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Preview: No. 17 Tennessee at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt Stadium-1

No. 17 Tennessee (8-3, 4-3 SEC) at Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5 SEC) 

Saturday, 7:30 pm ET

Vanderbilt Stadium (39,790) • Nashville, Tenn.

TV: SEC Network

Series Record: Tennessee leads 75-30-5

 Setting the table

Make no mistake about it, Tennessee fell short of one of the primary expectations of this season last week when Florida clinched the SEC East, even though Tennessee beat Missouri 63-37. There’s still plenty to play for, however – namely a trip to the Sugar Bowl, which would be UT’s best postseason destination since the Fiesta Bowl following the 1999 season. The Vols need some help to get there, but lose to Vandy and nothing else will matter. And in a season that’s teetered on the brink of success and failure, Saturday’s game could go a long way in shaping that narrative.

Vanderbilt, meanwhile, has a ton to play for as well after pulling the upset against Ole Miss last week. The Commodores can guarantee bowl eligibility for the first time under Derek Mason with a win. There would be no better way to do it than by beating their in-state rival.

 Who has the edge

When Tennessee throws…

Vanderbilt’s pass defense, which is ranked 11th in the SEC, hasn’t been its strength this season. The secondary hasn’t received a ton of help from the pass rush, which is last in the league in sacks coming into Saturday’s game. That will open up some opportunities for Joshua Dobbs, who has played some of the best games of his career over the past three weeks. Vandy should provide more resistance than Kentucky and Missouri, but expect the Vols to have at least some degree of success through the air if Dobbs plays well again. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee 

When Tennessee runs…

The Vols have run all over their past few opponents, averaging 246.7 yards per game on the ground in the past three weeks. Vanderbilt, led by star linebacker Zach Cunningham, won’t be as easy to move the ball on, however. The Commodores are a respectable sixth in the league in rush defense, giving up 164.4 yards per game. The trio of Dobbs, Alvin Kamara and John Kelly is too potent to be completely stopped. But Vanderbilt’s ability to limit long runs and keep the Vols behind the sticks will be key in this game.  Edge: Tennessee 

When Vanderbilt throws…

Kyle Shurmur isn’t thought of as one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC, but he’s played well the past three weeks in conference play, putting up 248.7 yards per game against Auburn, Missouri and Ole Miss. Ball security can be an issue (7 TDs, 6 INTs on the season), and Vanderbilt hasn’t been great at protecting him, opening up the door for Derek Barnett to potentially tie or break Reggie White’s all-time school sack record. Shurmur is playing well enough recently to take some pressure off the ground game, but UT should still have the advantage even though the secondary has been shaky at times this year. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee 

When Vanderbilt runs…

Tennessee’s run defense has been historically bad recently – giving up some of the most yardage in school history on the ground. Three teams have gone over 400 yards on the ground against Tennessee. It’s been a disaster. And while Vandy’s rush totals aren’t overly-impressive (162 ypg), the Commodores have one of the most talented backs the Vols have seen this year in Ralph Webb. He’s just 27 yards shy of the school rushing record, and he could get that on his first carry with the way the Vols have been playing in this area. The combo of Webb and power back Khari Blasingame should give Vandy a huge advantage in this area. Edge: Vanderbilt

On special teams…

Vanderbilt kicker Tommy Openshaw (13-of-16) has been one of the better kickers in the league this year. UT punter Trevor Daniel is also one of the best in the league at his position. Darrius Sims is dangerous in the return game for Vandy, while it’s tough to say exactly who all UT will be willing to use in the return game with Cam Sutton and Alvin Kamara still coming off injuries. Edge: Even

 Best-case scenario for UT 

Style points could be important with the playoff ranking committee, so a multiple-score victory over the Commodores would be nice for UT. Getting that in addition to a Florida State win over Florida and an Alabama win over Auburn would make for the ideal day in terms of boosting the Vols’ chances at the Sugar Bowl.

 Worst-case scenario for UT

The jury is still out on this season for Tennessee in many respects, but a loss at Vanderbilt would certainly rest the case for anybody arguing that this season hasn’t lived up to expectations. There will be more “champions of life” jokes than you can imagine.

 How we think it’ll play out

This is a tricky one. Tennessee is the better overall team, and this is more of a neutral environment for the Vols. Tennessee is the safer pick, but it’s not a sure-fire one. Vanderbilt has a lot to play for, and the Commodores have competed with every SEC team they’ve faced this year. This one will likely come down to the fourth quarter with Tennessee needing to make some big plays late to keep Sugar Bowl hopes alive.

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