KNOXVILLE — One by one, the Tennessee football program has had to cross off items from its list of goals for the 2012 season. Not because the Volunteers have met them, but because they can't.
There's really only one left.
With two games remaining in the regular season, the Vols are eyeing a bowl game, but that first requires beating an energized Vanderbilt team in Nashville tonight.
Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 SEC) at Vanderbilt (6-4, 4-3)
7 p.m. * Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashvile * ESPN2/106.5 FM
You might not view Vanderbilt's defense in the same light as the likes of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, but statistically the Commodores are in that mix. Vanderbilt is 23rd nationally in yards allowed and 16th in points allowed on the strength of a pass defense that's third in the SEC in yards and fourth in efficiency. Though numbers are skewed a little bit by games against Presbyterian and Massachusetts, but in SEC-only stats for total defense, the Commodores are one spot ahead of the same Missouri defense that gave Tennessee's offense fits last week.
Vanderbilt starts seven juniors and four seniors defensively.
"They're a real veteran squad," Vols coach Derek Dooley said. "I think everyone of their starters is deep into their careers there. Generally when you see a unit that has been in the program for a while, been in the system for a while, they're going to play well."
One to watch
In keeping a theme from this space last week, when Missouri quarterback James Franklin was the one to watch, it's Vanderbilt's James Franklin (no relation). The second-year Commodores coach has Vanderbilt headed to bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. A win tonight would give the Commodores their first five-win SEC season since 1935 -- the league's third year of existence.
If Vanderbilt wins against Tennessee and then at Wake Forest next week, it'd be the program's first eight-win season since 1982. With Franklin going to bowls and recruiting well, it's added a little something to the in-state rivalry. While Vanderbilt might be downplaying publicly the leaked video of the Vols' locker-room celebration after last year's overtime win, there's no doubt the Commodores have had this meeting circled for a long time.
"They've done a great job," Dooley said. "They did a good job before James got there. They did a really nice job recruiting. He's done a nice job of bringing some real good energy to the program. They're playing with a lot of confidence."
In the end
Vanderbilt has been the more successful program since Franklin's arrival, but Tennessee still owns the series history. The Commodores lone win against the Vols in the 29 meetings came in 2005, and Vanderbilt last beat Tennessee in Nashville in 1984. Yet Vanderbilt is coming off an emotional bowl-clinching at rally while the Vols have been dealing with another week full of distractions surrounding Dooley's expected ouster after last week's four-overtime loss to Missouri.
Tennessee's players have done an admirable job of handling everything, but will it be enough to execute a team that badly wants to beat them?
"In the offseason that's what we our emphasis on, was just staying together as a team," Vols left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said. "That's what we've done really well through all the adversity. We've stayed together, and that's what we're going to continue to do."
Vanderbilt 35, Tennessee 31
It's a similar position for Tennessee, which won its last four games to reach the necessary six wins in 2010 and had to win its last two a year ago but failed at Kentucky after edging Vandy in overtime.
"Out of all our goals that we wanted to reach, that's still attainable," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We definitely don't want [last year] to happen. We were in, I feel like, a worse position my freshman year [when] we had to win four straight.
"I feel like we are capable of getting it done."
After missing out on the perks of a bowl trip -- the gifts, the travel and the extra time spent with teammates -- in 2011, the Vols don't want a repeat of it again this year.
"I think you can take it for granted," defensive lineman Daniel Hood said. "I felt motivated for it last year, too, and I'd say I have that same motivation, if not more, this year. I can speak from experience that I felt like I was in the national championship game when we went to the  Music City Bowl.
"It was an experience, and all that time we get to practice, too, it helps a lot. It's another month to spend with your teammates, guys that you've been around all year working hard. You get a little payoff for what you've done, and all the work you put in from January to August, and then August to December, it just doesn't go to waste."
A loss in the next two weeks would add another historically bad notch in the belt of the program's recent struggles. Tennessee, its 49 bowl appearances third-most in the country behind only Alabama and Texas, last missed bowl games in consecutive years during a four-year stretch from 1974 to '78. Those were Bill Battle's final two and Johnny Majors' first two seasons as coach, and Tennessee finished with a losing record only once during that drought.
The Vols are teetering on the brink of the program's fifth losing season in the last eight years, and Tennessee last had three consecutive losing seasons in 1909-11.
"You don't want to feel that embarrassment again for not making it to a bowl game," said linebacker Willie Bohannon, a fifth-year senior. "It's a lot of things that people here in the past have done for Tennessee, and not to make it to a bowl game two consecutive years is not going to be good and won't go over well. It's extra motivation because I don't want to be a part of the senior class who didn't make it again.
"A lot of the other seniors feel the same way. Who knows how much football I'm going to play after this, so we don't really want to end it after the Kentucky. We want to end it after a bowl game and a win at a bowl game."
Though most of the attention centers on the uncertain future of the coaching staff, the players began focusing on a bowl berth when the calendar turned to November.
Tennessee missed chances to beat ranked teams during the season's first two months, and the inability to close out Missouri and the subsequent quadruple-overtime loss put the Vols' backs against the wall in those efforts.
Now they have no choice but to win to achieve the season's lone remaining target and the perks and extra practice that come with it.
"It was tough to sit there and watch and knowing at the same time that I wanted to be playing," Hood said. "It'd give us more time to work. Obviously we're not where we need to be."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...