NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For Vanderbilt this week, it’s all about balance.
The balance of embracing the state’s biggest football rivalry while trying to remain centered and focused on the task as hand.
“It’s a game that’s a physical game, it’s a tough game. It’s one of those games where emotions really ride high. With that, you just got to stay in the middle,” Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason said this week. “You got to work hard to stay in the middle in this ballgame because there’s going to be some talk, some banter in the ballgame. You can’t get caught up in your emotions. You got to get caught up in the execution of the game.”
In a matchup that dates to 1892, when the teams played each other twice, Tennessee (6-5, 4-3 SEC) has historically held the upper hand. The Volunteers won 22 straight between 1983-2004 before Jay Cutler threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-24 Vandy win in 2005.
But in this decade the tables have turned. Vandy (3-8, 1-6 SEC) broke a six-game skid in 2012 with a resounding 41-18 victory and has won four of the last six since – including three straight going into Saturday’s contest at 3 p.m. CT at Neyland Stadium.
“Me being from Louisiana, this isn’t a rivalry game I grew up watching. But just being a part of it the last three years, I think we’ve done a good job in creating an atmosphere where people just don’t look at this game, like, ‘OK, Tennessee has got it,’ ” Vanderbilt senior wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb said. “I think over the last three years we’ve made it competitive. Not only have we made it competitive, we’ve shown Vandy’s not something you can just step over as far as it’s not the end of the season and just an automatic win.”
Vanderbilt has only escaped with a victory 12 times when it has traversed east to Knoxville, the last coming in 2017 when Ralph Webb ran for 163 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-24 game. In 2013, quarterback Patrick Robinette scored with 16 seconds to play to give the Dores a 14-10 triumph.
If Mason’s team were able to go into hostile territory and pull off another win, that would mark the first time since 1935 and 1937 that the Commodores have won in back-to-back trips to Knoxville and the first time the program has recorded victories in four straight seasons in the series since a six-game winning streak from 1920-26
“You try to give the history of the game to these guys a little bit. You talk about what it means, what it means to this state,” Mason said. “It’s two teams in this state who both play in the SEC. It divides lines in terms of families. You got Vanderbilt grads, you got Tennessee grads on both sides of those lines. Just trying to get those guys who haven’t really experienced the rivalry yet or understand much about the rivalry some history.”
Mason and the Dores hit the practice fields this week to the backdrop of artificial crowd noise and the song, “Rocky Top,” played on repeat. After all, 102,455 people could be singing that tune come kickoff Saturday.
Vanderbilt has plenty of student-athletes on the 2019 roster who have never experienced the Vandy-Tennessee rivalry, whether they be gradate transfers in their lone season with the program, junior college transfers, redshirt-freshmen or true freshmen. Mason wants all those Commodores to find a way to fight for 60 minutes no matter what the atmosphere becomes Saturday in the latest edition of a heated battle.
“I take pride that this team is going to compete in this ballgame – and that’s what you got to do,” he said. “You got to be able to show up, you got to be able to play big on a big stage. That group is going to take pride in how they play, we have to take pride in how we play. I think this game provides the atmosphere, the opportunity and, really, the stage to do that. It’s going to be on display, but you got to show it. It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another thing to show it.”