This is the first game since Florida that I’ve been genuinely conflicted picking. I’m seeing some national pundits weigh in with Vanderbilt picks, and I don’t really blame them.
This is a scary game for Tennessee that will be a true test. The Commodores played their best game of the year last week against Ole Miss.
If they play that well again this week, they’ll be a tough out in Nashville. Two huge questions pop into my mind. One, will Tennessee be able to have any semblance of a rush defense against Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame? And two, is Vanderbilt’s defense truly on another level than the likes of Missouri and Kentucky?
If the answer to both of those is “no,” then it will be a shootout that I think UT will win. But if the Commodores can provide some resistance against UT’s potent offense, and UT’s run defense doesn’t shape up, this one could easily be an upset.
Motivation is an interesting factor this week as well. Yes, Tennessee has a shot at the Sugar Bowl, and that should be a big factor, but losing the East last week definitely took some season goals off the table, while Vanderbilt would like nothing more than to earn its first bowl under Derek Mason by beating its in-state rival to get the sixth win.
Going back to the two big questions I had – I think the answer will be somewhere in the middle for both teams. I don’t expect Tennessee’s defense, which really should be able to key on the run, to give up the record-breaking numbers that it has in recent weeks. And I also think the Vanderbilt defense, while maybe not elite, is better than what UT has seen in recent weeks.
I think that all sets up a hard-fought game that will land with both teams in the 20s or 30s on the scoreboard. More often than not, this Tennessee team has found ways to win this year, even when it’s been ugly, while Vanderbilt, more often than not, has found ways to lose.
Tennessee is the better team playing in what will be, at worst, a neutral environment. Be on upset alert, but also know that UT is still the safer pick.
Pick: 31-27 Tennessee
MVP: Vanderbilt RB Ralph Webb
Virtually any primary ball carrier facing Tennessee has piled up yards by the hundreds in recent weeks, so why should we expect anything different from the man who is just 27 yards shy of breaking Vanderbilt’s school rushing record? Webb should have that record taken care of in the first quarter and, win or lose, I expect huge numbers from the Vandy back.
Remember last year when Vanderbilt supposedly had a very stout defense and a strong rushing attack that had caused problems for SEC teams all season heading into their game with Tennessee? Then remember Tennessee’s 53-28 beat down of the Commodores? Well that’s about the same position we find ourselves in this season as well.
Vanderbilt comes into this game with momentum and purpose. The Commodores just blasted Ole Miss last week and need one more win in their final regular season game to become bowl eligible. Thanks to their APR score and the vast number of bowl games there are, Vanderbilt can probably make a bowl even with a 5-7 record should they lose. But a 6-6 record with a win would guarantee they get to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Just like last season, Vanderbilt has played it close with their SEC opponents all year. The Commodores beat Missouri and Kentucky by a combined 11 points last season and only lost by an average of 12.8 points in their five SEC losses prior to taking on the Vols. This season, they’ve beaten Georgia by one point and Ole Miss by 21 while losing by an average of 6.6 points in their five conference losses.
But don’t expect history to repeat itself this Saturday in Nashville.
Tennessee’s fans may make Vanderbilt’s stadium feel almost like a home game for the Vols, but they’ve had a hard time making it out of Nashville with an easy victory. Since 2000, the Vols have played eight games against Vanderbilt in Nashville. Vanderbilt won in 2012 by a score of 41-18, and the Commodores have kept it to within a 14-point margin in five of the other seven games. The last time Tennessee played Vanderbilt in Nashville in 2014, the Vols eked out a 24-17 victory in route to their first bowl game appearance since 2010.
The Vols usually struggle to beat Vanderbilt on the road, and this year shouldn’t be any different.
Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb should have a field day against a dreadful Tennessee run defense. But what else can the Commodores do to help support Webb’s efforts? Vanderbilt’s passing attack is one of the worst in the country, and their defense, while certainly stout, has shown weaknesses throughout the season.
The Commodores will put up a fight. They may even have a lead for a period of time. But Tennessee is the more complete team. The Vols should still be able to get the victory, even if it is an ugly one.
Pick: 37-27 Tennessee
MVP: DE Derek Barnett
Barnett may not have the best game of his career in this game, nor may he even have the best game of any defender. But Barnett needs only 1.5 sacks to surpass Reggie White for Tennessee’s all-time sack mark, and I think he’ll break the record in this game. I predict Barnett will sack Vanderbilt’s quarterback, Kyle Shurmer, at least twice and add a couple more tackles for loss as well, giving him the school’s record for sacks in a career. That’s enough to warrant him an MVP for the game.