By Mitch Light
According to the numbers, Vanderbilt was the worst team in the nation last season relative to its conference. The Commodores were outgained in their eight SEC games by an average of 245.4 yards and outscored by an average of 21.0 points.
Enter James Franklin.
With two games still to play, Vanderbilt has already won more games this season (five) than the last two seasons combined (four). And there has been nothing fluky about the Dores’ 5–5 mark; in fact, Vanderbilt, with three SEC losses by five points or less, is a few plays away from being 7–3 or even 8–2.
This season, Vanderbilt has only been outgained in SEC games by 31.5 yards (an improvement off over 200 yards per game) and outscored by 1.7 points (an improvement of 19.3 points per game).
The most dramatic difference has been on the offensive side of the ball. The Dores, for the first time in several years, feature legitimate playmakers at the skill positions. In four starts, quarterback Jordan Rodgers has averaged 232.5 yards passing and 52.8 yards rushing. Junior running back Zac Stacy, healthy for the first time since his freshman season, has rushed for 891 yards and nine touchdowns, and he leads the league (min. 80 carries) with a 6.5-yard average. Sophomore wide receiver Jordan Matthews has been on a tear of late with 21 catches for 452 yards and three TDs in the last three games.
“They made the quarterback switch (from Larry Smith to Rodgers), and they do everything,” said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley. “You can’t cheat against them, meaning every time they do this, they are going to do that. You got to go play. And what’s interesting is they really find a way to generate big plays, as good as anybody. I think Arkansas is the only team with more big plays than they’ve had.”
To Dooley’s point, Vanderbilt ranks second in the SEC (to Arkansas) in plays of 30 yards or more and leads the league in plays of 40 yards or more.
Last week, in a 38–8 win over Kentucky, the Commodores rolled up 410 yards of offense. Over the last four games, they have averaged 444.8 yards and twice in that stretch had over 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same game.
And it’s with this momentum that Vanderbilt heads to Knoxville — as a one-point favorite — to take on a Tennessee team that is 0–6 in the SEC for the first time ever.
“We feel real confident,” said sophomore defensive end Walker May. “We feel good, loose, ready to go. It's so fun. We are looking forward to this weekend, not looking back on the Kentucky win.”
The Commodores need to beat either Tennessee this week or Wake Forest next week to become bowl-eligible for the first times since 2008 and only the second time since the 1982 season.
Vanderbilt last defeated Tennessee in 2005, when Jay Cutler was a junior. Prior to that, the Dores had not won in Knoxville since 1975.
“I am not too familiar with the rivalry,” said Rodgers, a California native who enrolled at Vanderbilt last year after two seasons in junior college. “I know it has been pretty lopsided between the two schools.”
Rodgers believes his team is peaking at the right time of the season.
“With how much we’ve improved, I think it is a good time for us to be playing anybody,” he said. “I feel like we've gotten to the point where we’re confident that we can get a win against anybody we face, if we play how we know we should and execute how we know we should. So, for us right now, we go into every game thinking that we should win, that we should be able to compete. So, right now it's a good time for us to be playing anybody.”
AROUND THE SEC
• Florida scored a total of two touchdowns in its last three road games, losses at LSU, Auburn and South Carolina.
• South Carolina won six SEC games for the first time since joining the league in 1992.
• Arkansas held Tennessee to seven points in last week’s win in Fayetteville. It was the first time the Hogs have held an SEC team to single digits since beating Ole Miss, 44–8, in October 2007.
• Ole Miss is giving up a league-worst 6.67 yards per play against SEC competition. Alabama, the league leader, is giving up 3.5 yards per play.
• Alabama’s Eddie Lacy is averaging 12.2 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and 9.9 yards in the second half.
• Georgia has allowed 16 points or less is six of its eight wins this season.
• Auburn’s 195 yards in the loss to Georgia were the second-fewest of the Gus Malzahn era. Two years ago, the Tigers had 193 yards in a loss to LSU.
• LSU has given up four total touchdowns in six SEC games.
• Tennessee is converting 66.7 percent (42 of 63) on third down in non-conference games but only 24.7 percent (20 of 81) in league games.