Tennessee’s football season from hell comes to a mind-numbing conclusion on Saturday when the limping Vols take on a crippled Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium at 4 p.m. in a game some network boob in a dark, smokey room in Birmingham, Alabama, decided was good enough to be televised by the SEC Network.
Each of the longtime bitter rivals is 4-7 overall and a dismal 0-7 in conference play.
They bring trunks bulging with unachieved goals into the game and Tennessee’s is chock full of football disappointment, depression and wretchedness.
Here are some of the reasons for so much dejection:
** The Hail Mary loss at Florida.
** A 41-0 blowout against Georgia, the Vols’ worst home loss since 1905.
** A string of 15 straight quarters without an offensive touchdown that started in the third quarter against UMass and ended in the second quarter at Kentucky when Ty Chandler scored on a 1-yard run.
** Kentucky’s 29-26 win was just the second in 33 years against Tennessee.
** Yet another one-sided, non-competitive defeat at the hands of Alabama
** The Vols went to Missouri having lost four of five games and wound up the victims in an embarrassing 50-17 blowout.
Tennessee had beaten the Tigers 63-37 a year earlier.
** Within hours of the Missouri debacle, athletic director John Currie fired Butch Jones and named Brady Hoke as interim coach for the final two games.
** But Tennessee kept on losing by dropping a 30-10 decision to LSU. It was literally still raining on a horribly depressing season that began with such high hopes of challenging for an elusive SEC East title. Even the third-quarter gully-washer failed to wipe away the ill-feelings toward Jones and the collapse of his program that put together consecutive 9-4 seasons in 2015 and 2016.
** After scoring 42 points in each of the first two games against Georgia Tech and Indiana State, the Vols failed to score more than 26 points in any of the nine games leading up to Vanderbilt.
** A loss to Vanderbilt, which will cause former head coach Gen. R.R. Neyland and official team Vandy hater George Cafego to turn over in their graves, would give Tennessee its first eight-loss season in the 121 years the school has fielded a football team.
** A loss to Vanderbilt would also add to a dismal resume` a winless SEC record, something that hasn’t occurred since the league was formed in 1933.
** The rash of injuries has not helped the Vols this season. Neither did it help in 2016.
So, the Vols have little to play for Saturday, other than trying to prevent more dubious historical blemishes on an already write-off season.
“It’s a big game for us,” said senior linebacker Colton Jumper, who came to Tennessee as a walk-on player. “It’s our last game and it is a rivalry game. It is always in the back of our minds that they had our number last year.”
The Vols, who once beat Vanderbilt 22 straight times and were 28-1 against the Commodores from 1983-2011, have lost three of the last five in the long-running series, including last year’s 45-34 defeat in Nashville that was probably responsible for missing a chance to play in the Sugar Bowl.
Stick a pin in the fact that Tennessee once dominated both teams.
The Vols haven’t lost to Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the same season since 1964, Doug Dickey’s first year as Tennessee’s coach.
And, since 1964 the Vols have beaten both the Wildcats and Commodores in a season 40 times, including 20 in a row from 1985-2004.
In reality, there’s quite a bit riding on the outcome of Saturday’s showdown besides in-state pride. Even that’s not as important this year. The Vols and Commodores are not playing for the “state championship” because Memphis is probably a better team than either one of them.
“We took a tough loss last year,” said Brandon Johnson, a sophomore wide receiver. “Like our coaches have said, we shouldn’t need any more motivation than it already is. It’s Vanderbilt. They don’t like us, so we just have to go in there and handle our business.”
Saturday’s game also will provide the Vols with a slightly more cheerful outcome on the season and, quite honestly, an uninspiring decade of football on Rocky Top.
Going back to 2008, ex-coach Phillip Fulmer’s last season, Tennessee is 26-53 in SEC games. The Vols are 24-31 against teams from the East division, but an insipid 2-22 against teams from the West. Tennessee has beaten only Ole Miss and Mississippi State in that time frame.
The Vols’ lone winning SEC season was a 5-3 mark in 2015, Jones’ third year at the helm.
The 22 seniors on this Vols roster don’t want to leave the program with an even heavier burden in the form of a second straight loss to Vandy.
Johnson needed just one year to figure out the significance of the season-ending game.
“I didn’t know too much about the magnitude of it coming into it just because I’m from Florida,” he said. “I’m not a Tennessee guy, but I see it now. We’re not supposed to lose to Vanderbilt.”
A lot of bad things that are not supposed to happen to Tennessee football have already happened this season.
There’s not much more room in that Big Orange trunk for more.
By beating Vanderbilt, the Vols who will be back in 2018 can turn their attention to getting acquainted with a new coach that Currie will present them in the near future.
(Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @larryfleming44)