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Preview: Tennessee at Vanderbilt

Butch Jones-1Tennessee (5-6) at Vanderbilt (3-8)

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET

Vanderbilt Stadium (40,350) • Nashville, Tenn.

TV: SEC Network

Series Record: Tennessee leads 73-29-5


 Setting the table

It’s very simple for Tennessee – it’s a one-game playoff to extend the season. The Vols are on the cusp of their first bowl appearance since 2010 and they have a golden opportunity on Saturday. With five wins in their pocket, the Vols only need to knock off Vanderbilt, a team that has lost all seven SEC games this season by double-digits, to accomplish one of the biggest goals for this team. Despite Vandy’s struggles, there will still be challenges for the Vols. Coming off a home loss to Missouri, the Vols are missing multiple key players for various reasons, including receiver Marquez North (shoulder), linebacker A.J. Johnson (suspension) and possibly center Mack Crowder (ankle), who is questionable. But truthfully, there will be no excuse for the Vols. A win goes a long way towards securing a successful season, while a loss will lead to a long, long offseason.

 Who has the edge?

When Tennessee throws…

The Vols are averaging just over 250 yards passing per game since the Joshua Dobbs era began and Vanderbilt comes in 11th in the SEC in passing defense, giving up 229.8 yards per game through the air. Last week’s game against Missouri was somewhat of a setback for the Vols’ passing attack, but a lot of that was due to the Tigers’ pass rush, which disrupted UT’s rhythm. Vanderbilt – which only averages 1.5 sacks per game – might get to Dobbs a couple times, but the Vols should be able to throw with relative consistency. Injuries have piled up for UT’s receivers. The Vols will be asking Pig Howard, Von Pearson and possibly Josh Malone to shoulder most of the load. Look for some lesser-used reserves such as Vic Wharton and Ryan Jenkins to see some playing time as well. Edge: Tennessee

When Tennessee runs…

Tennessee’s potent rushing attack hit a wall against Mizzou last week, gaining just 53 yards. The sledding shouldn’t be as tough against Vanderbilt, which comes in 11th in the conference in rushing defense. Vandy’s last two opponents (MSU, Florida) have rushed for 283 and 214 yards against the Commodores in the last two games, respectively. Tennessee may not get to those totals, but then again, UT averaged over 250 per game on the ground in the previous three games before Missouri, so it can’t be ruled out. Finding running threats other than Dobbs and Jalen Hurd continues to be an issue, but those two are likely all the Vols will need to have a successful day on the ground. Edge: Tennessee

When Vanderbilt throws…

Johnny McCrary is settling in as Vanderbilt’s quarterback, though Maryville native Patton Robinette will likely see some time as well. The vertical passing game has been relatively absent this year. The fact that tight end Steven Scheu (463 yards) leads the team in receiving, says a lot about the lack of explosiveness in the Commodores’ offense. McCrary is bringing some consistency to the position, but the Vols shouldn’t be too threatened by Vandy’s 13th-ranked passing attack in the SEC. Avoiding the big play needs to be Tennessee’s focus. Justin Coleman, especially, has given up some deep balls in recent weeks and the Vols will look to curtail that issue on Saturday. Edge: Tennessee

When Vanderbilt runs…

The Commodores are dead last in the SEC in rushing by a fairly wide margin. Vanderbilt doesn’t have a run longer than 28 yards all season. Freshman Ralph Webb gives them some promise at the position going forward. He’s leading the team with 196 carries for 857 yards and three touchdowns, though he’s not the type of back that will likely gash Tennessee on a consistent basis. Tennessee’s run defense has been pretty good – though at times inconsistent – over the past couple weeks. The Vols will hope linebacker Jakob Johnson can take another step after his debut against Missouri last week. The Commodores may find some room on the ground, but history tells us the Vols should have the advantage here. Edge: Tennessee

On Special Teams…

Tennessee has been strong returning and in coverage all season. Evan Berry may not have enough kickoff return opportunities to qualify among the national leaders, but he’s averaging nearly 31 yards per return and has made a few big ones to really set the Vols up with good field position. Matt Darr had one of his best days punting of his career against Mizzou and Aaron Medley has become almost automatic inside 40. Vanderbilt has shown some explosion in the return game – returning three total for touchdowns this season and its coverage has been respectable. Like Medley, kicker Tommy Openshaw has been good from close to medium range. Both teams have done some good things, but it just seems more likely that the Vols will be the ones to make a big play. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee

 What Vanderbilt is thinking

It’s been a rough season. There’s no denying that. A win over Tennessee wouldn’t make it a success necessarily, but it would go a long way in giving us some confidence and helping us get this going in the right direction. We stuck within two scores of teams like South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri – a Mizzou team that beat UT last week. We’re getting some better play at QB, Tennessee is missing some key pieces and we’ll be able to get this one into the fourth quarter. We have no reason to fear the Vols. We’ve knocked them off two straight times and we’ll have a chance to play spoiler this week.

 What Tennessee is thinking

The temptation is to count this one as a win and to start thinking about making our return to a bowl game. We have to avoid that mindset. Missouri reminded us that we still have some flaws and we’re missing about 20% of our scholarship players due to various reasons. We’re not going to be able to just show up and roll Vanderbilt – the Commodores will be playing for a lot of pride. If we get back to playing our game – running the ball, finding some big plays in the passing game and limiting the huge plays on defense – we’ll get win No. 6 and meet one of our huge goals for this season. We have to come with that workman-like mentality, however. If not, this one will be closer than we’d like.

 What RTI is thinking

On paper, Tennessee should win this one by at least a couple scores and possibly by a wide margin. Vanderbilt simply isn’t very good. Despite battling through some adversity themselves, the Vols have no excuse in this game. They have to win. The narrative about this team and program will change to a large degree if they don’t. That being said, we like Tennessee’s chances. It should be a pro-UT crowd and the Vols, for once, will have some margin for error. But they can’t be reckless with the football. Vanderbilt is last in turnover margin, but if Tennessee inexplicably loses that battle by a wide margin, it could get interesting. One concern is that the Vols have played tight in some must-win type situations in the past, so they’ll need to shake that on Saturday as well.

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