The Tennessee Volunteerswill travel to Nashville to face theVanderbilt Commodores on Saturday for an in-state rivalry matchup between a pair ofSEC East teams in search of some light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
Following a promising 2-0 start, Tennessee has found itself in a perpetual downward spiral. With last Saturday's 31-19 loss at home to arch-rival Florida, the Vols have lost six consecutive games by double-digit margins for the first time in school history. At 2-6 on the season, Tennessee can finish no better than fifth in the SEC East standings in a campaign that is already past the point of salvageable. However, a loss to a winless and undermanned Vanderbilt squad could certainly make matters worse. Tennessee, and head coach Jeremy Pruitt in particular, can ill-afford that fate in what is a must-win game for the Vols on Saturday.
While it's been tough sledding on Rocky Top, the 2020 season has been nothing short of a nightmare for the winless Commodores. Just as Vanderbilt appeared to be turning a bit of a corner after giving Kentucky a run for its money on the road, the bottom fell out in a big way in the form of a 41-0 blowout loss at Missouri. Sarah Fuller, a female soccer player turned Vandy placekicker, made history in the loss, becoming the first woman to play in a Power 5 football game. But that wasn't enough to save head coach Derek Mason, who was fired shortly thereafter. And the tough breaks keep coming for Vanderbilt under interim head coach Todd Fitch. Injuries, COVID-19 related issues, player opt-outs, and transfers continue to plague the snake-bitten Commodores to the point that they are well below the SEC's minimum threshold of 53 scholarship players. Despite a decimated roster that has left Vanderbilt extremely short-handed, particularly on defense, the 0-8 Commodores appear set on moving forward with the season in hopes of avoiding their first winless season in school history. Saturday's matchup against in-state foe Tennessee will give them their best chance to do just that, albeit a slim chance.
Saturday's game will mark the 115th meeting all-time between Tennessee and Vanderbilt. The Vols hold a commanding 76-33-5 lead in the series. Tennessee won the most recent meeting by a score of 28-10 last season in Knoxville to snap a three-game losing streak against the Commodores.
Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 12 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -15
When Tennessee Has the Ball
The Vols are still searching for a spark to help light a fire under a hapless offense that is averaging just 20.0 points and 338.6 yards per game. And while Tennessee's late-season quarterback controversy isn't completely settled, head coach Jeremy Pruitt did bring some clarity to the situation on Monday, announcing that the Vols will go with J.T. Shrout and/or Harrison Bailey at quarterback for the last two games (and not fifth-year senior Jarrett Guarantano). Bailey got the starting nod last week against Florida, and despite taking a couple of unnecessary sacks and a few misfires, the true freshman played reasonably well in his first-ever start, completing 14 of 21 pass attempts for 111 yards and a touchdown. Shrout performed even better in limited action against the Gators, completing 12 of his 14 pass attempts for 121 yards and leading the Vols on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
While it's unclear which of these signal-callers will get the start against Vandy, both quarterbacks are likely to see action again on Saturday. And regardless of which quarterback is behind center for the Vols, a favorable opportunity awaits against a depleted Vanderbilt defense that was already struggling mightily against the pass, allowing 20 touchdowns through the air and surrendering 292.5 passing yards per game (No. 12 SEC, No. 120 FBS). Interceptions shouldn't be too much of a concern against a defense that has generated just one all season. And a lackluster Vandy pass rush that has produced an SEC-low 11 sacks is now without top pass rusher Dayo Odeyingbo (5.5 sacks), who opted out earlier in the week.
While the matchup for Tennessee's passing attack bodes well, the Vols may actually find their best opportunity for success on the ground. The Commodores are giving up an SEC-worst 5.7 yards per carry and a generous 188.4 rushing yards per game. Of course, that was with most of their defensive starters intact, which is no longer the case for an alarmingly thin Vanderbilt front-seven that now includes an offensive lineman playing defensive line and multiple defensive backs now lining up at linebacker. Tennessee running backs Eric Gray and Ty Chandler should be able to take full advantage of that mismatch. Gray ran for a Tennessee freshman record 246 yards and three touchdowns against a much healthier Vanderbilt defense last season, and the sophomore running back already has four 100-yard rushing performances to his credit this season.
The Vols will be without kicker Brent Cimaglia for the remainder of the season. Cimaglia opted out earlier this week, citing injuries as the primary reason. Punter and kickoff specialist Paxton Brooks is expected to take over the placekicking responsibilities for Tennessee moving forward.
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
The good news is that Vanderbilt will have most of its key players available on offense for Saturday's matchup against Tennessee. The bad news is that this is still the same Vandy offense that got blanked in its last game against Mizzou and averages an SEC-worst 14.5 points per game. But hope is not completely lost for an offense that has shown promise at times this season, especially against a vulnerable Tennessee defense.
Quarterback Ken Seals will head up Vanderbilt's passing efforts on Saturday. It's been an up-and-down season for the true freshman signal-caller, who has completed 65.9 percent of his pass attempts for 1,689 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. There have been a few forgettable games, including his performance in the 41-0 loss to Missouri, but Seals has shown that he has what it takes to be a starting quarterback in the SEC with three 300-yard performances this season. Seals also has a capable receiving corps to work with in Cam Johnson (49 rec., 481 yds., 2 TDs), Chris Pierce Jr. (22 rec. 326 yds, 5 TDs), and Ben Bresnahan (24 rec., 262 yds, 3 TDs). Seals should be able to find some semblance of success on Saturday against a Tennessee pass defense that is giving up 267.3 yards per game through the air (No. 10 SEC, No. 103 FBS). The Vols also struggle to get off the field on third down, and their woes against passes over the middle continue to be an issue.
Vanderbilt has struggled to move the football on the ground this season, averaging just 117.3 rushing yards per contest (No. 12 SEC, No. 108 FBS). However, Keyon Henry-Brooks has been a bright spot for the Vandy offense when healthy — both as a runner and as a pass catcher out of the backfield. In just five games this season, the sophomore running back has accounted for 677 yards from scrimmage and two scores. Henry-Brooks will spearhead the Commodores' rushing attack on Saturday. He will be joined in the backfield by junior running back Ja'Veon Marlow (46 att., 186 yds.). They will be matched up against an inconsistent Tennessee run defense that has been good at times, and bad in other instances, leaving some room for optimism for the Vanderbilt ground attack on Saturday. For the season, the Vols are giving up 143.4 rushing yards per game on average (No. 6 SEC, No. 48 FBS).
Tennessee's offense is by no means great, or even good for that matter, but the Vols shouldn't have any trouble getting their way against a depleted Vanderbilt defense on Saturday. The Commodores are capable of putting some points on the scoreboard against an uninspiring Tennessee defense as well. But it won't be enough as Tennessee snaps its six-game losing streak with a convincing win over the hapless Commodores on the road.
Prediction: Tennessee 35, Vanderbilt 17
Podcast: CFB Rankings, Coaching Changes and Week 15 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.