Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee, a rivalry refused

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Just because two SEC programs share state borders doesn't mean they're rivals. Not even if their recent trajectories have shaken up that state's power balance. Right?

KNOXVILLE, TN - The caller's accent is thick and lilting, the kind of Southern drawl you hear on a bad television show set in Savannah.

"The shape that our program has disintegrated to ..."

He enunciates the t's in "disintegrated" with such disgust that you believe this caller is the only one who has not been drinking tonight. It's well past midnight, and the Volunteer radio network draws a woeful broadcast day to a close with a final round of callers airing grievances, all soundtracked with the UT fight song in the background.

"Vanderbilt has not beat us twice in a row since General Neyland was hired. And if I could, I'd like to look Coach Jones in the eye and ask him just two questions: by the time you leave, are you going to win me a SEC title and a national championship? And if you can't, you do need to go."

Butch Jones is 4-7 in just under one season. After 11 games, his job security is in question, per the proletariat of the Smokies.

"I'd like for someone to tell him that this is not Central Michigan. This is not Cincinnati. This is Tennessee, where football is our life. Our religion."

The caller's comment is the kind of statement that launches television networks and sells t-shirts, but it's a less marketable follow-up caller who summarizes Tennessee's plight at the moment.

"I'll tell y'all like it is," the older, hill-country honky lilt declares, "we got beat by some skinny, local-boy quarterback from the mountains, by a coach we might damn sure as just hired last season."

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The skinny mountain boy is Patton Robinette, a 6'4, 212-pound redshirt freshman from just 22 miles due south of Knoxville down Highway 129. Hours before, he shattered the spirit of a mending Volunteer fan base on a fake jump-pass that saw him skip into the end zone to seal a 14-10 Vanderbilt win. It was as cute a play call as it was effective. The Maryville mountain boy danced untouched into the checkerboards, and with a prancing jab, Vanderbilt busted open every fresh scab Jones' high-energy positivity had finally begun to heal.

"I still think we’ve got a long way to go to make it a rivalry, quite honestly," Robinette said afterwards. "They were flashing the all-time record up before the game, and I saw that. But we’re making headway and keeping it competitive."

"I'll let the people outside of our building call it what they want to call it, but I've said it hasn't been a rivalry." -James Franklin

The coach Tennessee "might damn sure as just hired" is James Franklin, a man once deemed delirious by his detractors, then begrudgingly considered an upstart, and now finally, on this cold night in the East Tennessee mountains, an absolute scourge for taking pitiful Vanderbilt to back-to-back wins over Big Orange.

If ever there was a moment to exalt, surely this is that time. And yet ...

"We're excited to be 1-0. This is no different than Austin Peay was in the beginning of the year, and Kentucky, and all the other wins for us," Franklin tells reporters after the game, killing any hope of a grand water-cooler moment for college football fans across the state.

"We're 1-0 this week, and we're really excited to be 1-0. I'll let the people outside of our building call it what they want to call it, but I've said it hasn't been a rivalry, because it hasn't been as competitive as it needs to be long-term. I'll let everybody else decide that."

This particular 1-0 is more. For the first time since polio was vaccinated, Vanderbilt has won two in a row against the Volunteers. It's done so with a win that was boiled down from a sloppy, forgettable night of turnovers into a one-play game. Down 10-7 with 46 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, the starter who was playing on a torn ACL, was ruled two inches short of a first down on a keeper from the UT 34-yard line.

Neyland Stadium's thin, chilly crowd exploded. In those two inches, the entire Volunteer program was returning to form. No fourth consecutive losing season, no more buzzing feedback from irrelevant Vanderbilt, no more ludicrous talk of any kind of rivalry. Tennessee was and would be again the sole brand of the state.

"Tennessee is always Nashville's team," Volunteer junior tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said decisively before the season began. "Nashville is Tennessee country. Tennessee is all Tennessee country."

And then the booth review. Carta-Samuels was clearly past the first-down marker. With a fresh set of downs and a gutted home crowd, Carta-Samuels hit senior wide receiver Jordan Matthews for a big gain on the next play, on what Matthews described as "cloud coverage."

"Austyn knew he couldn't go too deep with the ball. He had to get it right in the honey hole, and I was able to go up there and get it," Matthews said. The pass set up Vandy inside the 10, and two plays later Robinette would pump-fake Tennessee into despair.

When I tell Franklin three weeks later about his validation as a quality SEC coach as judged by an opposing team's call-in radio show, he still won't bite.

