Back in 1994, I was a bright-eyed optimist, not yet beaten down by the cruelty of work, mortgages and social media.

I had just graduated from SUNY Geneseo and was heading to Tennessee for grad school.

That fall I kind of lucked into a job shooting practice video for the Vols. Growing up in upstate New York, I knew very little about college football, at least compared to the folks I was around. I learned pretty quickly about just how all-encompassing the sport was across the Southeast.

At the end of the season, I got to go on a road trip as the Vols ended their schedule at Vanderbilt.

It was my first time out of the Eastern Time Zone. On the way to Nashville, I asked my fellow film crew guys what the crowd representation would be like in enemy territory.

They ensured me that there would be a lot of Orange in the stands.

Boy were they right.

I couldn’t believe it when Tennessee ran out onto the field to thunderous applause, while the Commodores were greeted with boos as they jogged into their own stadium.

The “visitors” dominated. Tennessee won 65-0, and most of the pro-Volunteer faithful stuck around to see the shutout.

Even during the few times when Vanderbilt has had the upper hand in this rivalry, Vols fans have viewed Vanderbilt Stadium as “Neyland Stadium West.”

That game took place smack dab in the middle of Tennessee’s most dominant period in this series. They won 22 in a row between 1983-2004. During that era, it felt like there was no way Vanderbilt could ever be an opponent that could challenge Tennessee.

But it’s a shame that no one tells you that you are in the good ol’ days before you leave them.

In 2011, Tennessee beat Vanderbilt 27-21 in overtime. The Commodores probably were the better team that evening in Knoxville, but the Vols made the most of the breaks they received.

After the game in the victorious Tennessee locker room, head coach Derek Dooley addressed his team.

“The one thing that Tennessee always does is kick the (expletive) out of Vandy,” Dooley said to his players, who in turn picked Dooley up and threw him around like a rag doll in celebration.

As often seems to happen, that video was leaked to social media, and that drew the ire of Vandy head coach James Franklin.

“We’ll talk about it next year a lot,” said Franklin told reporters in the days that followed. “We’ll talk about it as much as you guys want to talk about it next year. We’ll watch it as many times as we’ve got to watch it next year. That’s a wound that I’m going to leave open that’s not going to heal.”

A few years ago, former Vanderbilt outside linebacker Kyle Woestmann told me, “It was disrespectful and you’re damn right we thought about that all year … we wanted to punish UT. We knew they had some struggles in 2012 and that it would be a great year to dominate them.”

Vandy got their revenge in a 41-18 bludgeoning in Nashville 12 months later. It was only the Commodores 2nd win over their biggest rivals in 36 years. That loss was so jarring that it was the final nail in Dooley’s coaching coffin. He was fired the following morning.

That started a stretch not seen in this rivalry since before General Robert Neyland arrived in Knoxville. Vandy took advantage of Tennessee’s on- and off-field struggles, winning 5 of 7 games between 2012-2018.

The 2016 game was particularly impactful. Vandy’s 45-34 upset kept the Vols from a spot in the Sugar Bowl, and was a sign that the Butch Jones era was doomed to end without a division title or a major bowl game.

But it feels like the rivalry is tilting back in Tennessee’s favor. First-year Vols coach Josh Heupel has the Vols rolling while first-year Commodores coach Clark Lea has a ton of work to do.

The Vols look to win their 3rd straight over Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon.

Don’t look now, but the good ol’ days might be comng back.