For too long, the rivalry between Vanderbilt and Tennessee – in any sport – has been far too lopsided. The Vols have historically owned the football rivalry and recently, the basketball one too. Since Tim Corbin took over the Commodores’ baseball program in 2003, Tennessee has scarcely been competitive.
But Tony Vitello, who was named coach of the Vols in 2018, has revitalized the series. Last year, Vanderbilt won the series in Knoxville with both teams ranked in the top five of most major polls.
This year, the stakes are even higher, with Tennessee (23-1, 6-0 SEC) coming off a sweep of Ole Miss and ranked No. 1 in every major poll and The No. 5 Commodores (20-4, 4-2) lost a series against South Carolina to set up the three-game series starting Friday in Nashville.
The Rebels made headlines for suggesting they underestimated what has been the most dominant team in the country. Vanderbilt, ever-familiar with its in-state rival, isn’t in much danger of doing that, but that won’t necessarily portend a better outcome.
“I think you’d be hard pressed to find another team that does everything as well as they have up to this point,” Corbin said. They pitch extremely well, those those two young kids that bookend their rotation (Chase Burns and Drew Beam) have jumped right in and have not acted and performed like younger guys. They pitched as well as any freshmen coming into the league up to this point. And, you know, offensively, they’re just good. They’re well-rounded, they compete as a team from an at-bat standpoint, they put a lot of team at bats together. They’re confident, they play good defense. “
Rarely has a series between the two rivals been of this magnitude. Tickets are over $ 400 on the secondary market for the Sunday game, and it will be just the fifth time in the Corbin era that both teams have met while being ranked together in the top 25 of any poll, and the second time both were considered top -10 teams.
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Here’s a look at some of the milestones in the series:
2021: The first top-five matchup
The two teams met in April with Vanderbilt ranked No. 2 and Tennessee at No. 3 in the USA TODAY Sports Baseball Coaches Poll. Other polls agreed that the two were top-five teams, with most having the Commodores ranked slightly ahead, but neither had the top spot as Arkansas had cemented its place as the consensus No. 1.
Like in 2022, Vanderbilt was coming off a questionable series loss – this one to Georgia – and had several players unavailable due to COVID-19 or injury. But the Commodores took Friday’s contest thanks to Kumar Rocker and the piggyback duo of Patrick Reilly and Chris McElvain pitched well enough on Sunday to let the offense do the rest, even after the bullpen blew the Saturday game.
Both teams reached the College World Series for the first time together, but Tennessee was among the first teams eliminated while Vanderbilt finished runner-up.
2016: The most recent Tennessee series win
This was a somewhat shocking series loss for the Commodores, which were ranked in the top five while the Vols were 4-11 in the conference. Vanderbilt won the Friday game, but the Commodores’ offense struggled in the Saturday game while the bullpen blew the rubber match.
Tennessee did not qualify for the postseason and Vanderbilt lost in the regionals.
2013: The most recent Vanderbilt sweep
Unanimously considered a top-10 team at the time, the Commodores faced a team that was barely over .500 in Nashville. After a walk-off in the 12th inning, Vanderbilt won the second game handily and came from behind in the third thanks to a grand slam to complete the sweep.
The dramatics completed the Commodores’ fourth of nine series sweeps en route to a 26-3 conference record, the best in program history. But Vanderbilt was unceremoniously swept in the super regionals by Louisville before coming back to win its first national title the next year.
The Vols finished under .500 and did not qualify for the SEC Tournament.
2009: The most recent Tennessee sweep
The two teams met in the final series of the regular season in 2009. That was not a banner year for either program; Vanderbilt was unranked while the Vols were already out of contention for the SEC Tournament, which at the time featured eight teams.
Still, the sweep, which happened in Nashville, was shocking and happened in a particularly heartbreaking fashion, as the Commodores lost both the final two games in extra innings, the first and only time under Corbin that the Vols won the series in Nashville.
Vanderbilt barely squeaked into the SEC Tournament, grabbing the eighth and final seed, but the Commodores let the sweep fuel them, making a run all the way to the title game and securing their spot in a regional. Vanderbilt has not been swept at home in an SEC series since.
2003: The series that sparked a dynasty
Neither program was particularly strong in 2003, Corbin’s first year. Both were under .500 in the conference when they met at the end of the regular season and the Commodores had not so much as qualified for the SEC Tournament since 1996.
But in Nashville, something changed as Vanderbilt took the first two games handily. Then in the finale, Worth Scott hit a walk-off home run off Vols ace Luke Hochevar to secure the sweep, giving the Commodores a spot in the SEC Tournament and eliminating Tennessee.
Vanderbilt lost both its SEC Tournament contests and neither team qualified for a regional, but that sweep gave Corbin’s program the kind of momentum it needed. The Commodores took the series from strong Tennessee squads in 2004 and 2005, then the Vols declined while Vanderbilt became a national power.
It has taken nearly 20 years for the teams to meet again with stakes nearly as high.
Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @aria_gerson.