NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The most-important game of the Clark Lea Era is looming.
Vanderbilt, winners of two straight and one victory away from becoming eligible for a postseason bowl game, hosts arch-rival No. 9 Tennessee at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in what is undoubtedly the most-anticipated game in the second-year head coach’s young tenure.
“My focus right now is on building this program, on the mission of building this program and recognizing exactly where we are and, in the moment, rather than defaulting to the emotions that I feel around the game, certainly the fight to extend our season is really important to us,” Lea said. “I got a group of staff and a group of players that care a lot about each other and care a lot about what we’re building.
“They’ve done a great job positioning us at this point in the season to be within striking distance of a bowl game. Nothing is guaranteed and we’re going to have to earn it this Saturday. That I know.”
Vandy (5-6, 2-5 SEC) has reversed course on its season after dropping five straight. A last-minute, 24-21 win at Kentucky was followed by a 31-24 triumph over Florida at home Saturday. Those victories ended all sorts of long losing streaks for the program and have given Vanderbilt its most victories since 2018 (6).
And all that has presented the Dores with an opportunity that seemed unlikely after a 37-28 defeat Nov. 5 that left the team 3-6 and win 0-5 in league play.
“Our confidence comes from our preparation, but it is obviously great to be coming off back-to-back SEC wins,” Vandy tight end Ben Bresnahan said. “But we’re focused on this week and beating the team from across the state. That’s our main focus this week, and playing at our highest level. Our goal is looking forward to doing that.”
Tennessee had been steamrolling toward a possible berth in the College Football Playoff thanks to an 8-0 start. But a 27-13 loss at No. 1 Georgia on Nov. 5 and a 63-38 defeat at South Carolina this past Saturday ended any hopes of a Volunteers’ national title shot.
To make matters worse, star quarterback Hendon Hooker suffered a season-ending injury against the Gamecocks.
Tennessee still has the nation’s best scoring offense (46.5 ppg) and total offense (540.4), second-best passing offense (348.8) and red zone offense (93.3 percent). But the Volunteers are also the nation’s worst pass defense, average 8.3 penalties per game and one of the SEC’s worst total defenses.
“They try to go fast and get you confused, get you tired so you mess up,” Vandy senior linebacker Anfernee Orji said. “It’s really just up to us to do our jobs, staying structured and everyone doing their 1/11.”
Since 2012, Vanderbilt and Tennessee have split 10 meetings, although the Volunteers have won three straight. Thus, only a few Commodores have ever been present for a Vandy win over the team in orange and white.
This year’s squad is hoping to reverse those fortunes.
“This is a playoff game for us,” Orji said. “Just being able to have the opportunity for another game is just tremendous. Everyone is going to give their all so it’s going to be a fun one.”
- Vanderbilt running back Ray Davis needs 18 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for a season.
- Vandy wide receiver Will Sheppard needs one catch to reach 100 for his career.
- Orji leads with the SEC and is 22nd nationally with 9.4 tackles per game.
- The Commodores need five points Saturday to reach 300 for the season, the first time they will have done that since 2018 (370).
- Vandy currently has three wins over opponents with winning records, the first time that has occurred since 2016 (5).
- With one touchdown Saturday, Vandy would have at least 40 touchdowns in one season for the first time since 2018 (47).
- Vanderbilt opponents are now 10-for-24 on fourth down this season.
- The Commodores are now 30-for-33 in the red zone this season.
- Vanderbilt’s six losses have come against teams with a combined record of 47-19, its five wins have been over teams a combined 26-30 and its 12 opponents are currently a combined 82-51.
- Pittburgh (5) and Western Kentucky (6) are the only two teams with more defensive touchdowns this season than Vanderbilt (4).
- Vandy trails the all-time series against Tennessee 33-78-5.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.