Neyland lost to Vanderbilt in his first season on the job, 20-3, but pulled even the next (7-7) and won the next seven meetings (1928 to 1934) During that span the Vols D held the Commodores to a total of only 13 points. The General built his program on a rock hard defense and that has been the foundation to UT's football success ever since.
The Vols haven't exhibited a lot of defense the last two weeks, but much of that is simply the difference in playing LSU and Arkansas instead of Vanderbilt. It's like the batter who struggles against Major League pitching and is sent down to the minors where he promptly wears out AAA hurlers.
Still it is worth noting that if Tennessee is going to lose three SEC games it's better to get beat by ranked teams than the Dores. Vanderbilt may not be among the teams most UT fans would like to see the Vols defeat, but it is probably at the top of the list of teams they don't want to lose to. That makes Saturday's win a good win, as UT went old school upside Vandy's head.
Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Special teams are included among defensive ratings but they aren't factored into the defense's total score. An opponent degree of difficulty (between 1 and 10) has been added to the formula.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY (5.5)
DEFENSIVE BACKS (96) An excellent recovery from a unit that was burned repeatedly by LSU and Arkansas wideouts. Of course they were helped by a front seven that got consistent pressure on the passer. Jonathan Wade (4 tackles) got back on track with an interception which he returned 39 yards, and he applied tight man coverage throughout the game. Jonathan Hefney (7 tackles) also picked off a pass and returned it 29 yards. Hefney is deserving of All-Conference honors for his physical play and impressive tackle totals. Antwan Stewart added 5 tackles and Demetrice Morley had 2 stops. Overall Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson was held to 10 of 23 for 97 yards and 1 TD. Vandy wide receiver Earl Bennett, who exploited UT's secondary in last year's upset, was held to 4 catches for 16 yards. Ricardo Kemp showed he has the makings of a good DB while in nickel coverage.
LINEBACKERS (88) Jerod Mayo (2 tackles) went out early with a knee injury depriving the Vols of their most talented LB, but freshman Rico McCoy stepped in and led the Vols in tackles with 8 stops including 3 for losses. He also forced a fumble and demonstrated his reputation for having a nose for the football is well deserved. It's easy to overlook the contributions of Ryan Karl (4 tackles), but he has a genuine knack for being around the football, and making big plays. Fifth year senior Marvin Mitchell (4 tackles) was solid in the middle even though he is essentially playing with one arm. Andre Mathis, Adam Myers-White and Ellix Wilson got some much needed playing time and compensated for experience with high energy play.
DEFENSIVE LINE (81) It wasn't so much what the D-line did against Vanderbilt that was impressive, it's what the front four didn't do. They didn't lose gap control or containment on a mobile signal caller with the ability to attack the defense outside the pocket. Neither did they allow cutbacks on misdirection. Demonte Bolden (3 tackles) is becoming more emboldened and looks like he could turn into a force at tackle with the proper motivation. Turk McBride (2 assists) has sacrificed some of his game to fill a void up front left by Justin Harrell and is the only DT the Vols have that can consistently breach gaps. Xavier Mitchell (3 tackles) and Robert Ayers were effective squeezing the pocket without losing containment. Dan Williams (1 assist), Walter Fisher (1 stop for loss) and true freshman Chase Nelson (1 stop) saw service on the inside for Tennessee. The Vols didn't record any sacks or hurries in the game.
OVERALL (85) There was nothing lacking in UT's effort or play with the exception of no sacks. This score reflects the degree of difficulty more than the quality of performance. Obviously, the strength of schedule leading into the Arkansas game zapped the Vols' energy on defense. They regained their focus and emotional fuel for this one and it showed. On balance this is a weaker defense than what the Vols fielded in 2005. Injuries and lack of proven depth are the primary culprits. Are the components there for UT to become a dominate unit next fall?
KICKING GAME (99) Probably the best performance UT has had in the kicking game. James Wilhoit hit a career high 4-of-4 field goals (43, 27, 21, 41). He averaged 60.8 yards on nine kickoffs with five touchbacks, good placement and optimum hang time. The Dores averaged less than 20 yards on four KO returns. Britton Colquitt only punted twice but averaged 46.5 yards with a long of 57 yards. UT's return game didn't get much of a chance to shine, still the lack of production on kickoff returns remains a concern. May be time for another audition.