There isn’t much hype surrounding Saturday’s SEC East matchup in Knoxville between the Vanderbilt Commodores(4-7, 0-7 SEC) and Tennessee Volunteers (4-7, 0-7 SEC). Which makes sense for two teams destined for losing records and no bowl game. But for the respective fan bases of these in-state rivals, there is a lot more riding on the outcome of this game than bragging rights.
Both Vanderbilt and Tennessee desperately need a victory on Saturday to avoid being the first SEC team to go winless in conference play since 2014. That’s even more important for a Tennessee team that has never gone without an SEC win. Additionally, the Volunteers have never lost eight games in a season and remain one of just two teams in the history of college football that have never lost more than seven games in a season (Ohio State is the other). That is a stat Vol fans take great pride in and one that could be in jeopardy on Saturday.
It could be a tall order for an injury-plagued Tennessee team, led by interim head coach Brady Hoke, to close out a disappointing season with a win. The Vols have now lost six of their last seven contests, the latest being a 30-10 loss at home to LSU last week. The good news for Tennessee fans is that it might be an even taller order for Derek Mason’s Commodores to wrap up a dreadful 2017 campaign with a victory. Vanderbilt has lost seven of its last eight games, culminating in an ugly 45-17 loss to Missouri last week. This should be a hard-fought matchup, even if it is between two bad teams who desperately need to win for all the wrong reasons.
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 25 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -1
Three Things to Watch
1. An undermanned Tennessee team
The Volunteers are on pace to be the most injury-plagued team in all of college football for the second year in a row. It would actually be much easier to list the names of players on Tennessee’s roster who haven’t missed time with an injury. It has grown to such epidemic proportions that the Volunteers played most of last week’s game against LSU with walk-on sophomore Joe Keeler and four freshmen on the offensive line. Jarrett Guarantano started at quarterback against LSU on a bad ankle because he was the only scholarship quarterback who was even healthy enough to take the field. And several other key Volunteers went down as the rain-soaked game against the Tigers progressed.
So, where does that leave Tennessee heading into Saturday’s season finale? Only Brady Hoke and the training staff know for sure, and not a word has been mentioned on the status of any injured Vol other than quarterback Will McBride, who is expected to return for the matchup against Vanderbilt. It’s possible, if not likely, that Tennessee will have at least one or two offensive linemen return from injury this week as well. That alone would tremendously improve the Vols’ chances on Saturday. However, there are still enough question marks on the injury front to cloud Tennessee’s prospects for victory.
2. The run game
Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb (above, right) and Tennessee’s John Kelly are two of the more talented running backs in the SEC. So, it is hard to believe that the Commodores and Vols are the two worst teams in the conference when it comes to running the football. Webb is Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher, yet he has failed to rush for more than 70 yards in nine of the Commodores’ eleven games this season, including the last two contests. Kelly got off to a hot start for the Vols and even led the SEC in all-purpose yards in the first half of the season, only to struggle mightily in his last six starts, averaging just 51 rushing yards per game behind a beat-up Tennessee offensive line.
Not surprisingly, both teams rank among the worst in the SEC when it comes to stopping the run as well. The Commodores rank 12th in the SEC against the run, surrendering 211.5 yards per game, while Tennessee ranks last in the conference, allowing 251.7 rushing yards per game. It should make for an interesting dynamic as two bad rushing attacks square off against two equally bad run defenses. If the Vols can get somewhat healthy this week along the offensive line, they should have a slight edge. If not, the advantage goes to Vanderbilt.
3. Can Kyle Shurmur bounce back?
It’s safe to say that the junior quarterback has been pressing of late to make up for Vanderbilt’s poor play on defense and lack of a complementary rushing attack. Shurmur has thrown for 656 yards over the last two weeks, and he did manage to secure Vanderbilt’s single-season school record for touchdown passes (22). But he also has thrown seven interceptions to go along with just two touchdown passes in the last two games. That’s obviously discouraging after he posted one of the nation's most efficient touchdown-to-interception ratios (20-to-3) in the first nine games of the season.
While Shurmur will have his hands full against a Tennessee pass defense that allows just 150.6 passing yards per game (No. 2 in the nation), his chances to return to form might not be as bad as you would think. If the Commodores can find some semblance of success on the ground against a generous Tennessee run defense this week, Shurmur should be able to settle in and avoid the mistakes that have cost the Commodores dearly of late. His track record against the Vols also bodes well. Shurmur threw for 209 yards and three TDs against the Vols in 2015. And he torched the Tennessee defense last season for a career-high 416 passing yards and two touchdowns.
This is a difficult matchup to gauge given all the unknowns on the Tennessee injury front. One thing is for certain: If Tennessee enters Saturday’s matchup against Vanderbilt as banged up as it was at the conclusion last week’s game, the Volunteers stand very little chance against the Commodores. That said, I do believe that they will get some guys back this week. You can bet that seniors Brett Kendrick and Jashon Robertson are going to do everything in their power to be on the field for their final game in Neyland Stadium. It’s also hard to believe that Team 121 isn’t going to be giving maximum effort to avoid making the wrong kind of history as the first Tennessee team to go winless in the SEC and lose eight games in a season. There’s also a revenge factor after the Commodores dashed the Vols' hopes of a 10-win season and a shot at the Sugar Bowl last season. If Tennessee has enough healthy bodies, the Vols have more than enough incentive to pull out a close win on Senior Night.
Prediction: Tennessee 24, Vanderbilt 21
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.