The difference between Vanderbilt and Tennessee was simple. On a frigid Saturday night in Neyland Stadium, the program that has found ways to win close games did it again.
The program that is still learning how to avoid mistakes that get you beat will be home for the bowl season.
In the end, Vanderbilt had 14 points. Tennessee had 10.
If the Commodores had lost, they could have gone back and counted a dozen reasons why they came up short. But instead, it is Tennessee left to play the what-if game.
The Vols thought they had it won when Vanderbilt appeared to have come up short on fourth-and-inches when officials marked Austyn Carta-Samuels' quarterback sneak inches short of a first down. Officials reviewed the spot and determined that Carta-Samuels had indeed reached the first down marker. The angles I saw on television and the ensuing replays showed that the original spot was in error.
It was that close as the Commodores went on to complete a 92-yard drive with a great call that had backup quarterback Patton Robinette faking a jump-pass on second-and-goal from the five yard line. The fake froze Vols linebackers just enough and Robinette, who played his high school football in nearby Maryville, skirted the right end and went in untouched for the winning points.
The play left only 16 seconds on the clock and Tennessee had run out of luck and out of time.
It had to be a sucker punch to the gut for the Vols, as Coach Butch Jones is trying to teach them what they need to do to win games such as this one.
“Yeah, it is emotional,'' Jones said, “because you put a lot of effort and work into it. I feel for these kids who have done everything we have asked of them.''
“Their last drive came down to a number of critical plays,'' Jones added. “They made some critical plays when they needed to.''
It was the difference between winning and losing. Jones credited Vanderbilt's All-American wide receiver Jordan Matthews for his critical catch in the game-winning drive.
“He is a great player. He made a play when they needed him to,'' Jones said. “That is what great players do. When the game is on the line he made a great play.''
Vols punter and place-kicker Michael Palardy had chances to help his team, but had a 33-yard field goal blocked in the first half. He faked a 39-yard field goal in the final quarter and what was a bone-headed call, threw an interception that killed a drive that should have produced points.
Vanderbilt kicker Carey Spear then had a 42-yard field goal attempt fell short of the goal post with 7:15 left in the game.
It was sloppy on both sides. Vanderbilt has seven penalties for 74 yards, while the Vols had five penalties for 61 yards. In close games, neither team could afford to give up that much yardage. Tennessee suffered three interceptions. Vanderbilt had one. Vanderbilt lost three fumbles. Both teams converted only 4 of 13 third down plays. Vanderbilt's defense sacked UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs twice for minus-23 yards.
It was a game that was up for grabs. In three seasons under James Franklin, Vanderbilt has learned how to win these nail-biters. They don't quit, no matter how dire the circumstances.
It's a major reason why they have posted back-to-back wins over Tennessee. It's also why they beat Georgia and Florida for the first time in more than 100 years of football on West End. Granted they caught Georgia and Florida when both teams had crippling injuries to key players, but Vanderbilt lost its starting quarterback in Carta-Samuels and Robinette came in and kept the offense from falling apart.
The Commodores now have seven regular season wins with Wake Forest left on the schedule. They could duplicate last season's nine-win record, something that hasn't been done in Vanderbilt's history.
The Vols must suck it up, recognize they must eliminate the mistakes they made Saturday and get what promises to be one of the top recruiting classes in the country ready to blend in and upgrade the talent level and depth.
Just as Franklin was the right man for Vanderbilt, Butch Jones is the right man at the right time for Tennessee.
Vols fans have to keep the faith while Vanderbilt fans have to hold their breath when other programs recognize the job Franklin has done at a place that had long been a coaching graveyard and offer him the moon.
The next few months should be interesting to watch in Knoxville and Nashville. Despite what Franklin's folly was to suggest Tennessee-Vanderbilt is not a rivalry is just psychological babble.
He has stoked the embers.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at email@example.com.