NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The final stop on the ride for what Clark Lea & Co. call Team 1 is Knoxville where the latest installment of the Vanderbilt-Tennessee rivalry awaits.
The 116th meeting between the Commodores and Volunteers is scheduled to take place at 2:45 p.m. CT Saturday at Neyland Stadium. It’s a rivalry game that Lea knows from first-hand experience.
“The game means a lot. It’s an emotional game. It’s one that means a lot to me personally. It means a lot to our team,” he said. “We’ve been proud of how our program has performed in this game in the recent past.
“But I think still there’s an element of this year that our focus is on us. This is about Team 1 finishing the season on a high note. This is about us finding our highest level of performance. This is about us pouring into the relationships that we built and have really kind of pulled us through here to the finish and honoring those in the way we fight and the way we play on the weekend. It’s certainly a game that we are excited about and one that we’re always going to be excited for. But I think in Year 1 there’s a special attention to us finishing the job for each other as Team 1 and really hoping to build to a crescendo here at the end.”
Lea will be trying to help the Commodores (2-9, 0-7 SEC) break a two-game skid against Tennessee as well as a six-game losing streak overall. Vandy’s latest setback came at the hand of No. 10 Ole Miss where the Dores fell behind 24-9 in Oxford, Mississippi, and couldn’t string together enough plays together in the second half to complete a comeback.
The hope for Lea is that the lessons from that loss, as well as the last six, combine to allow for his team to finally play 60 minutes of complementary football in the season’s finale.
“This game will mirror last week’s in a lot of ways. This is a very talented, explosive offense that, if given rhythm and the opportunity, can score in chunks,” Lea said. “We’ll need to be a game-control offense that finishes with touchdowns. We we came up with three field goals in the first half against Ole Miss and needed in the second half to punctuate those drives with touchdowns. That’ll be where the focus is this week. Had opportunities to do that.
“Obviously, fell short on a couple of drives — one ending in a fourth-down attempt, one ending in the red zone with an interception there to finish the game. So that’ll be our focus and hopefully we carry over the things that allowed us to establish rhythm.”
Tennessee has had an up-and-down season for first-year head coach Josh Heupel. The Volunteers have scored big wins over Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky, but have also come up well short in matchups with Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
Offense has been the name of the game in 2021 for Tennessee which ranks 15th nationally in yards per game (460.4) and 11th in scoring (38.5 ppg). Quarterback Hendon Hooker has thrown 24 pass touchdowns and is fourth nationally in passing efficient.
“Well, the tempo is a challenge. Obviously coach Heupel is a great offensive mind and they run at hyper-speed,” Lea said. “The quarterback has been really effective for them both throwing the ball and running it and they have skill on the perimeter that can create speed mismatches. So we have to be great at tackling in space. We have to be great in handling the tempo.
“Some of that will be building on the plan we had against Ole Miss, needing to go a little deeper in the execution of that plan. But I think this offense presents some different challenges that will further stress us, and so this is an important week of practice. A great way to shift our focus in preparing for this last game is knowing that we’re going to play against an explosive offense that’s going to put us in tough positions, but also knowing that we have everything we need to make the stops. It’s about focus and execution.”
Vanderbilt and Tennessee will be meeting for the 116th time. The Volunteers lead the series 77-33-5, but the programs have split the previous 10 meetings.
• Lea went 0-3 against the Volunteers as a player losing 24-0 in 2002, 48-0 in 2003 and 38-33 in 2004.
• Vanderbilt punter Harrison Smith ranks 46th nationally with 43 yards per punt.
• The Commodores are still the only team in the SEC to have at least four players with multiple interceptions.
• Vanderbilt has recorded at least one interception in eight straight games having last achieved that feat from Nov. 29, 1997 through Oct. 24, 1998.
• Vanderbilt’s 13 interceptions is its most since the 2018 team recorded 13. The 2013 team picked off 18 passes.
• Bulovas now has 14 made field goals this season tied for the fourth-most in single Vanderbilt season. Carey Spear made a record 20 in 2012.
• The Commodores have lost 20 consecutive SEC games and 13 straight SEC road games.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.