Bragging rights will be on the line this Saturday on Rocky Top, as the Tennessee Volunteers are set to host the Vanderbilt Commodores for their annual end-of-season in-state rivalry matchup.
Tennessee (6-5, 3-4 SEC) bounced back from its loss to top-ranked Georgia with a 60-14 victory over South Alabama out of the Sun Belt Conference last Saturday night. The Vols dominated from start to finish, racking up 561 yards of offense and finding the end zone eight times to secure their sixth win of the season and become bowl eligible. Tennessee will now turn its attention to in-state foe Vanderbilt in a bid to improve its bowl status and finish .500 in SEC play.
Vanderbilt (2-9, 0-7) showed some signs of life last Saturday on the road against Ole Miss, compiling a season-high 454 yards of offense. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough, as the Rebels handed the Commodores their sixth straight loss by a score of 31-17. It also extended Vanderbilt's SEC losing streak to 21 games. Nevertheless, it was a promising sign as the Commodores now head to Knoxville looking to salvage an otherwise dismal season with a shocking upset win over the Volunteers.
Saturday's game will mark the 116th meeting all-time between Tennessee and Vanderbilt. The Vols hold a commanding 77-33-5 lead in the series and have won each of the last two meetings, including a 42-17 victory last season in Nashville. Incredibly, these in-state rivals have split their last 10 meetings with a combined score of 273-273.
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 27 at 3:45 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -31
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
The Commodores made some headway on the offensive side of the football last week against Ole Miss. Now they must find a way to keep that momentum going in a bid for some consistency on an offense that still ranks among the worst in the country — averaging just 311.9 yards and 15.3 points per game. In an effort to preserve that continuity, first-year head coach Clark Lea has once again given quarterback Mike Wright the starting nod for Saturday's contest against the Vols, despite Ken Seals being healthy and available. In nine games (four starts), Wright has completed just 53.5 percent of his pass attempts for 844 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. His numbers are clearly not great, but he has shown flashes and given the offense a spark here and there. And unlike Seals, Wright can make plays with his legs (369 rushing yards), which will be critical on Saturday against a Tennessee defense that has really struggled to contain opposing quarterbacks.
Wright does have a capable receiving corps to work with as well — led by Chris Pierce Jr. (53 rec., 609 yds., 2 TDs), Will Sheppard (38, 479, 3), and Cam Johnson (32, 307, 4). And the Commodores' passing game should be able to find some success on Saturday against a Tennessee pass defense that is giving up 255.5 yards per game (No. 13 SEC, No. 104 FBS). The Vols also struggle to get off the field on third down. That said, Vanderbilt has struggled even more to move the chains on third down, converting just 32.8 percent of the time. The Commodores also will be challenged up front by a Tennessee pass rush that has generated 30 sacks this season, led by defensive tackle Matthew Butler with five.
The Vanderbilt offense could also use a spark from a lackluster run game that churns out just 124.1 yards per contest (No. 12 SEC, No. 102 FBS) and has produced only six touchdowns all season. Mike Wright is the X-factor here, and second-year running back Rocko Griffin comes into this contest with some confidence after eclipsing the 100-yard mark last week for the first time in his career. Tennessee hasn't been great at stopping the run, giving up 156.6 yards per contest on the ground (No. 10 SEC, No. 76 FBS). However, the Vols are extremely aggressive in their approach and rank second nationally in tackles for a loss (89). If they can contain Wright, Tennessee should be able to keep Vanderbilt's ground attack at bay for the most part. Linebacker Jeremy Banks will spearhead that effort with a team-high 96 tackles and nine tackles for loss.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Quarterback Hendon Hooker headlines a fast-paced Tennessee offense that produces 460.6 yards and 38.3 points per contest. Hooker continues to shine in the Vols prolific attack — completing 70.0 percent of his passes for 2,411 yards with 24 touchdowns versus only three interceptions. He ranks in the top five nationally in passer efficiency rating (183.4) and yards per attempt (9.9) as well. The dual-threat signal-caller has also performed at a high level with his legs, generating an additional 485 yards and five scores on the ground.
Hooker leans heavily on a pair of veteran receivers in Cedric Tillman (51 rec., 825 yds., and 7 TDs) and Velus Jones Jr. (50, 700, 6). Tillman has really taken off of late with a touchdown in each of his last five games while averaging 123 receiving yards per game during that span. Meanwhile, Jones has scored a touchdown in each of Tennessee's last four contests, including a 96-yard kick return last Saturday.
The Vols' biggest liability has been pass protection, surrendering an SEC-high 42 sacks. That said, there may not be much to worry about against a Vanderbilt pass rush that has generated only nine sacks this season — tied for the fewest in the FBS. Hooker and Co. should have no problem exploiting a Vanderbilt defense that ranks last in the SEC and 119th nationally against the pass (274.3 ypg). The Commodores have allowed more passing touchdowns (27) than any other team in the conference as well. Hooker will need to exercise some caution in this matchup, as the Commodores do rank second in the SEC with 13 interceptions — led by Dashaun Jerkins and Ethan Barr with three apiece.
Tennessee should find plenty of success on the ground as well. The Volunteers rank fourth in the conference and 22nd in the FBS, churning out 205.4 rushing yards per game. That presents a serious challenge for a porous Vanderbilt defense that is among the worst in the FBS, allowing 186.3 rushing yards per contest. It is unknown if leading rusher Tiyon Evans will be available on Saturday for the Vols. Evans has struggled to stay healthy after suffering a high ankle sprain, limiting him to just eight carries over the last four games. Fortunately, the Vols have a solid corps of running backs to help fill the void if Evans is unable to go on Saturday. Jabari Small (99 att., 509 yds., 6 TDs) and freshman Jaylen Wright (53, 243, 3) will likely lead that effort. Vanderbilt is led defensively by linebacker Anfernee Orji, who has a team-high 81 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss.
This one seems pretty cut and dry. On one side, you have a prolific Tennessee offense that needs just 64 points over its last two games to break the school record for the most points ever scored in a season. On the other side, you have a hapless Vanderbilt squad that struggles mightily on both sides of the football. The Commodores should be able to put a few points on the board against a somewhat generous Tennessee defense. However, it will not be near enough as the Vols make easy work of the Commodores at home on Senior Day.
Prediction: Tennessee 45, Vanderbilt 20
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.