This Saturday in Nashville will be the annual meeting of the Tennessee Volunteers and Vanderbilt Commodores. The rivalry is one of the most understated ones in college football, mainly because it has been so lopsided in the Vols' favor for the past 30 years. Vandy, however, has closed the gap.
What are the keys for a Tennessee victory in this otherwise disappointing season?
Putting the talk of Derek Dooley's job status on the back burner is an obvious key. The team will need all of its focus on 6-4 Vanderbilt, whose own head coach, James Franklin, has the players and fanbase enthused like never before.
This once guaranteed win has become a heated confrontation. Let's see what the Vols need to do in order to get the best of this exchange.
Besides being a weak attempt to insult the opponent, this tired old "they're still the same old Vanderbilt" mantra is completely untrue.
The same old Vanderbilt doesn't go to two consecutive bowls. The same old Vanderbilt hasn't had a chance to win eight games for the first time since 1982. The same old Vanderbilt doesn't open as the Las Vegas favorite against Tennessee two years in a row.
If players want to make the new Vanderbilt more like the old, they'll drop this ridiculous phrase and do it on the field. After all, even if this was the same old Vanderbilt, this is not the same old Tennessee.
After an exciting overtime victory last year in Neyland, a celebration video from the locker room leaked. That kind of euphoria doesn't happen after winning games against bad teams. The Commodores have improved, and it's time for the Volunteers to react.
Don't offer up any bulletin board material. Everyone is listening and watching for it:
Vols OL Richardson: "All I know is they're Vanderbilt and we're Tennessee and we're gonna go in there and do what we do."— VandySportscom (@VandySportscom) November 13, 2012
Vanderbilt has given up a slightly below average 1,534 rushing yards this season (Tennessee is second-worst in the SEC with 1,905).
However, two-thirds of those yards have come in just four of Vandy's 10 games, all of them losses. A running game is always important, but it's clearly the blueprint to beating the Commodores.
South Carolina managed just 67 passing yards but rushed for 205 in Week 1. Both Georgia and Florida amassed over 300 rushing yards against Vanderbilt, while Northwestern nearly reached 200.
In losses, Vanderbilt has given up an average of 256 rushing yards. In wins, they've given up just 85.
Rajion Neal, Marlin Lane and the Volunteer offensive line need to have a great game pounding the rock, moving the chains and tallying up time of possession. The long pass will always be there when needed, but if the Vols want to win, a slightly different offensive approach will be necessary.
Jordan Matthews is second in the SEC in receiving yards and receptions. He's one of those names that you hear from time to time but forget all too easily. The Volunteers need to make sure they remember him all game.
Matthews has emerged as one of the conference's best, most reliable targets for Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers. He has five 100-yard receiving games this year. For comparison, Justin Hunter has four.
Matthews has caught at least eight balls six times this year and averages over 14 yards on each catch.
For a secondary that was carved up by the likes of Marcus Lucas and Dorial Green-Beckham in the fourth quarter and overtime last week, it's imperative that they learn from their mistakes. The main lesson is pretty simple: Don't lose track of Matthews.
Byron Moore, whose four interceptions is tied for the conference lead, could help Tennessee by snagging another this weekend. Shading toward Matthews is a good start.
While Tennessee needs to run the ball effectively, the offense as a whole needs to also "do its thing." That means eliminate turnovers, make big plays and put a ton of points on the board.
The Volunteers average 38 points per game, and I've little doubt they'll be able to crack the 30s for a fourth-straight week. Creeping into the 40s would be a big help on Saturday night.
Tyler Bray has developed great chemistry with Cordarrelle Patterson in less than one season, while Justin Hunter's knee injury is moving farther and farther behind him. Tennessee's season has been an extremely tough one, but I implore you to enjoy watching this passing attack while you still can.
If the offense "doesn't do its thing," a loss is inevitable. The 2012 Vols are a team that wins by outscoring opponents. Luckily, I don't see Tennessee's offense being held down for long.
If Tennessee can hold Vanderbilt below 30 points, they'll win. It's that simple. All of these keys are important to winning, but if they all fall by the wayside except this one, Vols win anyways.
The only problem is that Tennessee hasn't done this since September 22nd, when they held Akron to 26.
Fortunately, Vanderbilt hasn't put up a ton of points in the SEC this year, averaging just 16.7 per conference game. That includes an outlier 40-point blowout of Kentucky.
The Commodores' leading rusher Zac Stacy went down with a knee injury last week against Ole Miss. Though it looks as though he'll play, it's unlikely that he'll be 100 percent. The Vols need to take advantage of this and limit Vanderbilt's ball movement.
Maybe I'm being a homer, but the idea of a Tennessee loss Saturday night is more intangible than a Tennessee win.
Tennessee 30 - Vanderbilt 28