Putting Up A Brave Front: VU's Tennessee Task

The Vanderbilt football team gets one last chance to win an SEC game in 2014, and it’s the SEC game the Commodores would like to win more than any other. Vanderbilt rediscovered what it was like to beat Tennessee the past few years, but this year’s clash against the Vols is not expected to go well for VU. How can the Dores make some magic at home?


The Tennessee Volunteers are a walking contradiction. They have a coach in Butch Jones who, on one level, is inspiring a lot of confidence in Knoxville by pulling in high-quality recruits, setting the stage for what could be a breakthrough in 2015. A lot of pundits are high on the Vols in the coming years because they believe Jones is putting together the pieces of a next-level program, all while Georgia and South Carolina drift and Florida searches for its next coach. There is something to be said for this line of thought, but it’s hardly the only way to view Jones and his program.

Last Saturday against Missouri, Jones used a challenge late in the game when it was obvious he was going to lose that challenge. Had Jones played his cards right, Tennessee might have gained a legitimate chance to tie the Tigers in the final minute of regulation. Jones has a spotty record in Knoxville in terms of handling quarterbacks and challenges. His penchant for not juggling quarterbacks as well as he should is something that accompanied him from his previous stop at the University of Cincinnati. His benching of Munchie Legaux in a late-season loss to Rutgers in 2012 represented a noticeable failure to see the needs of a given situation.

The way in which one views Jones is the same as the way in which one views Tennessee: You could make a strong case for an optimistic or a pessimistic outlook. Both sides could cite plenty of instances to back up their points. Therefore, while Tennessee is a strong favorite this Saturday against Vanderbilt, the Volunteers should not be seen as a lock. Good Tennessee and the good version of Butch Jones should demolish the Dores… but if Bad Tennessee and the shaky incarnation of Jones visit Nashville, we could have a four-quarter fight on our hands.

Very simply, Vanderbilt’s front seven is the centerpiece of this game. The Commodores have to shut down Tennessee’s running game – if that can occur, all things are possible for VU in this latest reunion with Big Orange.

Look at the Tennessee-Missouri game to understand why Vanderbilt’s run defense is the key for the Dores on Saturday. Tennessee has piled up points against the likes of South Carolina and Kentucky, but Missouri was able to limit the Vols to only 53 rushing yards. Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs could not transcend the weakness of his team’s rushing attack. He threw for under 200 yards and did not toss a touchdown pass until his team trailed by 16 points inside the final two minutes of regulation.

Just when you think Tennessee has no hope, the Vols flex their muscles and rebound. Just when you think Tennessee has figured things out, the Vols falter and lose focus. Dobbs looked unstoppable against Kentucky and South Carolina, but against Missouri, he became mortal.

Tennessee is capable of playing at a high level, but the Vols have rarely sustained that level for more than one and a half quarters at a time. If Vanderbilt’s front seven can smother Tennessee’s running game in the first quarter and put Dobbs in predictable passing situations, the Commodores can create a game in which they gain confidence, maintain scoreboard contact, and then jolt the Vols with a kick return for a touchdown, maintaining a psychological edge deep into the third quarter. Tennessee’s offense could panic, and Vanderbilt’s offense could – with a few timely third-down conversions – do just enough to carve out a 16-13 type of win.

Will it be hard for Vanderbilt to achieve this? Surely. Do the Dores know what they have to do, and which part of their team must rise up in the first half of this contest? Yes. There’s comfort in knowing not only what has to be done, but how. What’s left is for the Commodores to put that game plan – that tantalizingly appealing template – into action.

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