Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET
Neyland Stadium (102,455) • Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: Vol Network (106.5 FM Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tennessee leads 73-28-5
Why Saturday is important
Tennessee-Vanderbilt might not have the same ring as Tennessee-Alabama or Tennessee-Florida historically speaking, but UT’s annual November showdown with the Commodores has been one of the most important games on UT’s schedule recently. That’s the case this year. Coach Butch Jones this week said that judging the program’s progress on making a bowl game is a “superficial” measure of success. But make no mistake, the Vols badly want to return to the postseason for the first time since 2010 and they must beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky to do that. The Vols got shelled 41-18 by Vandy last year in Derek Dooley’s final contest on the sidelines. The gray uniform-clad Vols will be looking for revenge for that debacle as well. And while Tennessee has been dominant in the state in recruiting this year, an improving Vanderbilt program adds resistance to UT’s efforts to control the Volunteer State on the recruiting trail. There will be pride, recruiting implications and, most importantly for UT, the chance to keep bowl hopes alive for another week.
Three things to know about Vanderbilt
• If you somehow missed the last three years of college football, this is a completely different Vanderbilt program than what you last saw. Normally a doormat in the SEC, the Commodores have fought their way to relevancy in the SEC in the last three years under James Franklin. After only appearing in four bowl games in program history before his arrival, the ‘Dores just clinched their third straight postseason appearance last week by reaching the six-win plateau again. They knocked off Florida and Georgia for the first time in the same season since 1945 this year. Outside of blowout losses to Texas A&M and Missouri, Vandy has been competitive in every game this season on its way to a 6-4 mark.
• Statistically, the Commodores are a middle-of-the road SEC team in nearly every important category except for turnovers, where they come in second in the league with a plus-.90 mark, trailing only Missouri. That’s been Vandy’s model of success this year – play teams evenly into the second half and then capitalize on mistakes by the opposition, while not shooting themselves in the foot in the process.
• But while Vandy does play disciplined football, the Commodores also have a few NFL-caliber playmakers on both sides of the ball. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews, the SEC’s all-time leading receiver, is the best of the bunch. The senior has put up six 100-yard efforts this season. He had a huge game against Tennessee last year, catching seven passes for 115 yards and a touchdown in addition to taking a reverse 47 yards for a score. Safety Kenny Ladler, cornerback Andre Hal, linebacker Chase Garnham and offensive lineman Wesley Johnson are other players NFL scouts have an eye on.
What you should know about Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin
He worked his way up through the small-college ranks before being hired as the Green Bay Packers’ wide receivers coach in 2005. He followed that with a stint as an offensive coordinator at Kansas State (2007) and Maryland (2008-10). He was tabbed the head-coach-in-waiting at Maryland in 2010, but he bolted to take the head-coaching job at Vanderbilt for the 2011 season. … He’s had remarkable success in three years in Nashville. The Commodores, known for being in the SEC cellar, are 21-15 thus far in his tenure. … He’s building an increased talent base as well. The 'Dores finished 29th in Rivals.com’s recruiting ranking in Franklin's first full recruiting class in 2011, last year’s class was ranked 19th and his current class checks in at 21st as of Friday. … He’s the third African-American head football coach in the SEC and the first to be the head coach of a major sport at Vanderbilt. … He’s also the second-youngest head coach in the SEC at age 40, just a few months older than Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.
Tennessee players to watch
This is a fairly broad stroke, but keep an eye on the seniors, particularly linemen on both sides of the ball like Ja’Wuan James, Zach Fulton, Daniel McCullers, Marlon Walls and Jacques Smith. This group has been through a lot and, even though little has gone as planned for them at UT, they have a shot to leave on a high note. Particularly watch the D-linemen. Vanderbilt has given up the most sacks in the SEC, so Tennessee’s defensive front might break its three-game streak of not picking up any sacks on Saturday.
Vanderbilt player to watch
The Vols must make somebody other than wide receiver Jordan Matthews beat them. Defensive coordinator John Jancek said they will locate him specifically before every snap and have a plan to keep him contained. Vandy can get creative in finding ways to get him the ball – reverses, screens or patterns down the field. He has a chance to score every time he touches the ball.
Random facts to impress your friends
Tennessee will wear its alternate gray uniforms for the second time this year. The original plan was to wear them just once, but coach Butch Jones said the players voted to bring them out again for Senior Day. … Tennessee will honor a group of 28 players for Senior Day – 21 true seniors and several walk-on, fourth-year juniors who will be graduating and moving on from the program as well. … The current seniors who have been on the team for four years enter this game with a 20-27 record. … Though Vanderbilt won this matchup last year, the Vols have still won 28 of the last 30 in this series. Vandy hasn’t knocked off UT twice in a row since 1925-26. … OL Ja’Wuan James will tie the mark for the most career starts by an offensive lineman at UT (48) on Saturday. … Tennessee is 27-1 on Senior Day since 1985.
"It should be a great opportunity for our seniors on Senior Night in Neyland. This is a game you always remember – your last game at home. You always guard against the emotional factor as a coach. We don't want an emotional football team, we want a passionate, energetic football team. I think sometimes seniors play their last home game forgetting the task at hand. They'll be able to reflect back when it comes February. So right now, we have a great challenge ahead of us."
– Tennessee coach Butch Jones
The Vols will win if ...
They protect the ball and get more production out of their defensive front – a unit that hasn’t recorded a sack or a full tackle for loss in three weeks. If Vandy quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels has time to look for Matthews, run around and extend plays, Tennessee will struggle to get the Commodores off the field. Tennessee needs to hit some big plays on offense as well. Freshman QB Joshua Dobbs has helped them move the ball, but the Vols need more splash plays that move the ball in chunks to put points on the board.
The Vols will lose if ...
They lose the battle at the line of scrimmage and are sloppy with the ball. Vanderbilt thrives on opponents’ mistakes and doesn't make too many of its own. The Vols could survive a turnover or two, but if Vandy has the clear edge in that category, expect the Commodores to leave Neyland Stadium with a win.
Unofficial UT injury report:
Out: QB Justin Worley, TE Alex Ellis, TE Joseph Ayres, LB Curt Maggitt, WR Ryan Jenkins, WR Cody Blanc, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, DE Malik Brown, TE A.J. Branisel, DT Maurice Couch (ineligible)
Tennessee 28, Vanderbilt 27
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga