Tennessee finds itself in a very unusual situation this weekend — a home underdog to Vanderbilt. Unfortunately for Derek Dooley, his Vols have been setting some programs lows throughout this season on the way to an 0-6 SEC record. The roster attrition suffered from multiple regime changes (Phil Fulmer to Lane Kiffin to Dooley) has been damaging, with massive personnel losses in the junior and senior classes. Combine that with injuries to quarterback Tyler Bray and top receiver Justin Hunter, and the result is that the 4-6 Vols must beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky just to become bowl eligible. Defeating the Commodores has basically been a yearly event for Tennessee since the days of General Neyland, but this season’s James Franklin-led Vanderbilt team is playing quality football. The Dores rank ahead of the Vols in both scoring offense and scoring defense, and VU will become bowl eligible with a victory. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers has energized the Vandy offense, while running back Zac Stacy is fourth in the SEC in rushing. Tennessee may get Bray back from a broken thumb for this game, and if so, he will face a Commodores defense that is tied for seventh in the country with 15 interceptions.
Who Wins: Vanderbilt at Tennessee?
Vanderbilt has lost to Tennessee 27 times in 28 seasons. In 2005, Jay Cutler led the Commodores to a 28–24 win over the Volunteers. It was Vandy's first win over UT since 1982 and first win at Neyland Stadium since 1975. Despite the Big Orange split stats, Vanderbilt (-1.5) is favored against Tennessee for the second time in 26 seasons. The last time the Dores were favored, in Phil Fulmer's next-to-last game in 2008, they lost 20–10 in Nashville. This week, VU first-year coach James Franklin heads to Knoxville to face UT second-year coach Derek Dooley. The Commodores have been beating the teams they should (Kentucky, 38–8; Ole Miss, 30–7), while staying competitive with the SEC's better squads (at Florida, 26–21; Arkansas, 31–28; Georgia, 33–28) and losing badly to the league's best (at Alabama, 34–0; at South Carolina with Marcus Lattimore, 21–3). The question is, where do Dooley's Vols fall in the SEC's pecking order? Tennessee is 0–6 in conference play and fresh off its worst loss since 1981, a 49–7 beating at Arkansas. This is the Super Bowl for both teams. It should be close, but Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers will celebrate a win by doing his older brother Aaron's title-belt, discount double-check dance.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Tennessee has dominated the series with Vanderbilt, but I like the Commodores to win on Saturday at Neyland Stadium. Getting quarterback Tyler Bray back in the lineup will help Tennessee, but how close to 100 percent is he after missing five games? Also, the offense has struggled to find a rushing attack, which adds even more pressure on Bray in his first game back. The Volunteers are still searching for their first SEC victory, while Vanderbilt has two wins in conference play, plus close losses against Georgia (five points), Arkansas (three) and Florida (five). If the Commodores are unable to beat Tennessee, they have another chance to earn win No. 6, as they play at Wake Forest in the regular season finale. While missing out on a bowl game would be a blow to Derek Dooley’s rebuilding efforts at Tennessee, it’s foolish to even consider him on the hot seat. The cupboard wasn’t exactly full when he took over and this is a young team with potential to move up the SEC East standings next season. Give Dooley some time, he’ll get Tennessee back on the right track, but the Commodores will end their bowl hopes on Saturday.
Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
We all know the numbers. This is just the second time in 26 seasons that Vanderbilt has been favored (-1.5) over the Vols. That Tennessee has beaten the Dores in 26 of the last 27 meetings. And we know that the winner of this game is going bowling while the loser is most likely sitting at home for the holidays. We also know that Tennessee is last in the SEC rushing and has scored a total of 58 points in six SEC games — all losses. However, 29 of those points came in the only seven quarters of SEC play quarterback Tyler Bray took part in. Bray has missed five games with a broken thumb on his throwing hand, and should he pull a Willis Reed and lead his team into Neyland Stadium on Saturday, I will take the Vols to pull the upset. If Bray is unable to play, James Franklin will not hesitate to kick Big Orange Nation while they are down.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
This is usually a game where you throw out the details and just pick Tennessee. However, this is the first time I can ever remember where Vanderbilt simply looks like the better team. Even in 2008 when the Vols entered the VU game at 3-7 with a lame duck Phil Fulmer, Tennessee was still the better squad with future NFL players like Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and Eric Berry on the roster. That is not the case with the 2011 Vols, who have an alarming lack of SEC talent in the junior and senior classes. Meanwhile, James Franklin has improved the Vandy offense into a group that can make big plays with Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy. And the Commodores do have some of the veteran, NFL-caliber talent that the Vols lack, especially in senior defenders Casey Hayward, Chris Marve and Tim Fugger. The return of quarterback Tyler Bray would lift Tennessee spirits, but it is difficult to see him being very effective after a month+ with a cast on his throwing hand. In Derek Dooley’s most important game as a head coach, I’ll predict Vanderbilt, 24-20.