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VOL. 37 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 29, 2013

Freaky Saturday: Vols, Commodores have swapped identities

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Vanderbilt reserve quarterback Johnny McCrary (2) and linebacker Oren Burks celebrate after Vanderbilt defeated Tennessee 14-10 for its second consecutive win against the Vols.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Zaleski

In watching Saturday night’s epic struggle (emphasis on “struggle”) between Tennessee and Vanderbilt, one thought came to mind regarding these two football programs.

As Vanderbilt finished beating Tennessee for its first two-game winning streak in the series since 1925-26 – think Calvin Coolidge as president and Babe Ruth still a year away from his 60 home run season – it occurred to me that the programs have essentially swapped roles.

Vanderbilt has become Tennessee, and Tennessee has become Vanderbilt.

Those words probably won’t sit well with the fan bases of either team, but once you examine where they are compared to where they have been for most of the past few seasons, it may be hard to acknowledge, but it’s also tough to deny.

Let’s start with Vanderbilt, since to the victor go the spoils. Credit must go to James Franklin for changing the culture on West End enough that the Commodores have shed their nearly four-decade reputation as the laughingstock of the SEC and are now bowl bound for the third consecutive season.

How are the Commodores doing it?

Sorry, Vandy fans, but Franklin is turning things around in Nashville by replicating a formula the Vols patented for years under Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer.

In many a season, Tennessee’s schedule would begin with brutally tough games against Florida, Georgia and Alabama. In most of those years, Tennessee would hit November with a 5-3 or 4-4 mark, and then reap the benefits of a schedule that was backloaded with patsies like Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Memphis.

The Vols would then run the table, go to a middling bowl game and then spin forward into how promising the next year would be from that late momentum that would be the talk of the off-season.

Consider Vanderbilt, which has now won eight consecutive November games.

The Commodores actually took UT’s old formula a game or two farther last year, taking advantage of a struggling Auburn team and welcoming mighty Massachusetts to Dudley Field.

The Commodores then bested Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Wake Forest before topping North Carolina State in a bowl game to finish with nine wins, their most since 1915.

Certainly, for a program like Vanderbilt – the doormat of the conference and sometimes the nation with scores of two- and three-win seasons over the years – times are good. But even those good times must be kept in the proper perspective, as the Commodores have risen from the bottom to the second tier of the Southeastern Conference.

Which brings us to the Vols.

Times are hard in Knoxville, and losing for the consecutive year to Vanderbilt might be rock bottom for a proud program that has fallen so far it has produced only one winning season in the last six.

That the winning season came under the direction of Lane Kiffin in 2009 only makes it worse.

Tennessee was once a source of stability within the Southeastern Conference.

Yes, as explained above, many of those winning seasons came thanks to a favorable late-season schedule, but there is no denying UT was one of the stronger teams in the league.

From 1964-2007, Tennessee employed only four head coaches – Doug Dickey, Bill Battle, Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer.

But counting Fulmer’s final year, the Vols are now on their fourth head coach in six years. In other words, the Vols are burning through coaches the way Vandy once did, and they are paying the price.

Bad hires like Kiffin and Derek Dooley have quickly eroded the foundation fortified during those 45 seasons of Dickey through Fulmer.

Butch Jones may yet restore Tennessee to prominence within the conference, but Saturday night proved that’s a task that probably won’t be completed in just one or two off-seasons.

And quite frankly, Butch, that fourth-and-19 fake field goal with kicker Michael Palardy throwing back across his body looked like something straight out of former Vanderbilt coach Woody Widenhofer’s playbook.

Yes, Tennessee’s incoming recruiting class, headlined by Beech High star Jalen Hurd, is being heralded as one of the two or three best in the country.

But bad college teams often hang their hat on an incoming freshman class the same way bad NFL teams tout their high draft picks as franchise saviors.

With rare exception, you have to wait until those classes are juniors and seniors – and stock a couple of other good classes around them – in order to truly turn things around.

And to do that, Tennessee fans will have to exhibit something Vandy fans know about better than anyone - the patience to let the rebuilding process run its course rather than opt for a short-sighted quick fix.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is a blogger for National Football Post.