KEY STATISTIC: It's remarkable how close these longtime intrastate rivals are in several critical statistical categories this season. Tennessee is averaging 24.5 points per contest, Vanderbilt is averaging 20.1. The Vols average 18.2 first downs a game, the Commodores average 18.7. UT is gaining 360.4 yards per game in total offense, VU is averaging 323.2. The same is true in time of possession where the Vols hold a slight 31:22 to 29:41 edge. Vanderbilt leads Tennessee in punting by the miniscule margin of 42.7 to 42.4. The Dores are converting third down opportunities at a rate of 36.6 percent compared to UT¹s 35.6. Tennessee's turnover ratio is even, Vanderbilt's is minus 1.1. The real difference between the Big Orange and the Black and Gold, besides graduation rates and NFL Draft picks, is on defense where UT allows 19.7 points to Vandy's 31.3. The Vols are also holding opponents to 103 yards less in total offense than the Commodores who are last in the SEC in run defense, surrendering 182 yards per game.
KEY MATCH-UP: Though Vanderbilt's offense isn't by any means explosive, it is balanced and presents a challenge because it incorporates the threat of the pass within an option scheme. Successfully defending the option places an onus on the defense to play assignment football as opposed to flying to the football. Tennessee's defensive unit has remained remarkably consistent in the face of overwhelming attrition and still relies on speed and aggression, although not to the degree it did before the linebacker corps was decimated by injury. The loss of free safety Rashad Baker may open big-play opportunities for Vanderbilt which is sure to test the safeties in both run support and through the air. Tennessee has to be careful not to react too quickly to the option run, leaving the play-action pass open. Vandy's Dan Stricker (42 catches, 608 yards, six touchdowns) is capable of hurting Tennessee over the middle.
SUMMARY: The expected return of veteran quarterback Casey Clausen should ignite a passing game that was held to three completions verses Mississippi State last week. The questions are: if Clausen is cleared to play how effective will he be? And how long will he be able to go? Freshman James Banks flashes potential, but has yet to fully grasp the mechanics of the drop-back passing game. Instead the Vols will look to the offensive line and rising star Cedric Houston to gain control and wear down the Commodore defense. Expect Vanderbilt to come out with its greatest effort of the season, knowing an upset of Tennessee would not only make this season but lighten next year's load. The Vols are still hoping to win out and go to a New Year's Day bowl game. This is a clash that could go either way depending on breaks, but Vanderbilt is most dangerous when it is overlooked. There isn't much chance Tennessee will be looking past this year's battle, especially when a winning season is on the line.
PREDICTION: Tennessee 27, Vanderbilt 17