Since the inception of the Southeastern Conference, there has never been a doubt about which SEC team was the best in the state of Tennessee.
The Tennessee Volunteers had long dominated the gridiron in, what was aptly known as, the Volunteer state. Tennessee has appeared in 49 bowl games, tied for third most all-time. The Vols have won 25 bowl games, tied for seventh most all-time.
In fact, Tennessee won a national championship in 1998, beating the Florida State Seminoles 23-16 in the Fiesta Bowl to claim the BCS Championship.
Tennessee had produced legendary players like Peyton Manning and Reggie White and had tremendous coaches like Phillip Fulmer and Robert Neyland.
However, starting with the 2008 season, Tennessee began experiencing turbulent times. That season, Fulmer’s final team went 5-7, and he was fired at the end of the campaign, just one year after winning the SEC Eastern Division title.
Enter Lane Kiffin, who was supposed to be the savior for the Volunteer program. Kiffin led the Vols to a 7-6 record in 2009, including an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But after the season, Kiffin left, taking the USC Trojans head coaching job and returning to California.
Athletic Director Mike Hamilton struggled to find a coach to replace Kiffin, finally settling on Derek Dooley, son of Hall of Famer and former Georgia Bulldogs coach Vince Dooley.
In his first season, the younger Dooley led the Volunteers to the Music City Bowl, where they lost in overtime to the North Carolina Tar Heels in a controversial finish. Tennessee finished 6-7 in 2010, but had high hopes for the following season due to a young roster.
Those hopes were dashed when Tennessee went 5-7, including an unthinkable loss to the Kentucky Wildcats after the Vols had beaten UK 26 straight times. In 2012, Dooley’s team struggled again, going 5-7, leading to the dismissal of the UT head man before the season’s end.
Tennessee hired Butch Jones to replace Dooley, and the Vol nation is hoping for big things from the former Cincinnati head coach, especially after recent struggles.
Meanwhile, a couple of hours west on I-40, the Vanderbilt Commodores hired James Franklin after the 2010 season. The former coach-in-waiting for the Maryland Terrapins took over a program that seemed to always be at or near the bottom of the SEC standings.
Franklin instilled a new attitude in Nashville, and the Commodores raced to a 3-0 start in 2011, including an SEC win over the Ole Miss Rebels. Vanderbilt finished the season 6-6, 2-6 in the SEC, and made a bowl appearance for just the fifth time in school history. Ironically, Vanderbilt lost to Jones and his Cincinnati Bearcats team in the Music City Bowl.
In 2012, Franklin continued to build momentum in the Vanderbilt program. After losing their first two games in competitive contests (17-13 to the South Carolina Gamecocks and 23-13 against the Northwestern Wildcats), Vanderbilt won nine of its last 11 games, including its final seven, to finish 9-4. Vandy capped the season by downing N.C. State 38-24 in the Music City Bowl.
The 9-4 record marked the first time since 1915, and the third time ever, that a Vanderbilt team had won as many as nine games. The seven-game winning streak to end the season marks the Commodores’ longest streak since 1948. And the 15 wins in back-to-back seasons are the best since 1925-26.
The trend toward Vanderbilt being the better program continued on National Signing Day last week. Vanderbilt’s class was ranked 22nd nationally, and ninth in the SEC, by the ESPN recruiting rankings. Tennessee ranked 29th in the country, and 11th in the conference, with its class. The Rivals recruiting rankings had Vanderbilt’s class at No. 19 in the country, and Tennessee No. 20.
Franklin has done amazing things at Vandy, with seemingly less talent, and that momentum has now carried over to the recruiting trail. It would appear that Vanderbilt’s success will continue in the always-rugged SEC.
Jones must find a way to return Tennessee to prominence, while battling his intrastate rival for recruits and media attention.
At this point, there’s little doubt that Vanderbilt is the better program in the state of Tennessee, especially after last season’s 41-18 beatdown of the Vols in Nashville. During the 2013 season, Jones and the Vols will try to (gulp) measure up to Vanderbilt and regain the title of best team in the state of Tennessee.