Championship. Twice. Then he led a UT team to victory at Rupp Arena for the first time in seven years. Then he won the SEC East, put the Vols in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years, and earned a two seed, the highest ever in the history of the program. All in year one.
We could stop here, and the comparison would be completely invalid.
On top of all of that, to compare Tennessee Basketball pre-Pearl to Vanderbilt Football pre-Franklin is even more insulting. We may have hit a down period immediately before Pearl with Buzz Peterson, but we made four straight NCAA Tournaments from 1998-2001, and have a significant amount of basketball tradition for an SEC school not named Kentucky...a team we've beaten more than any other. You know what Vanderbilt was before James Franklin showed up? They were Vanderbilt. And until they win a meaningful game under Franklin, they will continue to be Vanderbilt.
So please, spare me that ridiculous comparison. You want to change my mind? Beat us on Saturday.
Everyone in the Tennessee Family in Neyland Stadium on Saturday - players, coaches, administrators, fans, even the ushers - needs to stop expecting bad things to happen and start playing for and making the breaks. If you're a UT fan and you are at all able, you need to come to this game, and you need to come angry. Vanderbilt thinks they're better than us. In my book that's blasphemy. We need to put them in their place.
We need a crowd on Saturday that doesn't sit on their hands. I was in Fayetteville for the first time last week. Their fans were just as impressive as their football team; almost the entire stadium stood up for almost the entire game. Not just the student section, but the old folks too. I see it at Virginia Tech every time I go to a game there. Crazy thought, cheering for your team like you mean it.
This isn't the week to show up depressed. This is the week to be hostile, like the environment we once were. There is no way a Vanderbilt Football team should be able to walk into Neyland Stadium and have their way.
As for the team? No matter what's happened this season - and no matter who's playing quarterback - everyone putting on that orange jersey needs to do so believing and knowing that Tennessee teams take care of business against Vanderbilt, and leave no doubt about it. Dooley doesn't need to bring in Peyton Manning to remind them of that; Jim Bob Cooter would suffice. As would any other Vol in the last twenty-eight years. We do not lose to Vanderbilt. We punish Vanderbilt.
If I'm wrong, I'll be right back here on Sunday to apologize and congratulate Vanderbilt for their accomplishment.
But until I'm wrong? Spare me any notion that Vanderbilt is better than we are, or that I should be afraid of James Franklin. You want our respect? Come and get it.
Winning this game is what Tennessee does. It's time to be Tennessee again.