HOOVER, Ala. — When Tennessee offensive lineman Antonio “Tiny” Richardson promised that the Vols’ dismal loss at Vanderbilt last season wouldn’t happen again, he was speaking of one game.
But Vanderbilt players hear and see much of that same doubt about their success as a whole.
The Commodores are coming off their winningest season since 1915. It was a remarkable story. But now, receiver Jordan Matthews said, many seem to think that Vandy will “go back down to the cellar” from whence they came.
“People think we’ve peaked,” Matthews said.
But have they? If Vandy takes a step back, Tennessee’s path to a six-win season and bowl eligibility will get considerably easier. However, if the Commodores go from “good to great,” as Matthews predicts, 2013 could the
second meeting in a row in which the Vandy provides the knockout blow to UT’s season.
The Vols and Commodores meet Nov. 23 at Neyland Stadium in a game that has already been circled by many in Knoxville because of the crushing embarrassment of last year’s 41-18 loss. Hours after the game, coach Derek Dooley was fired.
“That won’t happen again. I promise you that,” said Richardson, a Nashville native, during Wednesday’s SEC Media Days session.
Reporters, of course, dutifully repeated that quote — fairly mild as bulletin-board material goes — to Vanderbilt players. It turned out to be unnecessary. They had already seen it.
“That’s an opinion,” said Vandy cornerback Andre Hall. “If that’s what he thinks, I’m happy for him. We’ll see in November what he thinks.”
Asked about the importance of the Tennessee win in 2012, Hall would only allow that it was “very satisfying.”
Matthews said he knows and respects Richardson, calling him a “great player.”
“I can’t focus on (the comments),” Matthews said. “I can only focus on (the opener) against Ole Miss.”
Matthews said last year’s victory, only the second win against the Vols since 1983, meant as much for long-suffering fans as it did for the players.
“That was a fan’s game,” Matthews said. “Fans would say, ‘If you all do anything, you’ve got to be able to beat UT.’ ”
The rare victory in the series won’t make players complacent, Matthews said.
“If we don’t come back with that same edge, (UT) is going to creep up on us,” he said.
Third-year coach James Franklin has led the Commodores to back-to-back bowl games and also has chased blue-chip recruits that Vanderbilt used to ignore.
But the program has been buffeted by the dismissal of four players this summer amidst an investigation into a possible sex crime. No one has been charged or arrested in the case.
Franklin politely deflected any questions that even hinted at the topic, saying it would be inappropriate to comment on an “ongoing investigation.”
None of the dismissed athletes played last season, and Franklin’s sunny optimism offered no hint that the program’s striking rebound was over — or that he had any plans to go elsewhere.
“I think more than anything you see a commitment at Vanderbilt right now,” Franklin said. “Not only from the head coach and the players, but from the administration and the boosters and the fan base and everybody else, probably more so than it’s ever been at Vanderbilt. To me, that’s exciting.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.