Vanderbilt (3-8, 1-6 SEC) will make its way to Rocky Top after snapping a three-game losing streak in impressive fashion with a 38-0 rout of ETSU last week. Unfortunately, a blowout win against a low-level FCS team is little consolation for what has been an otherwise abysmal season for Derek Mason’s Commodores. The good news is that there is still an opportunity to end the season on a high note. And there’s nothing Vanderbilt would like more than to play the role of spoiler, in what amounts to a de facto bowl game for the Commodores against their arch-rival in Knoxville. That being said, it may require a small miracle to knock off the red-hot Vols for the fourth year in a row.
That’s because Tennessee (6-5, 4-3) is riding a huge wave of momentum. Last week’s 24-20 win at Missouri marked the Vols’ fourth consecutive victory, granting them bowl eligibility for the first time in three years. Winners of five of their last six games, they will look to complete a remarkable regular-season turnaround with a fifth straight win on Saturday. A win that could also help improve their bowl options heading into the postseason. But with a roster comprised mostly of players that have never tasted victory against the Commodores, revenge will serve as the primary motivation for Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols on Senior Day.
Tennessee holds a commanding 75-33-5 lead against Vanderbilt in the all-time series. However, the Commodores have dominated the series in recent years, winning each of the last three matchups and five of the last seven. Vanderbilt won last year’s contest in Nashville, 38-13.
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 30 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -21.5
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
The Vanderbilt offense seemed to find a little mojo on its way to 418 yards against ETSU last week. Quarterback Riley Neal put together a solid performance in the passing game, completing 16-of-24 passes for 179 yards and a pair of touchdowns. And perhaps for the first time all season, the Commodore’s "Big 3" on offense lived up to its lofty preseason billing in the same game. Star running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn ran for 139 yards and a pair of scores to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second year in a row. Wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb did his part with six receptions for 75 yards. And most importantly, tight end Jared Pinkney was finally heavily involved in the Vanderbilt passing attack. He finished with five catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns, by far his best performance of the season.
While last week’s offensive performance was encouraging, it does need to be taken with a grain of salt considering the opponent. And a Vanderbilt offense that has averaged just 241.9 yards and 13.1 points per game against SEC defenses this season could be in for a rude awakening against a Tennessee defense that seems to get better each week. The Vols rank 32nd nationally in total defense and 24th against the pass. They can be somewhat vulnerable against the run, surrendering 149.1 rushing yards per game. However, Tennessee has held five of its last six opponents well below their season rushing averages, including last week when the Mizzou could only manage 99 yards.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Tennessee’s revolving quarterback carousel seems to have come to a screeching halt with Jarrett Guarantano finding redemption in the win over Missouri last week. The redshirt junior torched the SEC’s top-ranked pass defense for a career-best 415 passing yards and two touchdowns to earn SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors. And Guarantano wasn’t the only Tennessee offensive player to receive accolades; left guard Trey Smith earning SEC Offensive lineman of the Week honors for his standout performance in the win. But it may be Tennessee’s receiving corps that deserves the biggest round of applause with three players eclipsing 100 receiving yards for the first time in school history. Josh Palmer had a breakout performance with six catches for a career-high 124 yards. Marquez Callaway showed off his big-play ability with six receptions for 110 yards and a score. And last, but certainly not least, Jauan Jennings once again proved why he is the heart and soul of the Tennessee offense with five catches for 115 yards and a score.
That could spell serious trouble for a Vanderbilt pass defense that ranks 79th in the nation and has allowed the second-most passing touchdowns in the SEC (22) while being tied for the fewest interceptions in the conference (5). And although the Commodores have fared even worse against the run, ranking 109th in the FBS (200.7 rushing yards per game), Tennessee’s 103rd-ranked rushing attack hasn’t had much luck exploiting favorable matchups on the ground this season. In fact, the run game has been a glaring weakness for the Tennessee offense, averaging an SEC-worst 3.7 yards per carry and producing just eight rushing touchdowns on the year. Regardless, the Vols should have their way through the air on Saturday.
The Commodores have enjoyed a nice run against the Vols in recent years. A big reason for that success was quarterback Kyle Shurmur. Without Shurmur, the Commodores’ offense has been a shell of its former self, despite featuring three of the best skill players in the SEC. A Vanderbilt defense that ranks 101st nationally hasn’t done much to help the cause.
That doesn’t bode well against a surging Tennessee team that seems to grow more confident and cohesive with each passing week. Tennessee is still far from perfect, but the Vols are miles ahead of the Commodores in just about every way possible. Tennessee rolls in front of the home crowd on Senior Day to end the Commodore’s reign of terror.
Prediction: Tennessee 37, Vanderbilt 13
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.