QUICK FACTS Kickoff: 11:30 CDT Senior ceremony begins at 11:00 CDT Radio: 104.5 FM THE ZONE (VU), 1510 AM (UT) Records: Vanderbilt 4-7/1-6; Tennessee 7-3/3-3 Vandyville opens at 8:30 a.m. Line: Tennessee by 7.5
PREVIEW Despite their disparate records, Vanderbilt actually compares more than favorably to #25-ranked Tennessee. The Commodores out-gain UT on the ground 1,686 to 1,062, for a 4.8 to 3.6 yards per carry average. Tennessee is the better passing team, out-gaining the Commodores by roughly one yard per attempt.
Tennessee, however, buries Vanderbilt in special teams. Which, considering VU's disasterous kicking mistakes in the second half of the season, shouldn't come as any surprise.
But this game can no longer be measured simply by numbers. After a seemingly endless losing streak, Vanderbilt ended it last year by defeating UT in Knoxville. As Coach Johnson has continued to close the talent and coaching gap, Tennessee has seemed to slip further back in the SEC pack. Though the Vols will return to the bowl party this year, this game is more about pride...for both teams.
For Vanderbilt, this is the last game of the season regardless of the outcome. So, despite seeing improvement in many areas, the fact remains that the Commodores will again be at home watching football rather than playing it. With many recruits making official and unofficial visits today, this is VU's last, best chance to make a positive impression heading toward signing day.
Chris Lee Nashville, TN VandySports.com Publisher
My take: I think that this is shaping up to be one of the all-time classics in the Vandy-Tennessee series. It reminds me a whole lot of the 1981 game, which Vandy lost a shoot-out in Knoxville on the last play of the game. It was one year before Vandy's breakout bowl year of 1982, and there are many similarities between the two teams (that was a four-win Vandy team that, by the end of the season, could throw the ball almost at-will against anyone).
Conversely, Tennessee should not be taking this game likely. If Vandy wins, I don't think it's going to be because the Vols didn't show up ready to play. Instead, it will likely be because Vanderbilt played a nearly mistake-free game and opened up the offense.
This game is huge for both teams. If Phil Fulmer lost again to Vandy, I have little doubt that the buzzards will be circling in Knoxville asking for a coaching change. A loss would be the Vols third in a row after UT fans had visions of a return to a BCS bowl just weeks ago.
For Vandy, this is a chance to build a fan base and continue to pick up recruiting momentum. I have seen a lot more black and gold around town after last year's win, and a victory over the Vols would likely lead to more off-season ticket sales for next year than we've seen in at least a decade. A second win over the Vols in a row could not be passed off as a fluke, and it's certainly a game that would make a lot of good recruits--and certainly a lot of juniors--take notice of what Bobby Johnson is doing in Nashville.
Key to a Vandy win: Win the turnover battle, make no major special teams mistakes, and open up the offense full-throttle and let Chris Nickson and Earl Bennett make plays. Johnson does not need to take his typical, conservative first-quarter approach and fall down a touchdown or two out of the gate, as a banged-up defense has not played nearly as well of late.
Player to watch: Bryant Hanhfelt for Vandy, Erik Ainge for Tennessee. Hanfeldt's recent slump has been much due to poor long-snapping, and if--through whoever's fault--the 'Dores continue to miss extra points and make-able field goals, they're not likely to win. Ainge is a much-better option than Jonathan Crompton, and how well he's able to play is a key.
X-factor: Short-snapper Nick Miller and long-snapper Matt Quinn. Both have been inconsistent of late, and bad snaps have led to numerous special teams disasters for Vandy. Both need to be "on" for Saturday.
And the winner is: I am tempted to pick Vandy, and think they can win the game. But in a game that's fairly evenly-matched, the Commodores have just made too many mistakes on special teams to predict an error-free game in that area. A play or two may be the difference, and I think the odds are better that the Commodores have a disaster or two along the way that make the difference rather than a mistake-free game.
