This is a rare position for Vanderbilt — one the Commodores hope stands up.
For just the second time since 1985, Las Vegas oddsmakers have Vanderbilt as the team to beat against Tennessee. The Commodores are a one-point favorite going into their matchup, 6 p.m. Saturday at Knoxville (ESPNU).
Like in 2008, the last time Vanderbilt was last favored (but lost), the Commodores (5-5, 2-7 SEC) enter with a better record. Tennessee (4-6, 0-6) has lost five of six and sits in the basement of the SEC East.
“Yeah, there is probably a different feel around it,” Vanderbilt offensive lineman Wesley Johnson said. “But we’re just focusing on what we can control.”
What they can control is their bowl fate.
If Vanderbilt wins Saturday it will be bowl eligible for the second time in 29 years. It also will remove the pressure of having to clinch a berth in the regular-season finale at Wake Forest the next week.
History is against the Commodores. When trying to get that elusive sixth win in a season against Tennessee, Vanderbilt is 4-14-1 with the last victory coming in 1935. Tennessee leads the overall series 72-28-5. The Volunteers have won five straight and 27 of the last 28 meetings, dating back to 1982.
“To be very honest, and I don’t want to offend anybody, but it is probably more of a rivalry for us than it is for them,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “A rivalry, I think, needs to be extremely competitive. To be honest with you, they have had a lot of success.”
This season, though, the Volunteers have had their fair share of struggles. A young squad has had to fight through inconsistencies at quarterback, injuries, an anemic running game, a lackluster defense.
As a result, their string of three straight bowl appearances is in danger. Though they won six games last year in Derek Dooley’s first season as head coach, They were 3-5 in the conference and have yet to earn a signature conference victory under him.
A loss to Vanderbilt — even in a year such as this — would add to Dooley and Tennessee’s woes.
“This one game is not going to impact our entire program the next three years. I'm not approaching it that way,” Dooley said. “It's a big game for this season, because if we lose we don't go to a bowl. That’s a big thing.”
If the Volunteers “upset” Vanderbilt on Saturday, their road to a bowl would become a lot easier. They end the season at hapless Kentucky (4-6, 1-5), which has lost 26 straight to Tennessee.
Again, history is on the Vols’ side. Vanderbilt has won just once in Knoxville since 1975 — in 2005 with current Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler leading the way.
The last time Vanderbilt went into Neyland Stadium with a better record than Tennessee was back in 1955. It lost.
The Commodores hope this time the odds really are in their favor.
“I know it has been a pretty lopsided meeting between the two schools, so anytime we have a chance to go get a win over a team in the same state, it's going to be a good opportunity,” Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers said. “It is just another game for us to go and prove how much better we have gotten this year.”