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Vanderbilt photo by Neil Brake / Vanderbilt fullback Clark Lea looks for extra yardage during a 48-0 loss at Tennessee in 2003. Lea is now in his first season as head coach of the Commodores, who visit the Volunteers on Saturday.

If Saturday afternoon's football game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt inside Neyland Stadium was decided by the head coaches being quizzed on the rivalry, the Commodores would win in a runaway.

While Volunteers coach Josh Heupel was growing up in South Dakota and developing into a quarterback who would eventually guide the University of Oklahoma to the 2000 national championship, Commodores counterpart Clark Lea was raised in Nashville, attended Montgomery Bell Academy and viewed the Tennessee-Vanderbilt showdown as a must-see event.

"I've been a Vanderbilt fan since I was a child, so this game has always meant more," Lea said in a news conference earlier this week. "I grew up in black and gold and cheering on the Commodores. When I got to play in the game, it had a heightened sense of meaning to me."

Lea was a Vanderbilt fullback from 2002-04, which marked the final three years of Tennessee's 22-game series win streak that started in 1983.

Although Heupel is a Tennessee-Vanderbilt outsider to this point, he does have players who can share some background and insight to the rivalry. The two programs have not only split the past 10 meetings but have scored the identical amount of points (273).

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Vanderbilt Athletics photo / Vanderbilt first-year football coach Clark Lea congratulates Commodores kicker Joseph Bulovas during a game earlier this season in Nashville.

"This game means a lot to me, because I'm like 10 minutes away from their stadium," Vols fifth-year senior safety and former Overton High standout Theo Jackson said. "My first two years here, we didn't win, and when I went home, all my friends let me have it, so this game is personal for me."

Lea's three seasons as a Vandy player yielded two lopsided losses and a 38-33 defeat in 2004. For the Commodores to be competitive Saturday, they must build on last weekends's 31-17 defeat at Ole Miss, one of their more respectable showings in a Southeastern Conference losing streak that began in 2019 and has reached 20 games.

"This game will mirror last week's game in a lot of ways," Lea said. "This is a very talented, explosive offense that if given the rhythm and opportunity can score in chunks. We'll need to be a game-control offense that finishes with touchdowns. We had three field goals in the first half against Ole Miss, and we've got to punctuate those drives with touchdowns.

"This is about finding our highest level of performance. It's a game we're excited about and will always be excited for, but we're paying special attention to just finishing the job for each other."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

HOOP VOLS RESUME

Tennessee’s 15th-ranked men’s basketball team resumes play Friday (3 p.m. on SEC Network+) against Tennessee Tech inside Thompson-Boling Arena. The Volunteers (3-1) are seeking improvement from last weekend’s Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Connecticut, where they were routed by Villanova 71-53 but then whipped North Carolina 89-72.

“I think it was a really good experience, and I think it’s why these early season games are so important,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said. “Obviously we were disappointed in the way we started the game against Villanova, but we came back against North Carolina and really did do a lot of the things that we work on every day. It was a different team.

“Every game has a different personality, and we did look more like how we practice every day against North Carolina.”

Tennessee Tech is 2-3 this season, which includes a 69-62 loss at UTC. Junior guard and former McCallie School standout Jr. Clay is averaging 10.6 points per game for the Golden Eagles and leads the team with 32 assists, but he is also just 4-for-30 on 3-point attempts for a 13.3% success rate.

— David Paschall

 

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