No trivial pursuit

Two years ago Earl Bennett seemed destined to be the answer to a trivia question: Who scored the winning touchdown in 2005 when Vanderbilt beat Tennessee for the first time in 22 years?

There is nothing trivial, however, about what Bennett has accomplished since reeling in a five-yard TD pass from Jay Cutler with 1:11 to play on that fateful day at Neyland Stadium. He earned All-Southeastern Conference recognition as a freshman in '05 and as a sophomore in '06, leading the league in receptions each season. Only a junior, he already holds the SEC record for career receptions (228) and is headed for All-America honors in 2007.

This year Bennett leads the SEC in receptions per game (6.7) and ranks sixth in receiving yards per game (73.9), even though he plays for a Commodore team that lacks a first-rate passer. In short, the 6-1, 202-pounder from Birmingham is one of the premier players in all of college football, and Tennessee must find a way to defend him when he makes his second visit to Neyland Stadium this Saturday at 2 p.m.

"We've got to defend Vanderbilt's offensive attack," Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis said this week. "Bennett's a part of it but they've got another receiver or two that are just as good."

Really? Vandy's second-leading receiver, George Smith, has 23 catches. Its third-leading receiver, Sean Walker has 20. They have 43 receptions between them. Bennett has 67 all by himself.

This just serves to underscore Bennett's brilliance, however. Even without a complementary threat he is unstoppable. Even in a ball-control offense, he is unstoppable. Even though he is routinely double-teamed, he is unstoppable. That is a credit to both his talent and to the Commodores' scheme.

"They do a great job of moving him around," Chavis said. "But if you go in with the idea that you're going to just defend him, I think you're going to miss the boat."

There is some merit to that statement; Vanderbilt is not just the Earl Bennett Show. In fact, the Commodores are the most balanced offense in the SEC. Through 10 games they have 1655 rushing yards and 1645 passing yards.

As Vol head man Phillip Fulmer recently noted: "The balance that they present offensively certainly is something that our defense is going to have to do a great job with."

Vandy has become a little less balanced in recent weeks, moving more toward the pass and away from the run. After completing just 5 of 18 passes in Game 2 vs. Alabama and 5 of 16 in Game 5 vs. Auburn, Chris Nickson surrendered the starting quarterback job to Mackenzi Adams.

Asked how the Commodore offense is different with Adams behind center, Chavis replied: "Not quite as much option. Other than that, not a lot. I don't know why they made the decision they made (to change QBs) but that staff has done a great job. I'm sure they're playing the guy that they think gives them the best chance to win. There's a little difference in the option game but not a lot."

Nickson has better mobility but Adams has a better arm, so the switch apparently was made to better exploit Bennett's receiving skills. Adams threw 32 passes in Game 9 against Florida and 31 in Game 10 against Kentucky. The 'Dores averaged around 20 passes in the games Nickson started.

Chavis' defense did a terrific job shutting down Arkansas last weekend, limiting the Hogs to 289 yards of total offense. Strange as it sounds, stopping the balanced Commodores could be more difficult. That's because, as Fulmer noted, "Arkansas is somewhat one-dimensional, whereas Vanderbilt is more balanced."


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