"I think that’s exciting. It’s great for the SEC, for college football, for Tennessee. It’s awesome. So yeah, it’s exciting ... it’s ... fun," Franklin responds with a disaffected look.

It's fair to say the average college football fan would assume the bold guy at Vandy would jump at a chance to position his program alongside a historical power like Tennessee, if only for the brand equity to be gained.

Franklin: "To me a rivalry has to be both ways."

Me: "To a high school recruit who doesn't have the perspective of history, Vanderbilt is 2-2 vs. Tennessee in the last four years. That's a rivalry right now."

Franklin: "Well, since we've been here, it's 2-1, and the one was a loss in overtime."

Me: "That's my point. So it looks like it's both ways. It's not one-sided."

Franklin: "It's pretty neat. We're going out to recruit right now to kids who only know Vanderbilt as being successful."

Me: "So it's a rivalry."

Franklin: "My conversation with recruits, with players, our players, with fans, our fans, is a different conversation than I'm going to have in a press conference. What I'm saying is, it's becoming more of a rivalry, but because of the lack of competitiveness in the series, it hasn't been. It's starting to work in that direction, but again, my message to my team and to recruits and fans is different than what I'm going to say when I get up in front of a press conference."

Concluding his third full season as head coach of the Commodores, Franklin's profile has elevated from novelty to stalwart, with his media chops honing in the process. Along the way to a previously unimaginable 23-15 record that features 11 conference wins and three consecutive bowl bids, he's become tighter, sharper, and more systematic.

Two unforeseen bowl campaigns yielded an increased budget, coaching salary increases, and the construction of brand new, large-scale facilities. A still-brewing investigation over an alleged rape of a Vanderbilt student by four now-former players threatened to hollow out the momentum of the program. Franklin had honed in on the final stage of the program's rehabilitation -- addressing fan apathy and home ticket sales -- when the off-field nightmare emerged.

Since then, Vanderbilt's posted arguably its best season to date, matching 2012's 8-4 mark with wins over Georgia and Florida, the latter of which hadn't occurred in 25 years. Vanderbilt enters Tennessee week on the heels of last season's 41-18 blowout that helped slam shut the door on Derek Dooley, who'd celebrated a 2011 overtime win over the 'Dores in rather derogatory fashion. But despite a reputation for brash confidence, which he welcomes, Franklin has fanatically rejected any and all talk of rivalries, defining moments, key wins, or any other kind of watershed moments.

"Yeah, you get 'em fired up, and they play well in one game, but then they crash the next week. Or they're too hyped and they don't execute because it's all emotion and passion," Franklin explains.

The program abides by the philosophy of "1-0," so much so that every player and coach will only reference the game in front of them, with no memory of the past of knowledge of the future. Franklin's logic is sound. When you're trying to build a winning culture on the roots of so much failure, amnesia is as sturdy a foundation as they come.

"I guess what I'm going to tell you is that I'm not going to change my stance at this point. I'm not going to determine that one game is whatever you want it to be, what the media wants," he says.

After Dooley was ousted from Knoxville, Butch Jones altered the tenor of Vanderbilt-Tennessee. The two staffs have clear respect and familiar ties. Vandy offensive line coach Herb Hand worked alongside Jones as assistants at West Virginia. They faced each other two years ago, when Jones' Cincinnati team beat Franklin's Commodores in the Music City Bowl.

"If you would've seen this transformation somewhere else, it would've been a much bigger story." -James Franklin

Franklin's time in Nashville has coincided with a string of losing seasons in Knoxville, making his fearless quotability even more irksome to the state's Vol fans. But with a respected and respectful adversary in Jones, Franklin's focus on battling Tennessee seems to have shifted to the fourth estate.

"Let's say you're at School X, and they've got six-to-12 beat writers that cover their team," Franklin explains. "And those guys have grown up following that team. As journalists you aren't supposed to be fans, but as we all know, we're all biased to a degree. Especially if you grew up in an area and stayed in that area your whole life to cover that team. Most of the teams have that. So not only do you have the fans, but you have a component of the media that never admit it, but they're always going to be slanted towards the local team or the team that they cover."

Especially when the team in the state has been historically dominant, while one has been forgettable for so long?

"Exactly. So that's one thing I've realized. To get one of our players to make All-American or first team all-conference is a challenge sometimes, because we don't get as many votes. I think there's been a lot of play, but I think I'd say that you have a portion that are biased and a portion that don't want to see it happen. So ... I think it's been a great story, but if you would've seen this transformation somewhere else, it would've been a much bigger story."

