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Tennessee-Vanderbilt is a rivalry — just not the rivalry we all want

Does Tennessee and Vanderbilt constitute a real rivalry?

If you look through all the games in the history of the Tennessee Volunteers and Vanderbilt Commodores football programs, there is a lot of orange. The Vols lead the series 76-33-5 (the last tie came in 1974). This is a rivalry by virtue of geography, with both teams residing in the same state. The team in Knoxville boasts the title of big brother in many ways, but over the last decade, there hasn’t been quite as much orange in the win column as there once was. This is less a product of little brother growing up, and more a product of big brother shrinking.

On Twitter, there seems to be a lot of talk about how fans can’t believe we’re grappling with the possibility Tennessee could lose to Vanderbilt. But, as I look at the history of this rivalry, Vandy won three consecutive years between 2016 and 2018, and have won five of the last eight times these two teams met.

Now, I understand that this isn’t the same caliber Vanderbilt squad as those years. This year’s Vandy team is currently 0-8 and — barring a win against Tennessee — are barreling towards an exclusively defeated season. Here’s the breakdown of those Commodore teams that have beaten Tennessee recently: Under James Franklin in 2012 and ‘13, Vandy went 9-4. But Vanderbilt’s record wasn’t so sterling the last three years they’ve beaten Tennessee: 6-7 (2016), 5-7 (2017), and 6-7 (2018).

There’s likely a ton of data points to look at when considering why this has been happening, but the simple fact is one that many of you already know: Tennessee football isn’t what it once was.

So, what’s on the line Saturday in Nashville? If Tennessee wins, nothing. They gain virtually nothing besides a win against a winless program, as well as the avoidance of embarrassment. If Tennessee loses, it could very well be Jeremy Pruitt’s job. To me, it seems that many are calling for Pruitt to lose his job, but he still appears to have support among some.

That’s where the fanbase bifurcates: Some think Pruitt simply needs more time; others think he’s had more than enough — that he’s actually just an overpaid defensive coordinator. It’s a harrowing place for a program when they reach this type of crossroads: Where wins mean nothing because they are seemingly never against quality competition; and yet, if the team loses, things become exponentially worse.

To answer my initial question: Is Tennessee and Vanderbilt a rivalry? In particular, is it a rivalry independent of geography? Simply, yes — or, it has become one. If you look at the UTSports website, the longest winning streak in the history of the rivalry from either side is 21 consecutive wins belonging to Tennessee, dating between 1983 and 2004. That’s not a rivalry — that’s a foregone conclusion. But the last 10 matchups have seen a perfect split. Over the last decade, Tennessee is 5-5 against Vanderbilt. To the dismay of Tennessee fans, that’s a rivalry — just not the rivalry they all want.

The 2-6 Vols are currently -15 favorites against the 0-8 Commodores. Tennessee should add a win at the conclusion of Saturday’s 4 p.m. eastern kickoff, but whether or not they’ll cover — whether or not it’ll be decisive or pretty — is another question.