Last year when Vanderbilt notched its first win since 2005 and second since 1982 over the Vols, most of us were already detached from the outcome. We cared far more about our next head coach than our latest loss, making Vanderbilt's largest margin of victory over us since 1954 a little less painful.
But it was still one of the most embarrassing nights in the last thirty years of Tennessee Football. Don't believe me? Then you don't remember:
At the center of it all is, of course, James Franklin. Now 21-15 in three years at Vanderbilt, Franklin's body of work certainly can't be denied. In fact, the win over Tennessee last November almost certainly found a special place in the hearts of the VU faithful, but their wins over Georgia and Florida this year were both more impressive if not "bigger".
We've used the "big" word a lot for months and really years - it's the win Derek Dooley was never able to get and the one Butch Jones secured over South Carolina. UT's victory over the Gamecocks will remain the year's biggest W no matter what happens from here on out. Likewise Vanderbilt's wins over the Dawgs and at Florida would both be more impressive than winning over what would become the 4-7 Vols.
But even if it's not "big", this one matters. A lot. For both teams.
To break a hold like the one Tennessee has enjoyed on Vanderbilt and Kentucky (or the ones Florida and Alabama currently hold on us) it takes more than one win. Changing the culture and changing the rivalry means you have to win more than just once every seven years; individual victories are good only as long as the players who were there that day are on your sideline. If James Franklin and Vanderbilt really want to turn this rivalry, they have to win two in a row. The last time that happened? 1925-26 at the end of an eight year winless streak for the Vols before General Neyland roamed the sideline. If Vanderbilt wants Tennessee's respect over more than a 365 day period, they'll have to win two years in a row.
Vanderbilt is also playing for something greater than the Liberty or Music City bowls. The Dores will be playing this holiday season once again under Franklin's watch. But with a win over Tennessee Vanderbilt can get back to 8-4 and could be in line for a bigger payoff, a clear high-water mark for the program in the last three decades.
For Butch Jones and Tennessee, the chance to call Year One a success will die in Knoxville Saturday night if the Vols can't beat Vanderbilt. It's not the big win, but it's clearly the most important game we've played since then. For the rivalry, but for the momentum and direction of the program, and for a fanbase that's been dying to feel good about life between December and September, Tennessee needs this game.
We've been here before, of course. Derek Dooley faced the Dores in a game he really needed two years ago:
You can't arrive by beating Vanderbilt; this isn't the win that's supposed to make us all believe in Derek Dooley. The end result is still miles and miles ahead. But a win like this - the way it happened - against what I'm prepared to call a good Vanderbilt team can make such a difference for this team and this program.
Eric Gordon's overtime pick six made us feel, in the moment, like everything was going to be okay. Such an assumption can clearly be killed in Lexington, as we well know. But all the good the Vols did against South Carolina and in winning the games they were supposed to win earlier this year can all slip away if Tennessee loses this game. It won't be the full buy-in or fold either way with Butch Jones, who's still recruiting his butt off while helping this team grow. But the Vols need a bowl bid for both the extra practice and the forward momentum. And Tennessee needs to recapture the spark it had in October, when everyone was on board with Butch Jones (and Missouri and Auburn seemed like much smaller threats).
Will Vanderbilt turn this rivalry in their favor for the first time in almost a century? Or will Tennessee finish what they started this season?
Welcome to an unexpected but much needed rivalry week. Go Vols.