KNOXVILLE -- When Barrett Gouger committed to Vanderbilt in May, the Baylor School offensive lineman knew it was the right fit for him to play his college football.
That wasn't all he knew, either.
"I knew they were building something really awesome there," Gouger said this week. "I had seen them practice a couple of times, and I knew that once the season started, they were going to work hard and they were going to compete with everybody. I knew they were going to win this many, and they should've won even more games than that."
With a win at Tennessee on Saturday night or at Wake Forest next week, the 5-5 Commodores, in coach James Franklin's first year, would reach a bowl game for just the fifth time in the program's history. Win all three, and Vanderbilt could have its first eight-win season since 1982.
Franklin, however, has kept the same one-game-at-a-time approach despite all that's at stake.
"Obviously it's a big game with us both being in the same state, and there is a lot of crossover between our fans in the community and things like that," he said. "We're hearing it from a lot of different angles, but what we've been trying to do is keep it consistent with our players every week and not get caught up whether it's a conference game or not a conference game or a rivalry game or not a rivalry game and just keep our same approach, which has worked out pretty well for us."
Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss and Kentucky by a combined score of 68-15 and lost one-possession games to Georgia, Arkansas and Florida. The Commodores are one-point favorites Saturday night in Knoxville and certainly have grabbed the Volunteers' attention.
"They've got a new coach, they've got a new spark and you can't really be surprised the way they're bouncing back to it," UT defensive end Willie Bohannon said. "I don't sit in their meeting rooms, I don't know what their coach is saying to get them motivated, but I'm pretty sure he's saying some good stuff because they've been playing hard."
Vols upperclassmen have seen firsthand what a program looks like in a coach's first year with Lane Kiffin in 2009 and Derek Dooley last season. Both senior linebacker Austin Johnson and junior defensive back Prentiss Waggner noted how confident the Commodores are playing.
"When you get a new coach, everybody gets hyped up and everyone gets real excited to see what's going to happen and see what he's going to bring," Johnson said. "I think that's happened this year for them. Their coach has come in, and all their players have bought into what he's teaching, and it's showed in their play."
It's clear to UT's coaches and players that these aren't the typical Commodores. Freshman safety Brian Randolph, who grew up in Georgia, said he always thought Vanderbilt was a "geek school." Sophomore Rajion Neal, also a Georgia native, also noted how he used to think "the smarter guys that could play football" were at Vanderbilt.
Now the Vols' perception of Vanderbilt is a team that could very well beat them. Both Randolph and Waggner noted the Commodores' 15 interceptions, which is tied for seventh nationally. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers' revitalization of Vanderbilt's offense has been a topic of discussion all week.
Franklin's impact goes beyond the field as well, though attendance at seven home games this season dipped slightly from last year's 2-10 team. The Commodores are No. 21 in Rivals.com's latest recruiting rankings and have two in-state commitments (Memphis running back Brian Kimbrow and Paris offensive lineman Andrew Jelks) who had scholarship offers from UT.
"Every time I go up there and see some of the games and talk with them, they're always excited," Gouger said. "They're excited for the games; they're excited for practice; they're just excited in all aspects. [Franklin's] changing the culture, and he's got it going in the right direction. I expect more great things to come out of there.
"He's always really enthusiastic; he cares about his players. All the coaches are really genuine there, so they really care and they respect you. All of the players respect that and want to play harder for him and try harder on everything they do."
The Vols have lost to Vanderbilt only once (2005) since 1982, and certainly they'll have to try harder than normal to get a win Saturday night.
"We've been going against the image of Tennessee for a while, so I can't talk about them going against their image," Bohannon said. "We've got to win this game -- no ifs, ands or buts. We don't care how good people are saying they are; we don't care how good they're playing; we've got to go out there and play and beat them. They want to be the team that beats Tennessee; we've got to make sure that doesn't happen."