Vandy up, UT down — are the end times upon us? 

Orange Crushed

Orange Crushed

It is, perhaps, our state's most treasured piece of college football lore. Apocryphal or not, the story goes that in 1926, Nathan Dougherty hired Gen. Robert Neyland to coach the University of Tennessee football team. Dougherty gave the General one instruction: "Do something about that series with Vanderbilt."

At the time, the Commodores were the powerhouse, the Volunteers the also-rans. The story is held up as a matter of pride by both fan bases. The Big Orange faithful repeat with the glee the tale of the early days of their most storied coach; Vandy fans love the legend, too, because it harkens back to sepia-toned days when they, and not the hulking state school, were the pride of Tennessee.

Neyland, by the way, retired with a 16-3-2 record against Vandy and made Tennessee a powerhouse. Whether it's correlative or causative, Vandy became an afterthought. Now the teams square off for the 107th time Saturday, and this one is different from most.

This year, Vanderbilt is a solid favorite.

In a year prognosticators pegged as a tough one on West End — the football equivalent of a market correction — James Franklin's team is 6-4 with a conference record of 4-3. Vanderbilt will be bowl-eligible in consecutive years for the first time and will finish at .500 or better in the SEC for only the fourth time since 1955.

Meanwhile, the Volunteers are reeling. UT needs wins Saturday and next week at Kentucky to get to a bowl eligible 6-6. And as yet, Derek Dooley's team hasn't won an SEC game.

Dooley's tenure in Knoxville is all but over. He's a smart guy who got put in a tough situation, asked to steady the program in its post-Kiffen nightmare. But he's been unable to crawl out of that morass.

Word spread like a virus Sunday that he'd already been shown the door, though it seems he's survived to coach Saturday, at least.

After decades of being considered one of the top programs in the conference — competing with the Floridas and Alabamas of the world — UT is now propping up the conference cellar.

And athletic director Dave Hart may have very well given Dooley the same instructions Dougherty gave Neyland: Beat Vanderbilt.

That's no easy task, not this year.

If there's one overarching change Franklin has made, it's that the current crop of Commodores don't give up.

In years past, Vandy finding itself down 17 in the second half — as they were Saturday at Ole Miss — would have been recipe for disaster. All too often, the Commodores watched teams sprint past them and never gave chase.

For years, for decades, to win Vandy had to play in the margins, hope for good fortune and hold on tight. In worse times, a 17-point deficit was as insurmountable as Annapurna. Now it's just a hillock.

Whether he's abrasive or inspirational — and that opinion is largely dictated by the color of your car flag — Franklin has his charges always believing they can compete.

Meanwhile in Knoxville, Derek Dooley's orange pants are singeing from the heat of his seat. The cocky swagger the Volunteers had for years has been replaced by constant worry, the tension that comes with always worrying the wheels are about to fly off the bus.

General Neyland, you have been replaced by general malaise.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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