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Extra meaning for Vols vs. Commodores

There was a poll in the Knoxville News-Sentinel on Thursday asking Tennessee fans what would be worse than losing to Vanderbilt.

The most popular answer … losing to Kentucky.

It’s been that kind of season on Rocky Top, a rocky ride that’s sure to get a lot rockier if first-year Vanderbilt coach James Franklin takes his Commodores into Neyland Stadium on Saturday and beats the Vols for only the third time in the past 35 years.

Dooley, in his second season of trying to make Tennessee football relevant again, doesn’t need a fellow attorney to explain to him how much losing to the Commodores would hurt.

The Vols would be out of a bowl game, out of the extra practice time they would get for the postseason, and Dooley would be out that much more support.

Even with the 0-6 start in the SEC, most reasonable Tennessee fans understand the importance of giving Dooley four years to get the Vols’ program headed back in the right direction, especially when you take into account the injuries to quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter this season.

But losing to Vanderbilt changes the game, and fairly or unfairly, ratchets up the pressure to win big in Season No. 3.

Dooley has done his best not to overhype how badly the Vols need to win this game, but there have been a few telling moments.

He was being quizzed earlier in the week by reporters on how much Bray would be affected by his broken thumb.

“It’s going to take some time. It’s like everything around here. We want immediate fixes,” Dooley said. “His thumb is not fixed. You don’t just put magic serum on it, and he can go throw like he did five weeks ago. It will come.”

In a lot of ways, he might as well have been talking about the Vols’ entire program.

Winning over Vanderbilt at home isn’t going to send out flares to the rest of the college football world that the Vols are all of a sudden back.

But it sure beats a loss, which would only create more doubt about whether or not Dooley is the right man for the job.

The schedule has been brutal. The Vols have had to face Alabama, Arkansas, LSU and South Carolina -- all top 12 teams -- within five weeks of each other.

Of course, as brutal as that stretch has been, the only thing that’s been worse has been the Vols’ lack of a pulse in the second half. They haven’t scored a single point after halftime in their last five games and have been outscored by an 87-0 margin in the second half of those five contests.

So, yes, any way you want to slice it, this is a big one for Dooley and Co.

“They’re all big and they’re all important,” Dooley said. “We haven’t won an SEC game, so it would be nice to get one. But I don’t think any SEC game is any bigger than the others. They’re all big.

“This is a big one. Certainly, it’s big because it’s in-state, and it’s big because we need to get a win.”

And make no mistake. It’s equally big for the Commodores, who have improved from last year to this year as much as any team in the country.

But they’re still looking for that marquee win in Franklin’s first season. They’ve beaten Ole Miss, Kentucky, Elon, Connecticut and Army and are one win away from becoming bowl eligible.

Beating Tennessee and doing it in Knoxville would be a statement game for the Commodores, especially when you consider how competitive they’ve been in close losses to Georgia, Arkansas and Florida.

The impressive thing about this team under Franklin hasn’t been its list of conquests, even though it’s important to remember that the Commodores have already won more games than they did in the previous two seasons combined.

The impressive thing has been the way the Commodores have competed, and more specifically, the way they’ve improved.

Franklin has brought an edge, a confidence and something resembling an air of arrogance to a program that has been stepped on and beaten on for decades in this league.

Obviously, making a bowl game would be a huge coup for the Commodores. After all, they’ve gone to all of four in school history.

But as Franklin has reminded us several times, the days of old at Vanderbilt are gone and never … ever, ever, ever … coming back.

Franklin’s response this week to a question about being one win away from bowl eligibility ought to tell you all you need to know about his mindset and the mindset of this program right now.

“I’m not really sure what you’re talking about,” said Franklin, asked about getting the one more win necessary to qualify for a bowl game. “If we win this week, we’ll have one more win than we have right now. That’s kind of our focus. … I’m not even sure what you’re talking about. It’s not a point of emphasis at all.”

The reporter asking Franklin the question on the SEC’s weekly teleconference explained that the SEC has a certain number of bowl tie-ins and that if you get to six wins, you get to play in a bowl game.

He might as well have been telling Franklin that he would get a free bowl of soup with the Commodores’ next victory.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that we don’t talk about those things,” Franklin said. “We talk about one game at a time. At the end of the year, if they’re telling us we’re going somewhere, we’ll go. We don’t even discuss those things. We’ve never talked about it once since I’ve been on this campus.

“The only thing we talk about is being the best Vanderbilt we can, day in and day out, maximizing each day on the practice field, playing great football for six seconds at a time, preparing Sunday through Friday the best you possibly can … and the Saturdays will take care of itself.”