KNOXVILLE — Tennessee defensive back Baylen Buchanan made it very clear how much he wants to beat Vanderbilt when talking to reporters this past Monday. He mentioned on no fewer than three occasions that "I haven't beat them since I got here."
"It's very important to me — to us — that we win this week," Buchanan said a few times.
A series the Volunteers have dominated historically has taken a turn in the Commodores' favor in recent seasons, and Saturday's 4 p.m. EST game between the 5-6 teams in Nashville will have a winner-take-all feel to it, as the victor earns a bowl bid.
Vanderbilt has won the past two meetings and four of the past six.
"My impression coming here was that Tennessee beats Vanderbilt," Buchanan said. "I was not expecting to lose two years in a row, so it's very important to us that we win this week."
Tennessee is the underdog. The Vols are in the first year of a rebuild under coach Jeremy Pruitt, while the Commodores are in the fifth season under Derek Mason. Vanderbilt has a senior quarterback in Kyle Shurmur who's 2-1 against the Vols, while counterpart Jarrett Guarantano's status is uncertain for the Vols.
The Commodores have struggled with finishing games, falling at Notre Dame by five points after driving into Fighting Irish territory with a chance to win, losing to Florida after building an 18-point lead and losing close ones also to Kentucky and Missouri. But the Vols have struggled to maintain consistency, failing to build on big wins. Their upset of Auburn was followed by a blowout loss to top-ranked Alabama and a late-game loss to South Carolina, then a disappointingly close defeat of Charlotte. The subsequent win over ranked Kentucky preceded a rout by Missouri.
But a Vols win Saturday would enhance promise and enthusiasm for the program going forward.
"This is a very important game for everybody in this state," Pruitt said. "They have an experienced team offensively. Quarterback's been playing there forever, coach's son, makes very few mistakes. They have good runners, take care of the football. Defensively, have a lot of ball hawks on the defensive side of the ball, give you multiple looks. I think probably in the turnover margin in our league, they're up there at the top and solid on special teams.
"So we need to find a way to improve our team this week — eliminate mistakes, tackle better, find a way to be able to run the football and create some explosive plays."
The Vols have played the last month or so in "pride mode," Pruitt said. Based off the visual results, sometimes they've accomplished that (see Kentucky), other times they've failed (see Missouri). The players know what's at stake Saturday; they just have to accomplish it.
Still, both teams enter with identical records and equal opportunity to reach a bowl, which equals more practices and more opportunities to get better — something Pruitt has mentioned plenty in the past few weeks. But a Tennessee win would also mean a chance to end a skid against a rival the Vols don't like being a part of.
Defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. remembers taking a visit to Vanderbilt as a junior at Knoxville's Webb School. He remembers walking around the Commodores' football facilities and seeing the Vols' Power T upside down around the facility.
"It's important to this program to win ballgames, especially against rivals," Kelly said. "You just look at the dominance Tennessee has had over Vanderbilt in history, and making sure we bring that prestigiousness back is big time. They're a great team and they have a lot to fight for, but seeing the Power T upside down tells you how much respect they have for this program.
"I think I'm going to explain to my teammates how important this game is, how they don't respect us and how important it is for us to win this ballgame."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.