Tennessee 31, Vanderbilt 30
Mike Rapp Franklin, TN VandySports.com Publisher
My Take: Oddly enough, it seems that Vanderbilt's win last year has taken some of the energy out of this year's Tennessee game. No longer do UT or VU fans seem to have their dependable barbs and bromides to fall back on.
Regardless, some of the reduced drama may have to do with the undeniable fact that most fully believe that Vandy is clearly closing the gap between the two programs of polar opposite academic pursuits. It won't take a so-called "perfect game" for Vanderbilt to "have a shot at the end."
Both teams have endured serious injury issues this season. Tennessee's defensive front is as thin as is Vanderbilt's offensive line. Ainge will supposedly play today for the first time in three weeks, but I think it is unreasonable to predict he will be back to form.
Regardless, Nickson may indeed have found some rhythm as Vanderbilt's signal-caller. And when things aren't going well through the air, he can certainly do something on the ground.
The big concern, however, is a nearly-healthy Ainge versus an increasingly porous and poor-tackling Vanderbilt secondary. I expect this to be a high-scoring affair on both sides of the ball.
Key to a Vandy win: Same old broken record, but if Vanderbilt doesn't at least get decent again in the kicking game, it will matter little what Nickson or the defense does today. A lot will also depend on whether VU's defense can get pressure on Ainge.
Player to watch: D.J. Moore. He will probably draw Meacham, and frankly Moore has a lot to prove in a promising, but mistake-filled, freshman campaign.
X-Factor: With nothing to lose, Coach Cain could decide to throw caution to the wind and really open up the playbook. Don't be surprised to see Earl improve his quarterback rating today.
And the winner is...: This reminds me of the feeling I had just before VU went to Georgia...and won. UT never does particularly well when they are playing for one mid-level bowl versus another -- which has become customary of late. Still, Vanderbilt's performance in Lexington really took the wind out of my black and gold sails. I am waiting for them to put a complete game together, but honestly, I think that won't come until next year.
Tennessee 31, Vanderbilt 17
Andrew Kerr Nashville, TN VandySports.com contributing writer and former VU player and coach
My take: I really feel that over the second half of the season the Vanderbilt offense has proven that only their own mistakes can stop them. While many fans feel that the offensive playbook is limited and somewhat vanilla, but most opposing defensive coordinators would not agree.
Despite losing key players such as Steven Bright and playing behind a make-shift line, Chris Nickson and company have been able to move the ball consistently and have enough weapons to put up big points on UT.
The Vols are likely to take note of how Rafael Little and UK were able to run on the Dores banged up front seven and Vanderbilt must also do a better job against screen plays. Vanderbilt's defensive starters have fought the good fight this year, but hardly anyone left is at 100% so it will be critical for them to get off the field on third down and come up with a timely turnover or two.
Perhaps for the first time in a long time, Tennessee comes into this game with a little chip on their shoulder after the way Vanderbilt beat them last year and knocked them out of bowl contention. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt really has nothing to lose and should play loose as this is the last game ever for many stalwart senior leaders. A win doesn't really help UT much, but Vanderbilt could make a big splash again by knocking off the hated Vols two years in a row.
Key to a Vandy win: Three keys to victory for Vanderbilt: 1) Convert red zone scoring opportunities; 2) Defense must get of the field on third down; and, 3) No special teams breakdowns (this includes: blocked punts, shanked punts, muffed punts, bad snaps, bad holds, missed extra points, blocked kicks, giving up a big return, or otherwise making boneheaded plays that demoralize the team and lead to easy enemy points).
X-Factor: Having Ainge, even a gimpy one, back in the lineup is a big boost for a team that has lost its way a little bit offensively over the last two weeks. His leadership and experience will be critical to get Tennessee in the right plays and limit mistakes.
And the winner is...: It's a rivalry game - anything can happen. I for one will be curious to see whether Vanderbilt comes out gunning the ball aggressively around the field and trying to make it into a shoot out?
This time the wind picks up and blows in our direction!