For Tennessee to place themselves among the upper echelon of college football once again, they of course have to beat the Alabama’s, the Georgia’s and the Florida’s of the world.
Despite a decade of despair, heartbreak and mediocrity, beating the SEC elites remains the standard in Knoxville.
But what about the Vanderbilt’s and the Kentucky’s, too?
The Vols lost at unranked Kentucky in 2017, but returned the favor by beating the No. 12 Wildcats convincingly, 24-7 last season. They also went on the road an knocked off a then-ranked Auburn team.
But when it comes to Vanderbilt, Tennessee’s in-state rival, the Vols have found little luck in a series that has been traditionally lopsided since its inception way back in 1892.
Tennessee leads by a wide margin, holding a 75-33-5 edge in the contest, but what everyone remembers in 2019 is the number three.
Three-straight times has the Commodores bested their Tri-State counter parts, with two of those not particularly close.
In 2016, with a Sugar Bowl berth on the line, the more talented Vols couldn’t muster a point in the fourth quarter as Vanderbilt grabbed a bowl-clinching 45-34 win in Nashville. Instead of New Orleans, Tennessee wound up across town in the Music City Bowl.
In 2017, the Vols had nothing on the line other than bragging rights, entering the game with an abysmal 4-7 record. The Commodores aired it out and ran wild in a 42-24 rout.
In 2018, Tennessee needed just one more win to reach a bowl game in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season. There was reason to be confident, thanks to those wins over Kentucky and Auburn, but once again, Vanderbilt came out on top, blasting the Vols 38-13.
Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason had pulled off something no other head coach had done in the program since the early-going of the 19th century: beat Tennessee three consecutive times.
Flash forward to Thursday July, 18 2019 at SEC Media Days in Hoover, where Mason took to the podium and was asked about what those three wins against Tennessee meant for his program.
“For us, it simply means we’re relevant in the SEC East conversation,” Mason said. “I think for us, time and time again, it’s been about trying to make sure that we could keep up with that program.
“There’s a big combat zone going on in the SEC East side of the conference. We’ve got to continue to make sure that we don’t just focus on Tennessee.”
While Tennessee’s unsuccessful stretch from 2008 to the present is not lost on anyone, Mason is right in that having a win streak over the Vols is a benchmark for his own program.
After all, Tennessee has all of the resources that the major conference players like Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M, LSU, etc. have to be great. Vanderbilt does not.
But Mason also made it clear that the division is only getting better as a whole. Georgia continues to pull in top-3 recruiting classes on top of competing for College Football Playoff berths. Florida and Kentucky are coming off of 10-win seasons with proven head coaches. Missouri has garnered a reputation as one the league’s hottest teams in the latter half of the regular season in each of the last two seasons.
According to Mason, Tennessee is making strides under Pruitt and will add to an already strong division, and Vanderbilt can’t afford to hang their hat on past successes.
“Looking at Tennessee, where they’re at, Jeremy Pruitt is doing a good job,” Mason said. “I believe right now this is the best football team I’ve had. I believe Tennessee is making a move, going to make their program better.
“The reality is, it will be about what happens in 2019, not what happened in ‘16, ‘17 and ‘18.”