All the facts and figures point to Tennessee being able to overlook Vanderbilt.
Everything the Volunteers are saying proves otherwise.
Hoping to wrap up a spot in the SEC title game, 15th-ranked Tennessee tries to extend its two-plus decades of dominance over the conference-worst Commodores on Saturday.
All the Vols (7-2, 5-1) need to clinch the SEC’s Eastern Division title, and a trip to the Georgia Dome to face second-ranked Auburn for the conference championship, is to win one of their next two games against either Vanderbilt or Kentucky.
The Commodores (2-8, 1-6) share the league’s worst record with the Wildcats, but lost 14-13 at Kentucky last week.
“This could ruin our championship hopes. This could ruin everything if we lose this game,” Tennessee linebacker Kevin Burnett said. “We’re not playing just to play Vanderbilt anymore. This has a lot at stake. We have a ring at stake. It will kill me for us to lose to Vanderbilt.”
Burnett even implied that some Volunteer coaches could lose their jobs unless the team reaches the SEC title game.
While it seems unlikely coach Philip Fulmer’s job is in any jeopardy, Tennessee would clearly be embarrassed by losing to the Commodores.
The Vols have won 21 in a row in this series since losing at Nashville in 1982, the third-longest streak in the nation for any team over a Division I-A opponent. They’ve won the last three meetings by a combined 110-0 score.
Next week, Fulmer’s team closes its regular season playing a Kentucky team it has beaten 19 straight times.
“I guess you only have to win one of the two, but I don’t think anybody here is looking at it that way,” said Fulmer, a former Vanderbilt assistant.
Tennessee has had extra preparation time, and more time to stew, as it enters this game coming off a bye following a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 6.
The off week surely benefitted junior quarterback Rick Clausen as he tries to get acclimated to the offense.
Clausen was the third-string quarterback behind freshmen Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge, and hadn’t attempted a pass all season until the loss to Notre Dame. He completed 10-of-18 for 120 yards with an interception in the second half, taking over after Ainge separated his shoulder on the last play before halftime. Schaeffer broke his collarbone a week earlier.
“I feel like with the talent around me I’m not expected to do a whole heck of a lot,” said Clausen, the younger brother of ex-Vols quarterback Casey Clausen. “The offense is so tremendous that all we need to do is just put the ball in the hands of the athletes and let them have fun with it.”
He’ll likely give the ball a lot to Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs, who have combined to rush for 1,304 yards.
Houston and Riggs are facing a Vanderbilt defense allowing more than 190 yards rushing per game.
The Commodores had one of their better defensive performances last week, holding Kentucky to 289 total yards, but lost on a 25-yard TD pass with 1:39 to play.
Jay Cutler, third on the school’s all-time list with 6,349 yards of total offense, went 16-of-32 for 202 yards with a touchdown and rushed for 25 yards. He has just three interceptions this season and has gone 159 straight passes without throwing one.
It was the Commodores’ fourth loss of the season by three points or fewer and the third time they’ve blown a second-half lead.
“I hope this loss will get our guys fired up, angry and see if we can come out with some purpose and get ready to play the Vols …,” Vandy coach Bobby Johnson said. “They’ve got a lot to play for. We know we’ll get their best effort because they want to get in a good bowl.”