Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, right, celebrates with players late in their 22-6 win over Kentucky on Nov. 16 in Nashville. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — Vanderbilt coach James Franklin says he still doesn't believe the Commodores historically have been competitive enough with Tennessee to make this annual Southeastern Conference series a legitimate rivalry.
A second straight Vanderbilt victory over the Volunteers (4-6, 1-5) could change that perception.
Tennessee had won 28 of its last 29 games with Vanderbilt before falling 41-18 in Nashville last season. Vanderbilt (6-4, 3-4) enters Neyland Stadium on Saturday seeking its first two-game winning streak over the Vols since the 1920s.
"People call it a rivalry," Franklin said. "I don't think it's at that point yet. It hasn't been as competitive as it needs to be, to be considered a rivalry at this point."
Tennessee traditionally has treated Vanderbilt like little more than an annoying little brother it can shut up at any time. Vanderbilt went either 18-2-3 or 19-2-3 against Tennessee from 1892-1927 — Vandy counts a victory in 1918 that isn't included in UT's records — but the Vols have gone 70-10-2 in the 82 games since.
But the rivalry has changed since Franklin took over Vanderbilt's program in 2011.
"I feel like they've got a great program right now," Tennessee center James Stone said. "They play hard. They play for each other. They've garnered a lot of respect for that."
Franklin believes a more balanced series between the two teams would be best for everyone.
"I think it's good for the state, I think it's good for Vanderbilt, I think it's good for Tennessee, I think it's good for the SEC," Franklin said. "There's no doubt about it. You'd love for it to be a rivalry, and those games are so much fun because there's so much riding on it. But at this point, I wouldn't characterize it as (such)."
Tennessee came from behind in the fourth quarter two years ago to beat Vanderbilt 27-21 in overtime at Knoxville. Vandy answered last season with its most lopsided victory over Tennessee since a 26-0 triumph in 1954. Tennessee fired former coach Derek Dooley the next day.
"I try not to remember it," Vols kicker/punter Michael Palardy said. "It was kind of a disappointing season on all accounts. For me personally, I just wanted to make sure something like that never happened again."
Tennessee now wants to regain the upper hand in a series it had long dominated. Although UT has a far greater football history, the Commodores have had more success since Franklin's arrival.
Vanderbilt is bowl eligible for the third straight year. Tennessee must win its final two regular-season games avoid a fourth straight losing season, which hasn't happened to the Vols since 1903-06.
Vanderbilt already has beaten Florida and Georgia, the first time in school history it has defeated both in the same year. UT has lost nine straight games to Florida and four straight to Georgia.
Since the start of the 2012 season, Vandy is 8-7 and Tennessee's 2-12 in SEC competition. Tennessee still enters Saturday's game as a three-point favorite.
"We have a tremendous amount of respect for what they've been able to accomplish and Coach Franklin," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "I've been able to watch it from afar."
Jones has a history with Vanderbilt's staff. He worked alongside Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand when both were assistants at West Virginia in 2005-06. Jones also coached the Cincinnati team that defeated Franklin's Vanderbilt squad 31-24 in the 2011 Liberty Bowl.
Now he faces Franklin again in an attempt to preserve Tennessee's bowl hopes. Jones has emphasized the importance of getting to a bowl game but said Monday it would be "superficial" to make that the biggest gauge of Tennessee's progress this season.
"It's (about) where we're at," Jones said. "My first year at Cincinnati, we finished 4-8. It's the most miserable year I've ever had. Looking back on that journey, to get that program back, to get that program to where it is right now, that needed to happen. That was the foundation that led us to that standard of excellence."