Devil's Advocate

Welcome to Devil's Advocate — Inside Tennessee's version of punch/counter punch — where each week analysts Randy Moore and Jeffery Stewart choose their sideline and make their cases for our readers' regular amusement and occasional edification.



Playing the Tennessee Vols this year is like selling a house: The three biggest keys are location, location, location.

That's one of many reasons the Big Orange will thump Vanderbilt this Saturday at 2 p.m. The game is being played at Neyland Stadium, where Tennessee is 6-0 this fall. Five of the six wins were by 20 points or more – Southern Miss (20), Arkansas State (21), Georgia (21), Louisiana-Lafayette (52) and Arkansas (21).

Except for South Carolina, which has faded like a pair of Levis in recent weeks, Vandy's road foes have dominated the 'Dores. Auburn romped 35-7 and Florida prevailed 49-22.

Here are some more reasons to put your money on the Orange:

THE STAKES: The Vols must beat the Commodores this Saturday and Kentucky next Saturday to nail down the Eastern Division title and a berth in the SEC Championship Game.

THE PHIL FACTOR: UT head coach Phil Fulmer learned two years ago that losing to Vandy is the Unpardonable Sin. You can bet Tennessee won't be looking past the Commodores.

THE PAYBACK: Tennessee's players and fans are still angry about losing to Vandy in 2005, ending a 22-game Vol win streak in the series. Many of the UT players who endured that humiliation are still around, including QB Erik Ainge. The fact Vanderbilt released a highlight video of that game grates on the Vols' nerves to this day.

THE MOMENTUM: Tennessee is riding a three-game win streak and coming off an impressive defeat of Arkansas. Vanderbilt is on a two-game skid and coming off a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky.

THE BENNETT FACTOR: Vandy's star player, Earl Bennett, was a non-factor against the Vols last year. He made one catch that gained 20 yards but his other three receptions resulted in minus-4 yards. All told, he had four catches for 16 net yards.

If that isn't enough to convince you, there's always The History. Over the last 24 years, Tennessee has 23 victories in the series. The Commodores have 1.



For more years than I'd care to count I've seen very bad Vanderbilt teams carry very good Tennessee football teams to the limit and lose. I've also often seen very good UT squads run very bad Vandy teams out the exits in the wink of an eye. This rivalry, and I use that term advisedly, recognizing that a true rivalry can't be maintained with acrimony alone, produces these type of divergent margins, but it almost always results in a Big Orange victory margin.

No doubt this is what happens when you match a very good football program against a very bad football program on an annual basis. Most commonly the Vols have superior speed, depth and athleticism. Add the fact both teams have motivation and UT has greater crowd support even in Nashville than Vandy and it's not difficult to understand Tennessee's domination. That's particularly true over the last 30 years with two native Tennesseans — Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer — fully appreciating the importance of winning this game and getting that point across to the team.

This year that normally reliable formula is a bit more fallible because I'm not sure Tennessee is a very good football team or that Vanderbilt is very bad. That probably says a lot more about the state of college football than it does college football in the state.

Suffice it to say the competitive spectrum is being compressed. Every team gets exposure. Every team gets skilled players while offensive linemen are developed more than they are grown. Advanced weight training and training table nutrition means everybody has big, strong linemen. Some are more athletic than others but it's still more about how a line performs and functions as a unit than who has the most talent.

Throw in spread offenses and the capacity all D-I programs have to build quality special teams and acquire capable kickers it's no mystery why upsets have become almost routine.

The leveling of the playing field may be in evidence Saturday as the Vols and Dores renew hostilities. Of course the last time they met in Neyland Stadium (2005) the Dores ended a losing streak that stretched back to 1982. That could serve as incentive for the Vols, but it might also translate to confidence for the ‘Dores.

Vanderbilt can keep this game close with its defense which is rated No. 3 in the SEC. That's the highest rated defense the Vols have faced in Conference play this year as they haven't seen either No. 1 LSU or No. 2 Auburn.

The Commodores played Alabama and Florida much closer than the Vols did, and they beat the same South Carolina at Columbia than Tennessee beat in overtime the next week at Knoxville.

Vanderbilt also has a higher rated rushing attack than the Vols as well as a higher ranked defense against the run. That's a significant indicator this late in the season after playing seven SEC games. It means VU has a very good chance to keep this one close and take the decision late into November afternoon. Essentially Bobby Johnson wants to do the same thing to Tennessee's offense that the Vols did to Arkansas' powerful running attack. Keep it on the sidelines, disrupt its timing and force two or three turnovers.

The ‘Dores may be well constituted to carry out such a strategy. They have some mobility at quarterback and the league's best possession receiver in Earl Bennett Jr.

The real question: will Tennessee have a letdown after a big victory over Arkansas and before a big game next week at Kentucky? Also it's hard to say how the emotion surrounding the seniors last home game will translate on the field. Peyton Manning's last game in the House that Bob Built was his worst statistically as UT held off Vandy 17-10.

If the Vols didn't turn a corner against Arkansas, they may be headed straight for a brick wall.

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