The Vanderbilt Commodores (5-6, 2-5 SEC) came away with their second SEC victory of the season with an impressive 38-17 upset win over Ole Miss last week in Nashville. Vanderbilt is now in search of that all-important sixth win of the season to become bowl eligible. While there is a reasonable chance that the Commodores can still obtain a bowl bid with just five wins, they would much rather do it the old-fashioned way. And there would be no better way for Vandy to accomplish that goal than by knocking off hated rival Tennessee on their home field. A victory would provide Derek Mason with his first six-win season at Vanderbilt, as well as his first win against the Vols. More importantly, it would guarantee a Vanderbilt bowl appearance for the first time in the Mason era.
The No. 24 Tennessee Volunteers (8-3, 4-3 SEC) managed to do their part in their quest to play for an SEC championship. Unfortunately, a 63-37 win over Missouri in Knoxville wouldn’t be enough to give the Volunteers that opportunity. LSU came up short at the goal line against Florida, ultimately cancelling the Volunteers travel plans for Atlanta. Butch Jones must now find a way to move his team forward with a date set for Saturday night against in-state foe Vanderbilt. A Volunteer victory would go a long way in positioning them for a top-tier bowl game. And get them one step closer to their first 10-win season since 2007.
Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. A Record-Setting Night for Ralph Webb
Vanderbilt junior running back Ralph Webb put in a masterful performance against Ole Miss last week rushing for 123 yards and three touchdowns. In the process, he managed to reach the vaunted 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second year in a row. Webb also eclipsed the 3,000-yard rushing mark for his career and now sits just 27 yards shy of becoming Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher. Webb needs just 135 ground yards to also become the Commodores all-time single season rushing leader.
There’s a very good chance that Webb could set multiple Vanderbilt rushing records on Saturday night. A depleted Tennessee defense that ranks 116th nationally against the run (253 ypg) has been trounced by opposing run games in recent weeks. The Volunteers gave up an astounding 420 rushing yards last week to Missouri and 443 ground yards to Kentucky the week prior. The Vols also have allowed 8 rushing touchdowns over their last two contests. Webb should have no trouble continuing the trend against a porous Tennessee run defense en route to a record setting night.
2. A Red-Hot Tennessee Offense
Webb probably won’t be the only player racking up the yards on Saturday night. The Volunteer offense has been on fire of late. Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs has accounted for 446 passing yards to go along with 337 rushing yards over his last two games. Dobbs also is responsible for 10 touchdowns during that stretch. Running backs Alvin Kamara and John Kelly have been producing at a high level as well. Kamara and Kelly have combined for 378 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns in their last two games. The Vols recent surge has helped produce an average of 560 yards of total offense and 56 points per game over their last three contests.
While Tennessee will be in for a slightly bigger test this week against the Vanderbilt defense, it is a matchup that still holds plenty of promise for the Volunteer offense. The Commodores enter Saturday night’s contest with the No. 76 passing defense in the nation (237 ypg) and the No. 80-ranked run defense in the nation (163 ypg). The Vandy defense also has produced the fewest sacks in the SEC so far this season with 13. A stat that bodes particularly well for Joshua Dobbs and the passing game. Vanderbilt will have its hands full trying to keep a red-hot Tennessee offense at bay.
3. A Red Zone Slugfest
One of the biggest areas of contention on Saturday night will likely come in the red zone. The Commodores rank No. 1 in the SEC in red zone offense, scoring on 94.7 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. The Volunteers have the No. 2 red zone offense in the conference. Tennessee has put points on the scoreboard at a 92.5 percent clip when inside the 20. The Vols have been the more proficient team in terms of red zone touchdowns, finding the end zone 31 times as opposed to 26 red zone touchdowns for the Dores. Tennessee has scored at a 100 percent rate inside the red zone in 10 of their 11 games so far this season as well.
Florida, who has the No. 1 red zone defense in the nation, was the only team to prevent Tennessee from scoring inside the 20 yard line this season. The No. 2 red zone defense in the country belongs to Vanderbilt. The Commodores have allowed opposing offenses to score on just 66.7 percent of their trips inside the 20. The Tennessee offense is capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. However, it could be a battle for the Vols inside the red zone against the Vandy defense.
This will be a dangerous matchup for the Volunteers. The Vandy offense doesn’t do too many things extremely well, but running the football up the middle with Ralph Webb is one of them. It just so happens that Tennessee’s biggest weakness — and that may be an understatement — is stopping the run up the middle. A Commodores passing attack, led by sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur, appears to finally be gaining some traction as well. The question is, will that be enough to outscore a surging Tennessee offense for the upset? It’s certainly possible, but a blistering hot Joshua Dobbs should provide the Volunteers with the edge they need to overcome an anemic run defense and escape Nashville with their fourth consecutive victory.
Prediction: Tennessee 30, Vanderbilt 28
Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.