Trouncing the Bulldogs 59-21 last weekend was the best thing that could've happened to Tennessee. The starters gained some much-needed confidence and the reserves gained some much-needed playing time. As a result, practices this week have been spirited and upbeat.
Another benefit of building an early lead is that it makes playing defense a lot easier.
''You get a team in a situation where they're going to have to be one-dimensional (pass-happy) if they're going to get back in the game,'' defensive coordinator John Chavis said. ''It's a lot more fun playing when you've got a lead; you don't get as many gray hairs. But the big thing is getting some of the young kids an opportunity to play.''
Given the fact the Vols have the homefield advantage and a significant edge in manpower, the only two ways they could lose this Saturday is if 1) they overlook the Commodores or 2) they commit a bunch of turnovers. The former appears unlikely, since the Dores are coming off an eye-opening 28-17 upset of Kentucky. The latter appears equally unlikely, since Tennessee has played three consecutive turnover-free games -- something that hasn't happened on The Hill since 1957.
Even if the Big Orange comes out a little flat and fails to put the Commodores away, you've got to like UT's chances in a close game. Tennessee has been resourceful enough to win eight of 10 games thus far, despite playing impressively in just one outing (vs. Mississippi State). The Vols may win ugly, but they win.
Other factors that weigh in Tennessee's favor include:
• The Vols have beaten Vanderbilt 20 times in a row and haven't lost to them at Neyland Stadium since 1975.
• The Vols are 71-4 in November games since 1985, including 41-2 at home. The home losses were to top-ranked Notre Dame in 1990 and top-ranked Miami in 2002.
• The Vols still have plenty to play for -- an excellent shot at a BCS bowl game and a top-five national ranking, plus an outside shot at the SEC East title.
• Phillip Fulmer has never lost to Vanderbilt, boasting a 10-0 record as head coach.
• The Vols' seniors don't want to close their careers with an embarrassing homefield loss.
• Tennessee's defense surrendered two late touchdowns (with scrubs in the game) last weekend vs. Mississippi State, so the stop unit will be looking to atone this weekend.
As always, Vanderbilt's disdain for Tennessee will give the Commodores an emotional lift for the first quarter or so. Once they lose this mental edge, however, the visitors will find they have little else going for them.
My pick: Tennessee 38, Vanderbilt 10.