"I think the media's been good to us," says Franklin. "We just don't have the numbers. With alumni, with fans, and in the media, yeah."

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With a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, Matthews grabs a four-yard pass, a quick out to the near sideline. With the catch, Matthews now has sole ownership of the SEC's all-time record for career receptions, with 237, breaking the mark of former Commodore Earl Bennett. The play goes to the Vandy side of the field so he can quickly stash the keepsake ball with a Commodore staffer before running back to the huddle. Matthews will go on to finish the regular season with 107 catches for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns.

After the game, Matthews enters the phone booth-sized visiting press room of Neyland Stadium and unloads a prepared speech before the press pool can start in on him.

"I'm not going to act like this isn't a big deal to me," the heretofore wallflower says. He proceeds to thank his teammates, coaches, each member of the offensive line individually, and even Bennett himself for the inspiration.

"I'm comfortable at this point right now, which I wasn't before, saying I don't agree with the fact that Jordan Matthews wasn't at the Biletnikoff [Award] ceremony," Franklin says in his office three weeks later.

"I wouldn't have said that before -- and I'm not saying he should've won -- but with that guy's body of work, the career leader in reception, yards, etc., that guy deserved to be a part of that conversation. The other thing is, the fact that he's done it week in and week out with everyone in the conference knowing you've got to stop Jordan Matthews."

Matthews is statistically the SEC's best receiver, in a season of scoring and high-profile quarterback play for the league. He averages more yards per game and total yardage than Texas A&M's Mike Evans, with none of the publicity that Johnny Football's media vacuum affords. He's also the only receiver in the conference with triple-digit receptions this season, ranking a full 32 catches ahead of LSU's Jarvis Landry in second place.

Surely NFL scouts will salivate over Matthews' production against double- and often times triple-teams. Without fellow wideouts Chris Boyd for the whole season and Jonathan Krause for part of it, Matthews put up his numbers against bracketed coverage, bump-and-run corners, and safeties cheating overtop.

Matthews ends his speech with a thank you to the fans, specifically the ever-elusive Vanderbilt football kind.

"We've had our up-and-downs, but at no time have these fans hung their head. This community is growing. It's a football school. This season, right now, this is a football school. This community believes that, and I want to thank them for that."

James Franklin isn't alone in his belief that Tennessee and Vanderbilt are anything but rivals. The whole of Big Orange Nation agrees. For Tennessee fans and officials to acquiesce that Vandy is anything more than the "Dore-mat" of the league would be an admission that decades of national prominence, conference titles, bowl wins, hundreds of millions of dollars in budgeting, and even a national title in the BCS era are tantamount to 25 wins in three seasons.

But outside of the framework of a rivalry, Vanderbilt leans heavily on numbers, mainly because their recent success has created so many amazing stats. As soon as Franklin began his press conference after UT, there were fresh numbers -- Vandy has eight straight wins in November (now nine) after going 3-32 in November the previous 10 seasons, among others.

"The reason we use those numbers is to change perception. Local perception, regional perception, and ultimately national perception," Franklin explains weeks later.

At the press conference, he's still steadfast. Franklin looks somewhat shaken with joy, but far more in check than in previous years. He's learned to channel the ups and downs much in the same manner he's asked of his team, to neutralize the extremes in favor of consistency.

"We've been building this culture. A lot of different people have worked very hard on it. First of all the players, then the administration, the assistant coaches, the fans, the community, everybody has worked extremely hard to change the culture. And now Vanderbilt has a culture, and that's that we expect to win, week in and week out. At home, on the road. In conference, out of it."

After three years, Vanderbilt's only loss to Tennessee -- a program like any other, allegedly -- came in that overtime loss in 2011. If there's a payoff for devaluing emotion and not feeding a rivalry meme that could validate Vandy to so many critical SEC fans, it's culture change, that ever-present, impossibly defined coach cliche.

"Hey, the cliches are there for a reason," Franklin reminds me.

Nevertheless, they'll keep trying to make a rivalry. Back in Knoxville, a glowing Franklin shoots down the final attempt, this time from a local Knoxville TV crew trying to end-around him into saying that the win was especially sweet for Robinette, the local boy.

He stares down the reporter.

"I have all the respect in the world for the University of Tennessee."

Photos: Steven Godfrey, SB Nation; Randy Sartin, USA Today

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Read the other three pieces of this series:

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