Marcus Fitzsimmons

It felt a little better having Vanderbilt back at the end of the schedule.

As UT players paraded the Tennessee flag around the open end of Dudley Field Saturday evening before settling for a rendition of ”Rocky Top” in front of orange stands stained here and there with black attire, it felt like old times.

Johnny Majors rode the Commodores from the Gulf of Rebuilding in the 1970s to the Port of New Orleans in 1985 and beyond. Phil Fulmer made the main Volunteer thoughts regarding Vanderbilt that of avoiding an upset in the high flying 90s.

Then came the dark times.

When November wasn’t so much to remember as the last stops on a trip you really wanted to forget. The Vols were 70-12 in the season’s final month from 1990 to 2009, and 9-7 the last four seasons. Vandy snapped UT’s 22-game streak in 2005 but the Vols have just looked truly vulnerable against VU in a way they hadn’t for more than a generation.

A loss to the Commodores strikes at the core expectations of Vol fans. It weighs on the program and especially on the head coach like, well, an anchor. It did in Derek Dooley and lit the first fires under Phillip Fulmer’s seat.

Over the years, the Vols have made celebrating a bowl bound season or the commencement of the extra week for the SEC title game an annual rite, often on Dudley Field.

All the momentum of downing Vandy, all that series swagger it carried with it and all the ways beating the Commodores was a Tennessee touchstone during seasons of struggle or and years of top-billed pressure alike. It’s just been missing lately.

Until Saturday.

The outcome was in doubt. The backfield still a little shaky, the line even shakier. The defense doubtful at times against the hometown quarterback that sank them a year ago in Neyland. The Vols still prevailed.

That’s the secret of the Vanderbilt rivalry. It’s where Tennessee teams once built a faith in their ability to prevail that imbued a program to success.

Until it didn’t.

Butch Jones may want to mark this brick in his foundation and label it “Vanderbilt 2014” to remember. The benefits of the bowl season ahead may over shine it quickly. Another well regarded recruiting class certainly will. But neither is really as possible without this one. Leaving Dudley disappointed darkens the whole offseason in a way that gathers the clouds of a rumbling fan base and flips the right recruit the wrong way.

Singing and celebrating that last SEC win of the regular season, whatever it’s value in the standings is a positive. Half the teams playing don’t get it. Some hardly ever do. Faith in the finale against the in-state rival with a weak reputation doesn’t always seem to bring tangibles. Not having it widens cracks that can bring a lot of walls crashing down.

But Tennessee already knows that.

Marcus Fitzsimmons is sports editor at The Daily Times. He wrote from Nashville.

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