Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 SEC) vs. Vanderbilt (5-5, 2-5 SEC)
Saturday, 7:02 p.m.
Neyland Stadium (102,455) • Knoxville
Line: Vanderbilt by 1.5
Series Record: Tennessee leads 73-28-5
Why Saturday is important
It’s all about bowl eligibility for the Vols and picking up that long elusive first SEC win of 2011. A disappointing, tumultuous season marked by ill-timed injuries and a brutal schedule is sputtering to an end. Tennessee needs two wins — this weekend against Vanderbilt and next week at Kentucky — to salvage hopes of reaching a bowl game. State-rival Vanderbilt would like nothing more than to dash those aspirations. In a series dating back to 1892, the Commodores are 10-36-1 when meeting the Vols in Knoxville. First-year coach James Franklin has breathed new life into Vandy. The program is looking to post only its second winning season since 1982. A win at Neyland Stadium would be a massive step in the right direction. Franklin’s team has a better record than the Vols and is favored entering the trip to Knoxville — two rarities in the state’s football history.
Three things to know about Vanderbilt
Complete futility is no longer the name of the game in Nashville. The ‘Dores have posted wins over Elon, UConn, Ole Miss, Army and Kentucky this season. It’s not exactly murderer’s row, but the five wins are more than the school had in the past two years combined. Progress is progress, no matter who it comes against. ... The Vols topped the ‘Dores 24-10 last season to keep a bowl bid on the table, but this is very different Vanderbilt team. Franklin has increased the offensive production (18.8 ppg to 26.1) and tightened up the defense (31.6 ppg to 21.6). All told the offense is averaging 54.6 more yards per game, while the defense is allowing a whopping 109.6 less yards per game. ... Vanderbilt ranks 22nd in total defense this season and 32nd nationally in rushing defense. The Commodores are surrendering just 122.9 yards per game on the ground and just 112.4 per game against SEC foes. Tennessee currently ranks 116th in the country in total rushing with a feeble 91.9 yards per game.
What you should know about Vanderbilt coach James Franklin
The former Maryland offensive coordinator made national headlines when the ‘Dores jumped out to a 3-0 start to make him the program’s first coach to register victories in his first three games since World War II. ... Prior to his time in College Park, the 39-year-old held previous posts with Kansas State, the Green Bay Packers and Idaho State, as well as numerous Division II schools (now Divsion I-AA), including East Stroudsburg, his alma mater. ... As a player, Franklin was a four-year starting quarterback at East Stroudsburg and was a finalist for NCAA Division II Player of the Year as a senior after setting seven school records, including single-season marks for total offense (3,128), passing yards (2,586) and TD passes (19). ... Despite starring as a quarterback, Franklin primarily worked as a receivers coach early in his career while climbing the ranks. ... Before accepting the job at Vandy, Franklin was considered Maryland's "head coach-in-waiting" and was due $1 million if he didn’t succeed Terps coach Ralph Friedgen by January 2012. The clause was added to Franklin's contract after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers once tried to lure him away from the Terps. ... Upon his hiring at Vandy, Franklin became the third black head coach in SEC football history and the first of any major sport at the school.
Tennessee player to watch
Though his status is questionable, all eyes will be on Vols quarterback Tyler Bray (pictured above) on Saturday. The cast protecting the star signal-caller’s broken right thumb has been removed and he returned to practice this week after five weeks on the shelf. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has yet to confirm if Bray will start, but hopes are high. After leading the Vols to a 3-2 start, the sophomore ranked ninth nationally in passing yards per game (315.8), 11th in passing efficiency (165.3), 13th in passing yards (1579), 17th in total offense (303.8) and 17th in touchdown passes (14).
Vanderbilt player to watch
Since being inserted as a starter in mid-October, quarterback Jordan Rodgers, brother of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, has accounted for 10 touchdowns — six passing and four rushing — in four starts. He ranks among SEC leaders in total offense (285.3 yards per game) over that stretch. He is averaging 288.3 total yards per game as a starter — nearly the same total as Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, the SEC's total offense leader. In the Commodores’ 38-8 win over Kentucky last week, Rodgers threw for 297 yards, the highest total by a Vandy quarterback since 2006.
Random facts to impress your friends
Tennessee has won 27 of its last 28 games against Vanderbilt, dating back to 1983, including 22 straight from 1983-2004. The Vols’ 72 wins over Vandy ranks as the program’s second-most wins over a single opponent, behind 74 wins over Kentucky. UT is currently riding a five-game win streak against the ‘Dores. ... It’s Senior Day at Neyland Stadium and 14 Vols will be playing their final game in Knoxville — WR Anthony Anderson, WR Cory Eichholtz, DB Art Evans, DB C.J. Fleming, DS Nick Guess, DL Malik Jackson, LB Austin Johnson, DL Ben Martin, RB Tauren Poole, LB Shane Reveiz, PK/P Chip Rhome, QB Matt Simms, LB Jake Storey and LB Daryl Vereen. ... UT is tied with Auburn with the second-toughest schedule in the nation behind only Oklahoma. The Vols have played five teams currently ranked in the AP poll’s top 15 and the 61 combined wins tallied by UT’s 10 opponents is the highest in the country. ... With two games remaining, Vandy has posted 261 total points this season — more than the team’s total season output the last five years. ... The ‘Dores held a 19-2-3 lead in the Tennessee-Vanderbilt series through 1927.
“I think our guys are gaining and building in confidence each week. It's a great challenge and I've talked about it with the team, and winning on the road in this conference, there's no doubt about it, that's where our focus is, to go out and improve each week. We've had enough experience playing in difficult environments. I would think all of those experiences that we had this year would help us go to Tennessee and play well.” — Vanderbilt coach James Franklin
The Vols will win if …
They can find a way to score. Tennessee has scored 23 points in its four SEC losses without Bray. Whether it’s Bray or freshman Justin Worley behind center, the Vols have to put up points through the air. The UT rushing game is a lost cause at this point.
The Vols will lose if …
The Commodores come out fired up, treat this like a bowl game and run over a UT team that’s been beaten and battered by an arduous season.
Photo Credit: Associated Press