Following its loss at South Carolina, Tennessee heads to Nashville looking for its first 10 win regular season since 2003.
Vanderbilt is 5-6 (2-5 SEC) and is playing its best football in years entering the matchup following back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Florida.
Tennessee is without Hendon Hooker and will have to end the regular season with Joe Milton III at quarterback.
Here’s three keys to a Tennessee victory.
This is becoming a somewhat reoccurring key. Maybe it’s because Josh Heupel has made it an emphasis in recent weeks. Starting fast is important for Tennessee in this game because what it does to Vanderbilt.
The Commodores are coming off back-to-back SEC wins and will undoubtedly be very confident entering this game. Tennessee starting fast and jumping out to a big lead may not kill all of Vanderbilt’s confidence but it will be a blow to it. More than anything, another slow Tennessee start will just build confidence for the Commodores.
From the Tennessee side of things, starting fast is important for multiple reasons. For one, the Vols haven’t started fast in a while and a good start could help flush the memories of last week’s loss at South Carolina.
More importantly, a fast start would give Joe Milton III confidence. The back up quarterback stepping into a bigger role is the biggest storyline in this game. Milton struggled in his two starts last season. Josh Heupel and Alex Golesh need to make things easy on Milton early to give him confidence.
Run The Ball Effectively
Tennessee’s run game has been effective for the vast majority of the season. However, the attack’s been less potent in recent weeks including last week when the Vols didn’t post big rushing numbers against the SEC’s second worst rush defense.
The Vols didn’t run the ball poorly but after a pair of long first drive runs, Tennessee averaged just three yards per carry against the Gamecocks.
Running the ball effectively would take a major weight off of Milton’s shoulders and make his life much easier against the Commodores. It would also set up the play action deep shots where Milton excels.
Who Tennessee runs the ball with will also be very interesting. Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright will both get carries a solid number of carries against the Commodores but what about Dylan Sampson? The freshman has flashed in recent weeks and a shaky Commodore run defense presents a solid opportunity for him to see a bigger role.
Then there’s Milton himself who is capable with his legs. Milton is, however, Tennessee’s only remaining scholarship quarterback and Tennessee could be worried about him suffering an injury.
The final importance of running the ball is the forecasted weather Saturday night in Nashville. Steady rains are expected to fall throughout the game which could further limit Tennessee’s passing attack and add an extra level of importance to the running game.
Contain Mike Wright’s Legs
We just discussed the importance of the run game in this matchup due to the forecasted poor weather. Luckily for a Tennessee defense coming off an awful performance, its run defense has been its strength all season and Jeremy Banks is expected to return to the field.
However, Vanderbilt presents multiple challenges in the running game. On top running back Ray Davis — who needs just 18 yards to eclipse the century mark on the season — the Commodores have a strong running thret in quarterback Mike Wright.
Wright hasn’t even been Vanderbilt’s starter throughout the whole season but he’s still one of the top running quarterbacks in the SEC. Wright’s totaled 467 yards and five touchdowns on the ground while averaging over seven yards per carry this season.
Tennessee’s been better defending running quarterbacks then they were last season but they still have been far from perfect. Two weeks ago, Brady Cook — who is an average runner at best — gave the Vols all sorts of problems with his legs.
Stopping the run is a major key for Tennessee in this game and containing Mike Wright is perhaps the most challenging part of that.