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Column: Suddenly, Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt becomes the biggest of the season

The result against Vanderbilt will tell us what we need to know.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 Tennessee at South Carolina Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d write. It’s almost bizarre to even theorize about it. But the more I say it and examine it, I think it’s true.

Saturday’s game against the Vanderbilt Commodores will be one of the biggest yet for Josh Heupel and the Tennessee Volunteers.


How did a team that beat Florida, LSU, Kentucky, and Alabama in the same season get to this crossroads? Why does the Vanderbilt game now have immense weight to it?

It started sometime after the clock hit zero in Williams-Brice stadium last Saturday.

With playoff hopes now officially vanquished, and NY6 bowl hopes on thin ice, you could argue there’s not much else left to play for. Tennessee’s stated goals that amassed after the Alabama victory have basically all been terminated with the 63-38 calamity. They still have a decent shot at an NY6 bowl. But that’s a far cry from where we were last Friday.

That means players are going to check out. It’s the nature of the sport. There’s going to be guys who are now looking forward to the NFL draft, or the transfer portal, or what have you.

Those guys cannot be on the field next Saturday. No matter what position they play or how good they’ve been. If they trot out a bunch of players giving 50%, they’re going to lose to Vanderbilt just like they lost to South Carolina.

How did it get here?

A strange feeling...

This is hard to put into words, but I think a lot of fans would agree with me.

Something felt off about this team’s mentality on Saturday.

Heupel made an interesting comment in the postgame. His exact words were this, when speaking about how the loss stung. Emphasis mine.

“For us, and this program, this one needs to hurt on the way back. It needs to hurt for guys that aren’t on this trip, that will be in our building tomorrow afternoon and will be there on Monday.”

It was announced pregame that Jeremy Banks would not make the trip to Columbia. No reason stated. Speculation has been rampant, but no cause given. In his Monday press conference, Heupel refused to elaborate.

“We anticipate Jeremy being with us here this week,” Heupel said on Monday. “As far as what transpired and those type of things, at the end of the day, he wasn’t available this (past) Saturday.”

Add in to last week’s bizarre Cedric Tillman unavailability, and I’m having a weird sense that there’s been more locker room “management” than we thought necessary. I’m trying not to speculate too much and call out players who may have nothing to do with it. For all we know, it may be isolated incidents. Maybe Tennessee just came out flat and had a bad game.

But from a peanut gallery viewpoint, some of this stuff is starting to add up. Random unavailability not related to injury; player frustration pouring over onto the field; poor efforts against lackluster teams. What exactly is going on behind the scenes?

In some ways, Kamal Hadden can be used as a microcosm of the issues we see arising.

Hadden had probably the worst game of any secondary player we’ve seen this year. Complete unwillingness to get physical, picked on all night by a quarterback, etc. Yet despite all that—Hadden was acting as if he was playing a good game.

Which sequence was your favorite? The one where he had a delayed reaction to a receiver catching a screen, who then ran seven yards for a first down, only to see Hadden flexing after he “tackled” him? Personally, I was fond of the one where Aaron Beasley made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, Hadden didn’t even touch the ball carrier (he actually tried to spear him with his helmet but missed), and Hadden then started jawing. Or maybe you’re a fan of the blatant pass interference, followed up by disbelief that the ref could throw the flag on him.

Hadden isn’t the issue of course. He’s one of the issues, but he’s not the reason the secondary looks like JV bench players when they face a quarterback with two eyes and at least one arm. I’m just pointing out that it’s frightening how Hadden is apparently the best option they have.

So what does it say that Hadden feels comfortable doing what he did?

Those that fail to learn from history...

This was a long winded way of getting here, but I hope you see why I’m fascinated by this Vanderbilt game. Tennessee needs to show that they’ve still got players who want to compete. If the Volunteers go into Nashville and leave with a loss, it’s going to be a really frightening omen for the next couple of years.

We all remember 2016. We don’t want to keep bringing up the past, but we all know how it turned out. A promising team, with tons of momentum, flaming out at the end of the year and coming to a disappointing halt.

For Heupel and the team to keep their momentum going, they cannot lose to Vanderbilt. They need to finish 10-2 (which would be Tennessee’s best regular season in 17 years) and hope for the best possible bowl selection. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It can be an ugly win, even. Hooker is out, so no one will fault you for not looking 100%.

On the flip side, losing to Vanderbilt would provoke a lot of uncomfortable questions. We would have to seriously ponder why Tennessee’s team collapsed so sharply to end what should have been an encouraging season. We’d also have to question which players were really playing for their team/pride, and which ones were just playing for a draft grade.

This team has to show us something. Vanderbilt is quickly gaining steam and looking competent under Clark Lea. Despite that, Tennessee is still the better team. They have more talent, they’ve played better for most of the year, and they are the favorites for a reason. But if they come out with the same mentality they did against South Carolina, they’re going to lose.

I sure hope you didn’t plan on a relaxing Saturday after Thanksgiving.