NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Vanderbilt Commodores have a chance Saturday night to crank up the intensity in their rivalry with Tennessee to a level unseen in decades.
Vanderbilt, a three-point favorite, goes into the annual game with the Volunteers already bowl eligible and trying to remain perfect in November.
The Vols desperately need a win over the team they’ve beaten 29 of the past 30 years to have a chance at ending their own bowl drought and give coach Derek Dooley a better chance of keeping his job.
“I know they want to get the ‘W,’ but we really need it more than they do,” Tennessee left tackle Antonio Richardson.
“We’ve just got to go in there with a chip on our shoulder and get this win.”
Tennessee is the team the Commodores love to beat more than any other — but haven’t done it often. This may be their best chance at their first victory in Nashville and a winning record in the regular season for the first time since 1982 — well before any of the current players on either team had been born.
“I’m not sure what the past shows,” Vanderbilt defensive end Johnell Thomas.
“I’m just confident in where this team has come, and where we’re headed right now. That’s pretty much it.”
The Volunteers (4-6, 0-6 Southeastern Conference) traditionally make themselves at home on their trips every other year to Music City, taking over Vanderbilt Stadium with lots of orange and white celebrating yet another win.
Vandy coach James Franklin wants a big turnout of his own, even tweeting out Thursday that the ticket office had been told to only sell to Commodores’ fans the final tickets left.
Senior defensive Johnell Thomas expects plenty of black and gold on hand.
“This fan base has been unbelievable for us this year, unlike anything in the past,” Thomas said. “I’m really confident they’ll be there.”
Franklin has gotten his Commodores (6-4, 4-3) to stay on message focused only on this game. Not the past and not talking of revenge for a 27-21 overtime loss to Tennessee in Knoxville last season when Dooley boasted in the locker room afterward that Tennessee always beats Vandy.
He needs only one win to become the second-most successful coach in his first two seasons at Vanderbilt, noted this program won only four games combined in the two years before he arrived.
“Year two, we’ve done some nice things,” Franklin said. “We’ve still got a long ways to go as a program.”
The Commodores can deal a big blow to their rival just 190 miles east. Of Dooley’s four SEC wins in his three seasons, two came against Vanderbilt. The Commodores already have that many league victories this season.
“We’ve just got to focus on the game at hand, and that’s on Saturday,” Vols receiver Zach Rogers said. “We can’t be worried about what’s going to happen with all that clutter outside of this place. We’ve got to focus on what we have inside that room and continue to fight.”
Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter expects the Commodores to be fired up for kickoff, especially remembering how close they came to winning a year ago.
“We don’t want to lose a game we should win, so we’re going to go in there and fight our tails off,” Hunter said.
The Vols are coming off a 51-48 overtime loss to Missouri in which they blew a 21-7 halftime lead. Vanderbilt rallied from 17 down in beating Mississippi 27-26 on the road for a big boost of confidence.
The SEC’s four best receivers will be on display in this game. Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson average 161.7 yards each game, second only to Vanderbilt’s duo of Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd (168.9 yards). Tyler Bray also has Rodgers and tight end Mychal Rivera as targets, helping him throw for 1,302 yards in just the last three games.
Jordan Rodgers believes Matthews and Boyd are getting better every game.
“To have two guys to know if I miss a ball a couple feet this way or that way that I didn’t want it, they’re still going to be able to make a play ... it’s a good feeling,” Rodgers said.
With Tennessee averaging 495.1 yards total offense and scoring 37.9 points per game, slowing down the Vols seems a tough task. Vanderbilt allows only 18 points per game, blown out only 48-3 by Georgia in September.
“Really all I’m concerned about right now with our team is that they don’t lose their focus on all the things they could be thinking about that won’t help them play well,” Dooley said.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report from Knoxville, Tenn.
Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter at www.teresamwalker