Vanderbilt's game on Saturday against the Volunteers is the most important game of James Franklin's early tenure with the Commodores. In fact, it might be the most impactful game he'll ever coach while at Vanderbilt. Here's why: if Vanderbilt wins at Neyland, those doubting that the first year Franklin truly has changed the Commodores culture, will have to acknowledge that this team is different. A win Saturday could be the death knell of "same of Vanderbilt." This is a game where Vanderbilt can announce they are relevant in the SEC.
Tennessee is reeling. The Volunteers are 0-6 in the SEC and need to beat the Commodores and Kentucky just to be bowl eligible. Tennessee fans are panicking, and find themselves in need of a pep-talk heading into a game they believe is their birthright to win.
Vanderbilt can ruin their nemesis' year and ensure Tennessee has their second consecutive losing season. To give you some context, the last time Tennessee had consecutive losing seasons was 1911 and 1912.
More importantly, Vanderbilt can guarantee a trip to a bowl game for only the second time since 1982, and the first time since 2008. Heading into the season, reasonable Commodore fans would have to happy with 4 wins and ecstatic with 5. A bowl appearance was almost unthinkable. Yet here we are. If the Commodores win Saturday, you can bet the analysis will be about programs headed in very different directions. Oh yeah, and almost none of Franklin's recruits have even played yet.
Most importantly, the Commodores beating the Volunteers in Knoxville will show recruits that Vanderbilt is a viable alternative to traditional SEC programs. As Clay Travis writes in his ode to James Franklin, CJF has already been the most prolific recruiter the program has ever had, and he is poised to have an even better haul with a full year (and hopefully a bowl ring) under his belt. Franklin is owning the State of Tennessee, landing the 5 of the 6 state's top recruits, several of whom choose the black and gold over the orange. Besting the Volunteers in Knoxville should certainly help Franklin and his staff snare a few more kids who have both Tennessee and Vanderbilt on their short list.
Now, although Saturday is a tremendous opportunity for the Commodores to take several steps forward, the upside of a win is more significant than the downside of a loss. Make no mistake about it, Vanderbilt is a better team than Tennessee, regardless of whether Tyler Bray plays. This is a game they should win, but winning games on the road in SEC is not easy, regardless of the opponent. Moreover, you can be certain Tennessee will be ready to play because they are embarrassed about being an underdog to their nerdy in-state rivals. Even if Tennessee doesn't respect Vanderbilt, they certainly don't want to lose to them.
The stakes are high, but if Vanderbilt becomes the program we all hope it will be, 10 years from now, you can circle this as the game where the Commodores and Coach Franklin took off.