NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Eleven games into the 2021 season, and with one more to go, the Commodores are hoping to go out with that metaphorical bang by putting together 60 minutes of its best football while knowing that when the clock hits 00:00 Saturday the journey for Team 1 on the field will be complete.
Vanderbilt’s matchup at Tennessee at 2:45 p.m. CT Saturday will be the culmination of a trying four months in which Vandy has experienced far more lows than highs. But it’s a timeframe that has also been a major building block in creating the foundation of a new Vanderbilt football.
“This team has grown so much. Hopefully we’re hitting our stride at the right time,” Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said after Wednesday’s practice. “Any time it’s the last time – teams never stay the same. Next year there is going to be new players and there is going to be new whatever.
“Just with Team 1 and with guys that have gone through a serious transition here, it’s a great opportunity to try to end the season on a high note. Throw it in that you’re playing a rivalry and it’s definitely an exciting week.”
There will be no bowl game for Vanderbilt in 2021 or chance to finish with a winning record. The Dores will also finish last in the SEC East for the third consecutive season.
Some of the sting of that narrative can be soothed if Vandy handles business Saturday against its arch-rival, a program head coach Clark Lea grew up cheering against before playing against as a Vanderbilt fullback from 2002-04.
“Our focus is going to be on us and it’s going to be on how we bring a level of performance to the game Saturday that allows us to win the game,” he said. “We know the challenges Tennessee will present. We know the emotions that will be a part of this game. We embrace that. We’ll have fun with that.
“But in the end it’s going to be about do we have the ability to interlock all three phases? Do we have the ability to focus on the small details that will unlock that winning performance? That needs to be the aggregate of all our learning this season. I’ll be excited to see that come to fruition on Saturday.”
Wright threw for a career-high 241 yards at No. 10 Ole Miss in his last outing and ran for 61 yards. The Atlantan is now second on the team in rushing yards (367), 156 passing yards away from 1,000 for the season and has completed 53.5 percent of his 144 throws.
He’ll lead a Vanderbilt offense into Neyland Stadium that is coming off its best game of the season. Vandy’s 454 yards at Ole Miss was a season-high and, for the first time in 2021, the Commodores had more than 200 yards rushing and passing in the same game.
Vanderbilt quarterbacks coach Joey Lynch is hoping for a repeat of that performance.
“We had great balance,” he said. “When you can run it and throw it you naturally can keep the defense off balance. I thought we did a good job of that mixing the run and pass and (Wright) doing a good job of really taking what they were giving us. That’s something we got to continue.
“We were better in our third and fourth down conversions, but we had too many. Really good offensive teams don’t get to third down. We just got to put it together on first and second down to limit the number of third downs.”
Defensively, Vanderbilt (2-9, 0-7 SEC) has tried to tread water for the majority of the season and, at times, has done enough to keep the Dores in the game. The team’s 13 interceptions is its most since 2018 and its ability to get third-down stops (now holding the opposition 36.3 percent of the time which ranks 42nd nationally) has improved week-by-week.
Minter is wanting his unit to not only continue the third-down success but to force the opponent into more third-down situations. He’s also yearning to see a young and relatively thin defensive roster lay one final brick to the groundwork for what’s to come.
“I think over the course of the year we’ve sort of figured out maybe what the best style of for us is. I think at times it’s a mix of being aggressive and coming after people and we’ve also dropped eight. So we’ve sort of tried to find a good balance of mixing up stuff on the teams,” he said. “I think guys, as the year has gone on, have a much better understanding of the system and what we’re asking them to do. Technically and fundamentally we’ve gotten a lot better as the year has gone on.
“I think it’s exciting. Any time you see progress and then you know you got a lot of guys coming back, it’s exciting with the progress we’ve made and looking forward to making a huge jump and continuing to move forward.”
As for the game itself, the 116th installment of Vanderbilt-Tennessee, the Commodores didn’t mince words Wednesday when discussing the rivalry. Veterans Maxwell Worship and Ben Bresnahan each said this game does mean a bit more than the previous 11 on the schedule.
Those two are among the four-year seniors who were true freshmen the last time the Commodores beat the Volunteers (6-5, 3-4 SEC). Now they’re intent on breaking a two-game slide against their enemies from the East and have been relaying to the younger Dores just how crucial this matchup is.
Worship also expressed his desire to see everything click for the Commodores in the finale.
“I’m excited to see everything come together. I’m excited to see the defense come together. I’m excited to see how the offense plays. I’m excited to see Mike Wright play. I’m excited to see just how we put everything together that we’ve accumulated over these past couple of games,” he said. “I’m really confident in our team’s ability and what we have and what we’re capable of doing. I think we’re going to show that this upcoming weekend.”
Tennessee, with its own first-year head coach in Josh Heupel, is already eligible to play in a bowl game this postseason and will be going for a seven-win season for the second time in five years. The Volunteers will also be honoring their seniors during their eighth home game of the campaign.
Vanderbilt could spoil all that with what would be a third win in Knoxville since 2013.
“It’s Week 12 and we’re going to leave it all out on the field,” Lynch said, “and the kids know that.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.