Tennessee WeekVandy's only 2013 losses to date have come at the hands of Top 25 opponents: #8 Mizzou, #9 Texas A&M, #12 South Carolina, and #24 Ole Miss. The combined record of these teams is 32-8. SEC football is a gauntlet – and fans of other conferences cannot fully appreciate or comprehend the grind of an SEC schedule. Imagine being a Mississippi State fan this year. The Bulldogs are 4-6, yet they have not lost to a team outside the Top 18. For MSU, when your league schedule includes Bama, Auburn, Texas A&M, LSU, Ole Miss and SC, scheduling a road game at Oklahoma State is a potentially capital offense. UT has already faced seven ranked opponents themselves. This league is tough – and it is tough in the middle, not just at the top.
Tennessee has proven particularly dangerous in Knoxville this year where the Vols knocked off South Carolina and took Georgia to overtime. (On the road the Vols are winless but, oddly, they have only visited top tier opponents: Bama, Florida, Oregon and Missouri.) The UT offense has struggled after losing starting QB Justin Worley, but the Vols have a very impressive O-line and a dangerous RB in Rajion Neal. True Freshman Joshua Dobbs will handle QB duties – and he is fairly mobile which has been Vandy's greatest defensive challenge. We can expect to see a lot of read option from the young QB who is averaging over five yards per carry.
The Vols have had significant trouble on defense – and have lost their last three games by a combined score of 131-36. In SEC play, the Vols have given up twice as many points as they have scored. This week, however, UT comes off a bye – and the last time they enjoyed a week off, they beat South Carolina. Add to this equation the fact that UT must beat Vandy to have a chance to become bowl-eligible and you have a desperate opponent on their Senior Night. These seniors do not want to bow out with another losing season.
Some argue that a series as lopsided as this one cannot be a true rivalry – but things have changed lately. Coach James Franklin has won seven straight November games dating back to 2011. Vandy is 13-4 in its last 17 games. The Commodores are eligible for their third straight bowl game. After beating both Florida and Georgia in the same season for the first time in history, Vandy seeks to erase another historical misery: the Commodores have not beaten Tennessee in back-to-back years since 1925-26.
Vandy enters the game coming off an excellent defensive effort against Kentucky. Our D stopped a running QB for the first time all year and held the Wildcats scoreless after their opening drive. The turnover spigot remains "on." For the second week in a row, we enjoyed a 4-0 edge in the turnover battle. Last year Andre Hal and the defense made UT pay dearly for turnovers, and in our last four match-ups we have forced 16 give-aways.
Vandy got a boost on offense last week from returning QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, but his lack of mobility coming off a knee injury was problematic. This week Carta-Samuels and the passing game will benefit from the return of WR Jonathon Krause whose presence will make it harder for the Vols to double-team Jordan Matthews. After twelve catches against Kentucky, Matthews – who also enjoyed a big game against the Vols last season – is the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Week. He only needs four catches in Knoxville to break Earl Bennett's all-time SEC receptions record. We should all be grateful Matthews came back for his senior year.
Two years ago a talented but slightly tight Vandy squad fell short against UT in Knoxville in overtime. (That, by the way, is the last time we lost a game in November.) That same year Butch Jones led his Cincinnati Bearcats to a Liberty Bowl win over Vandy. Last year, Vandy took no prisoners en route to a 41-18 shellacking of the Vols. Yes, this is a rivalry game again this year. Vegas likes UT by three. In case we need any blackboard material, it is the first time all year UT has been favored in an SEC game.
As the entire country prepares for next week's Iron Bowl, Auburn receives a much-needed bye following their emotionally draining, miracle win over Georgia. Bama tunes up with UT-Chattanooga. Georgia, after being on the wrong end of the miracle, will be nursing a major hangover as they host a spunky UK squad. The line is 23½ in favor of the Bulldogs.
Missouri is a mere 3 point favorite in Oxford this weekend. If the transitive property of Vandy football means anything, Mizzou will cover. The Tigers rolled us impressively, while Ole Miss struggled – winning on that late play we try to stop thinking about. The transitive property does not always work in football, but I think it will this time. If Mizzou should stumble early, however – knowing they must win to take the East – the pressure could make things interesting.
Another monster SEC tilt is scheduled in Baton Rouge where A&M and LSU slug it out on Saturday afternoon. LSU is favored by 4½, but A&M, incredibly, has not scored less than 41 points in any game this season. It will be difficult for the Tigers to outscore the Aggies unless their offense can grind out long, slow drives. As good as LSU is – a loss in this game would drop them to 3-4 in conference which seems unthinkable. But LSU's firepower just isn't nearly as scary as A&M's and I like Johnny Manziel getting points.
Poor MSU. After a valiant try against Bama, they face a "must win" in Fayetteville against a desperate team seeking its first conference win. Vegas senses a headache here, too, as MSU is only favored by two. Rounding out the cupcake menu, Florida will bust into the win column against Georgia Southern. South Carolina faces Coastal Carolina – but their eyes will be glued to the big game in Oxford, where the Gamecocks need an Ole Miss win.
November used to be a time when Vandy fans had little to look forward to – except basketball. In the years leading up to Coach Franklin's regime, Vandy football was 3-32 in November. The times are changing – and this weekend brings a legitimate November rivalry game. See you in Knoxville.