Vanderbilt football has earned its shot at Tennessee — and the stakes are high
It would've been hard to fathom, two weeks ago, that Vanderbilt football would be on a collision course with Tennessee — and the stakes matter for both teams.
Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5 SEC) can earn bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018 while also dashing the College Football Playoff hopes for No. 5 Tennessee next Saturday at FirstBank Stadium. All because the Commodores have suddenly turned a 26-game SEC losing streak into back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Florida, turning the corner right when the season was on the brink of unravelling.
"I can't say enough about this being a new era in Vanderbilt football, this being a point that we'll look back on and see where the shift happened," coach Clark Lea said after Saturday's 31-24 win over the Gators. "And that does not mean we've arrived. This is another step in our journey. But we're starting to see what's possible here."
Running back Ray Davis rushed for 122 yards on 30 attempts against Florida, quarterback Mike Wright threw three touchdowns and linebacker/safety CJ Taylor made 10 tackles with a quarterback hurry, one official pass breakup and two other breakups on 2-point conversion attempts. Vanderbilt took control of the game early and never looked back, never trailing after scoring its first touchdown five minutes into the second quarter.
Tennessee will, of course, be an uphill battle. The Vols have one of the top offenses in the country and prior top-10 opponents Georiga, Alabama and Ole Miss ran the Commodores off the field. Vanderbilt has also long struggled with fan attendance as Vols fans aim to "checker Vandy," a fan-led effort to turn FirstBank Stadium into orange and white checkers. Lea, never one to stir the rivalry pot, said right now the focus is more internal.
"Hopefully, people are paying attention to what we're doing," Lea said. "And all we can do is, again, focus on what's inside this program, focus on each other and in what we're building here, and over time, people will take notice of that. And so we're going to put our energy on our performance so that we can strengthen and be ready for a great fight next weekend."
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The Vanderbilt team that beat Florida on Saturday hardly resembles the one that took it on the chin in those losses to top-10 opponents. The Commodores leaned hard on their biggest strengths: Davis, the run game, stopping short-yardage plays. The special teams played a nearly flawless game: Matt Hayball pinned three punts inside the 10-yard line, including one that was muffed and recovered for a touchdown by long snapper Wesley Schelling. Joe Bulovas made four extra points and a field goal. And Jayden McGowan gained 62 yards on his two returned kicks.
Most of all, this Vanderbilt team played with a new confidence: the confidence to play from ahead against a better team and to not let it slip away.
"I think (the key) was for us to stay poised, staying focused," Davis said. " ... Not trying to meet everybody else's expectations. Stay focused on who we are, and do what we have to do to succeed."
Before the season, Lea made waves for saying Vanderbilt would have "the best program in the country." Early in the season, he said the team's plan was to be playing in a bowl game. Now, after two program-changing wins, what he meant is starting to show.
Now, it's just the Vols who stand in the way.
Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @aria_gerson.