Matchup: Vanderbilt

This week, Tennessee takes on Vanderbilt in Nashville. This is our take on this Vols vs Commodores matchup. Tennessee's terrific 7-1 start had Vol fans buzzing. They dreamed of winning the East Division. They dreamed of playing in the SEC Championship game. And if the stars aligned just right, maybe Tennessee could make it to the national championship game.

Consecutive losses to LSU and Arkansas have spoiled those dreams, but it hasn't ruined the season. The only thing that could do that is a loss to Vanderbilt or Kentucky. And as we've seen this season, nothing is a given, not when Georgia can lose to both the Commodores and Wildcats in the same season, yet whip Auburn by 22 points.

When Tennessee was flying high with a No. 8 ranking entering November, hope sprang eternal.

But as former Tennessee quarterback Pat Ryan said: ``The worst thing you can do is give people hope.''

Hope was there. Hope is gone.

But for a team that went 5-6 a year ago, a nine-win season would show marked improvement. A 10-win season would qualify as a success in the minds of realistic fans.

Remember, when Texas and USC and LSU and Alabama and Notre Dame and Oklahoma hit the skids, it took those programs years to recover. LSU had six straight losing seasons and eight in 11 years before becoming a power again. A nine-win season would prove Tennessee is on the way back.

But an eight-win season would be declared a disappointment, if not a disaster. An eight-win season would mean you lost to either Vandy or Kentucky. And an eight-win season would prompt some fans – fair or not -- to call for Phillip Fulmer's head. Some fans wanted his hide after losing to Vanderbilt last year.

Tennessee players know the importance of finishing strong, starting with Saturday's game at Vanderbilt (12:35 ET kickoff). They remember what it felt like to lose last year to the Commodores for the first time since 1982.

``Wow, I can't put it into words,'' said center Josh McNeil, who redshirted last season and watched in disbelief from the sideline. ``It kind of just capped off a bad season. We're going to go out Saturday and redeem ourselves from that. It was a rough loss for everybody.''

McNeil doesn't think UT will have trouble rebounding from back-to-back defeats.

``We just lost two games in a row,'' McNeil said. ``If there's not a lot of emotion and want to to win, then something's not right. So I think the emotion is going be there.''

Linebacker Marvin Mitchell hopes McNeil is right. He said losing last year ranks at the top of his biggest disappoints in college. A win would help relief some of the pain.

``If we finish the year 10-3, especially behind the season we had last year and losing the guys that we did, you can look at us as having a very successful year for the University of Tennessee.''

McNeil knows UT must play well to win.

``Vanderbilt is going to play this game harder than any game they've played all season,'' he said. ``We know they're going to bring their A game. They've lost some close games to some good teams. They're getting more and more confident. They beat us last year so they think they can do it again.''

Here is a position-by-position breakdown.

Game #: 1127
Site: Nashville
Date: Nov. 18
Conference: SECE
Coach Match-up:
For the Vols - Fulmer and for the Commodores - Johnson


Vols

Commodores
OLCOMMENTSOL

Vanderbilt has averaged 153.3 rushing yards per game and surrendered 19 sacks. UT is averaging 106.9 yards per game – the program's worst since 1964 – and allowed 12 sacks, four against Arkansas.

QB'sCOMMENTSQB's

Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson has had a terrific season. Replacing the gifted Jay Cutler, Nickson has completed 55.8 percent of his passes for 1,988 yards and 14 touchdowns, and run for a team-high 650 yards. In his last three games, he's completed 60 percent of his passes for 331.3 yards per game. He had 313 total yards against Florida; UT's team had 220. UT quarterback Erik Ainge suffered a high ankle sprain Oct. 28. He's had a good week of practice, but you've got to wonder if his timing will be off in game competition.

RB'sCOMMENTSRB's

Cassen Jackson-Garrison, a Knoxville product, has rushed for 600 yards, 156 more than UT's leading rusher. LaMarcus Coker (444 yards) gave the run game a spark against Arkansas. Arian Foster (ankle) still isn't completely healthy. Montario Hardesty is improving.

WR'sCOMMENTSWR's

Earl Bennett has had a terrific season, especially without Cutler. Bennett had 11 catches for 220 yards against Kentucky – 2 yards off the single-game school record – and he has 78 catches for 1,130 yards this season. The next best wideout is Marlon White (24 catches). At UT, Robert Meachem has put up All-American type numbers: 54 catches for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns. Jayson Swain (34 catches) and Bret Smith (35) give the Vols a solid trio.


Vols

Commodores
DLCOMMENTSDL

Vandy is allowing 155.4 rushing yards per game. End Curtis Gatewood has a team-high six sacks. Tackle Theo Horrocks has five sacks as the line has accounted for 15.5 of the team's 23 sacks. UT, which has 16 sacks, is led by Turk McBride, who might tackle and end, and Xavier Mitchell (four sacks). UT is allowing 148.7 rushing yards per game.

LB'sCOMMENTSLB's

Vandy's Jonathan Goff (88 tackles) might be the most underrated defensive player in the SEC. Kevin Joyce (53 stops) and is solid. UT's Marvin Mitchell (shoulder) is playing injured but he's had a nice season (82 tackles). Ryan Karl doesn't want to lose to Vandy in his home town. Jerod Mayo has been terrific with five sacks and 80 tackles.

DB'sCOMMENTSDB's

Vandy's best DB is safety Reshard Langford (3 interceptions, 49 tackles, 6 tackles for loss). Vandy is ninth in the SEC in pass defense efficiency. UT's secondary did a nice job containing South Carolina's Sidney Rice (three catches) but Marcus Monk (8 for 137) toasted the Vols. Bennett had 14 catches for 167 yards against UT last year. Jonathan Wade, UT‘s best cover corner, might not rotate to Bennett's side, considering how poorly he played against Monk. Jonathan Hefney is having a very good season.

S. TeamsCOMMENTSS. Teams

Bryan Hahnfeldt has made 8 of 17 field goals. Brett Upson has averaged 37.8 yards per punt. Alex Washington has fumbled or muffed a punt or kickoff in five straight games. James Wilhoit and Briton Colquitt remain the best kicker-punter combination in the SEC. Hefney ranks third in the SEC in punt returns.


Vols

Commodores
INTANGIBLES

Vanderbilt would love to beat Tennessee two years in a row for the first time since 1925-26. Vandy also hopes to get two straight five win seasons on the field for the first time since 1974-75. Tennessee has revenge on its mind and two straight defeats to the Commodores would be embarrassing to the UT program.

PREDICTION

Tennessee 34, Vanderbilt 24.


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