Rivalry gives Tennessee, Vanderbilt plenty of motivation
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee hasn't forgotten the feeling it had the last time Vanderbilt visited Neyland Stadium.
When Vanderbilt came to Knoxville two years ago, the Commodores came from behind to beat Tennessee 14-10 on Patton Robinette's 5-yard touchdown run with 16 seconds left. Tennessee's upperclassmen head into Saturday's game eager to make sure this matchup ends differently.
''You just try to remember the way you felt,'' Tennessee safety Brian Randolph said. ''You never want to feel that way again.''
Much has changed for both programs since.
Vanderbilt endured a coaching switch after the 2013 season and hasn't come close to matching the success it enjoyed under James Franklin, who led the Commodores to two straight Top 25 finishes before leaving for Penn State. Vanderbilt's Derek Mason has gone 7-16 in two seasons.
The Commodores (4-7, 2-5) have been more competitive this season and rank 14th among all Football Bowl Subdivision programs in defense. But they're scoring just 14 points per game, the lowest average in the nation.
A win over Tennessee (7-4, 4-3) would represent the biggest win of Mason's tenure.
''I believe this football team has made great strides this year, but we look at this and we want to be relevant, relevant for a lot of reasons,'' Mason said. ''It's about recruiting. It's about being able to stand up in this state and realize that we're moving in the right direction. And I believe this program is moving in the right direction.''
Tennessee has more tangible evidence that it's moving forward.
The Vols beat Vanderbilt 24-17 last year and went on to end a string of four straight losing seasons. They already have assured themselves of another winning record this year. A victory over Vanderbilt would give Tennessee its first eight-win season since 2007.
''It would mean a lot to this program,'' Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. ''My class talked about getting Tennessee back on the map when we got here. That's what we've been striving for every day.''
Here are some things to watch when Tennessee hosts Vanderbilt.
HOW IT STARTS: To have a shot at the upset, Vanderbilt must make sure Tennessee doesn't race to a big lead early. Tennessee has outscored teams 106-45 in the first quarter, while Vanderbilt has been outscored 45-16 in the opening period. Although Tennessee was ahead in each of its four losses this year and blew leads of at least 13 points in each of its three defeats, Vanderbilt may not have the firepower on offense to erase a double-digit deficit. ''If I had the magic formula for it, if I had the elixir, believe me it'd be in the locker,'' Mason said of Vanderbilt's early struggles.
MASON'S DEFENSE: Mason assumed responsibility for calling Vanderbilt's defense in the Commodores' season finale last year against Tennessee, and he's turned them into one of the nation's stingiest units. Vanderbilt ranks 14th in scoring defense and allows only 18.1 points per game. Tennessee coach Butch Jones calls Vanderbilt ''as good of a defensive football team as we've faced.''
TENNESSEE'S RETURN UNITS: Tennessee's Evan Berry is the nation's leading kickoff returner and has three touchdowns and an average of 39.6 yards per attempt. Tennessee's Cam Sutton ranks fourth in the nation in punt return average this season, and he scored on a 76-yard punt return against Vanderbilt last year. Sutton and teammate Alvin Kamara both have touchdowns on punt returns this year.
DUELING RUNNING BACKS: This game features two 1,000-yard rushers in Tennessee's Jalen Hurd and Vanderbilt's Ralph Webb. Hurd has run for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Webb has run for 1,003 yards and five touchdowns and averages 3.9 yards per rush. Hurd rushed for 151 yards on 34 carries to set career highs in both categories last week against Missouri.
TALE OF TWO KICKERS: Vanderbilt's awesome defense and awful offense suggest there may not be many touchdowns scored in this game, increasing the importance of the kickers. Tennessee's Aaron Medley has bounced back from his early-season struggles to make eight of his last nine field-goal tries, while Vanderbilt's Tommy Openshaw hasn't attempted a field goal in the Commodores' last four games. Openshaw is 12 of 19 and Medley 17 of 26 overall.
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.