We are almost at the end of our journey through the Vanderbilt Commodore 2013 schedule preview series. The penultimate game that the 'Dores will play this fall is against heated instate rival Tennessee.
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 23; Time TBD
WHERE: Neyland Stadium (Knoxville, Tenn.)
LAST SEASON: 5-7 (1-7 SEC, 6th place in SEC East; No bowl game)
CURRENT PRESEASON RANKING: Not ranked
SERIES HISTORY: Tennessee leads, 73-29-5. (Last meeting: Vanderbilt 41, Tennessee 18, in game 11 last season)
OFFENSE: For a team that lost an awful lot on offense to the NFL, the Vols do at least have one unit which should be as good, if not better, than anyone else in the conference. The Tennessee offensive line returns four of last season's five starters and a case could easily be made for all four to get a look in the post season awards lists. The tackle combo especially, Antonio Richardson and Ja'Wuan James, is one of the best in the country, with Richardson quickly developing into the kind of franchise left tackle NFL scouts will love. With 123 starts amongst this group the line has the experience, talent, and mean streak to make a difference this fall.
This, though, is where the good news ends. With Tyler Bray now a Kansas City Chief the Vols are having to go in a new direction at quarterback. Bray may have been erratic, but his 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns are not going to be easy to replace. The current four way battle for the spot has not been helped by the poor scrimmage performances of junior (and expected favorite) Justin Worley, who was just 5-of-17 in the most recent scrimmage. This may have left the door open for redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman to step up and take the gig, at least for now.
The other question on this offense is all about who is going to catch the ball. With both Justin Hunter and big play machine Cordarrelle Patterson now playing on Sundays the Vols return next to nothing at wide receiver. This is a position where guys are probably going to have to play before they are ready and a quartet of true freshmen, including two four star prospects, are going to have to be ready right out of the gate.
Conclusion: The Vols are going to have to get every last drop of ability out of their skill position players to have an impact in the SEC this fall. The line play will just be fantastic, but will the quarterback and receiving play be good enough to take advantage of it? Lack of depth at running back is yet another issue plaguing this squad, and if Vandy play smart defense they shouldn't have any problems containing a unit that is far less explosive than the one they held to 18 points last fall.
DEFENSE: After a year of flirtation with the 3-4 the Vols are returning to a more traditional 4-3 look for 2013. This fits what pieces they have better, though the front four could be affected negatively, initially at least. One positive is that the entire coaching staff, in positions that matter, went through a similar change at Cincinnati which worked out positively.
There is certainly beef on the defensive line, with the likes of 350 pounder Daniel McCullers and fellow senior defensive tackles Maurice Couch, Daniel Hood, and Marlon Walls. If this group can cause problems in the interior against monster SEC offensive lines then the defense will have a great platform to come off of. It will be interesting to see what the Vols bring at end as many of the hybrid outside linebackers/ pass rush ends will be expected to be able to hold the point of attack against opposition running games in addition to getting to the quarterback.
On the plus side the secondary cannot possibly be any worse than it was last season. Tennessee gave up 26 passing touchdowns against only 12 interceptions, and eight of those picks were against the fearsome trio of N.C. State, Georgia State, and Akron. With a year of experience under their belt though the defensive backs should certainly be better, but will they be good enough to stop even the average passing attacks they will face in conference play?
Conclusion: So much of this season defensively will depend on whether or not the front seven can adapt to the change in scheme. The linebackers should be very strong, but can all the converted pass rushers on the roster get to the passer while still holding up against the run? Vanderbilt should test the edges of the Vols line early, seeing if they can just run over this group.
Other Factors: The Butch Jones hire has to be seen as an upgrade. In just one month of recruiting he pulled in the number 18 class in the country, and he is already putting together a monster signing day group this time around. Jones has won games and conference titles at two different spots and he has the ability to build this program from where they are to where they want to be.
One area where he will have to show his ability to work with less is on special teams, and specifically the return game. Replacing a player like Patterson, with his speed and elusiveness, would be a problem for any school in the FBS (and probably plenty of NFL teams too for that matter).
Conclusion: It is too early to expect Jones to work miracles, but the players on this roster will get better as the season progresses under his teaching. The Vols are a couple of years away from being back to anything like the level they have been historically, so Vandy should look to this as another opportunity to get one up on their rivals. This is part of a three game stretch to end the season that the 'Dores should go into confident in winning each week.
Preseason Preview: Vandy at Tennessee
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