Vanderbilt-Tennessee: The rivalry no one wants to call a rivalry

We pause this rivalry for a period of reconstruction.

Vanderbilt and Tennessee play for the 108th time Saturday (6 p.m., Knoxville, ESPN2) but coaches James Franklin and Butch Jones currently have no interest in the idea that success or failure in this one contest has a significant impact on how the entire season is viewed. Neither has advanced his program beyond the point that they will take success anywhere they can get it and failure is framed as a lesser form of success.

“People call it a rivalry. I don’t think it’s at that point yet,” Franklin said. “It hasn’t been as competitive as it needs to be to considered a rivalry at this point. But I know a lot of people are excited about this game.”

The foundation of college football is games such as the Iron Bowl, the Egg Bowl, the Red River Rivalry or Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. They are what keep fans interested from one year to the next, provide the bulk of bragging rights and generate the deepest passions among their fan bases.

Vanderbilt and Tennessee might not be an iconic game but it dates back to 1892 and it is the premier college football game between institutions in this state.

“It is a big game, it is a critical game because it is the next game on our schedule,” Jones said. “We are working to get to win number five. That is the way we approach it. It is big because it is the next game. … For us, it is just another opportunity to compete and go out there and work to play our best football game, which we have yet to play to date.”

Tennessee needs to win its final two games in order to return to a bowl game after a two-year absence. Vanderbilt already has won enough to make it to a bowl game for the third straight year and match the number of bowls in which it had appeared prior to Franklin’s arrival.

“We have a tremendous amount of respect for what they have been able to accomplish,” Jones said. “… I have been able to watch it from a far, I have been able to compete against them and [have] some friends on that staff. They are a good football team.”

That’s not exactly the stuff that stirs the souls of his fan base, but it’s the appropriate amount of respect from a program that is in no position to talk tough. Franklin offered similar sentiments on Jones and his staff but did not say how many times he thinks his Commodores need to win in order to up the ante.

If Vanderbilt wins Saturday, it will be the first time since 1925 and 1926 it took two in a row. Last season the Commodores rolled 41-18, a result that sealed former coach Derek Dooley’s fate and led to Jones’ eventual hiring.

Prior to that, the Volunteers had won 28 of 29.

“I think it’s good for the state,” Franklin said. “I think it’s good for Vanderbilt. I think it’s good for Tennessee. I think it’s good for the SEC. There’s no doubt about it. You’d love for it to be a rivalry and those games are fun because there’s so much riding on it. But at this point, I wouldn’t characterize it as one.”

Not everyone is convinced.

“I’m hearing it from everybody, from family to friends,” Vanderbilt tackle Wesley Johnson, a Nashville native, said. “It comes from all directions. … I guess for the fans and for the program it’s a rivalry game. But as players we kind of – same as always – treat it one game at a time just like any other game.”