Previewing Tennessee-Vanderbilt, and naming the rivalry

Despite not having an official name, the Vanderbilt-Tennessee rivalry has existed since 1892 and another chapter will be written today.


Hunter Long

Dayo Odeyingbo after making a tackle against the University of Tennessee in 2019. (Hustler Multimedia/Hunter Long)

Aiden Rutman, Staff Writer

Today, Vanderbilt and Tennessee will face off in Knoxville for the 116th edition of this unnamed rivalry. Vanderbilt sits at 2-9, seventh in the SEC east. Tennessee boasts a 6-5 record, good for third in the SEC east. Vanderbilt, who remained winless last season in the SEC, is facing a similar threat, with this game as their only chance to achieve their first in-conference victory since October of 2019. 

All of the best college football rivalries have names. Ole Miss and Mississippi State have “The Egg Bowl.” Michigan and Ohio State have “The Game.” Alabama and Auburn have “The Iron Bowl.” The list continues on. So, it’s a major surprise to see that Vanderbilt and Tennessee have gone more than 100 years without giving their matchup a title.

Tennessee has dominated the matchup historically, winning 77 matchups to Vanderbilt’s 33. Vanderbilt started hot, winning 14 of their first 15 matchups, but since then, it’s been almost all Tennessee, including a 22-game win streak from the 1980s to the 2000s. The past decade of contests, however, have been even, deadlocked at five wins each. The Volunteers, who have won the previous two matchups by 18 and 25, respectively, will look to extend their win streak to three on Saturday.

It will certainly be an uphill battle if Vanderbilt wants to win against its rival for the first time since 2018, but it isn’t impossible. Vanderbilt’s rushing offense has been effective as of late. With Mike Wright under center, the offense has a completely different identity, centered especially around running the ball with Patrick Smith and Rocko Griffin. Last week against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt churned out 213 yards on the ground, one of their best rushing performances of the year. If they desire any success against Tennessee, whose defense is allowing the fifth-most rush yards in the SEC, they’ll have to continue this trend. 

Tennessee boasts an extremely high octane offense that can run or pass at essentially any given time, so scoring points in this game, especially against Vanderbilt’s bottom ranked defense, should come easy. Not only is Vanderbilt’s aforementioned run-game going to have to step up, but the passing offense is going to have to improve. They’re currently ranked last in the SEC, with only 188 yards per game. Fortunately, the Volunteers are allowing the second most passing yards per game in the SEC at 255, so if the Commodores were to find their groove throwing the ball, this would be the game to do it. 

Tennessee is an extremely improved team this year under first year head coach Josh Heupel, and they’ve surpassed expectations—already qualifying for a bowl game. The Commodores enter the game as a 31.5-point underdog, not uncommon for the Commodores, who have lost all but one of their SEC matchups by two touchdowns or more. 

Now, to name the game. The state of Tennessee is known as the “Volunteer State”, so something like the “Vol Bowl” would ordinarily work, if one of the two teams weren’t already named the Volunteers. In previous years, fans have suggested the I-40 bowl, named after the highway that fans travel across to attend the games, or even the Smoky Mountain Bowl, named after the famous mountains throughout Eastern Tennessee. In the end, there’s one thing that Tennessee is especially fond of, one thing that’s a major part of the state’s identity, and that’s country music. So, it only seems appropriate to name the Tennessee-Vanderbilt rivalry the Country Music Bowl.