I think the best metaphor for tomorrow night's clash with Vanderbilt is the same one we used for Derek Dooley's year one date with bowl-eligible Kentucky: credit/no credit. It's not that the 2013 season is an outright failure if Vanderbilt wins, and it's not that we'll all jump off the good ship Butch. The choices here for Tennessee aren't success and failure, but success and an incomplete.
In some ways it was always going to be an incomplete; you can't save the day in year one and the ballyhooed recruiting class won't see campus until 2014. However, success from day one has been bowl eligibility, and the only way to get there now is through Vanderbilt and Kentucky, simultaneously the two schools a Tennessee coach can least afford to lose to. So even if failure isn't really on the table, success comes off the table in year one if Tennessee doesn't find a way to win for the first time in five weeks.
We want to devalue Vanderbilt because they're Vanderbilt, but many are singing their praises because of what James Franklin has done in spite of their being Vanderbilt. The truth is, as usual, somewhere in the middle: it's hard to know what to make of a 6-4 football team who just got outgained by Florida to the tune of 344-183 but won by three possessions thanks to four turnovers.
Likewise, it's hard to know what to make of Tennessee. Are we the team that's lost to four top ten teams by a combined score of 190-50, or are we the team that beat a fifth top ten team and should have beaten a sixth?
With answers spread over both ends of the spectrum, here are the best questions we know to ask Saturday night:
How much better will Josh Dobbs be when not facing a Top 10 team?
Factor in more reps during the bye week with our young receiving corps, and we hope to see more of the Josh Dobbs we all wished for when he was initially pressed into action. Through three games his passing numbers offer no real distinction from those belonging to Justin Worley; his 5.6 yards per attempt and 0/3 TD/INT ratio have been a rough start. However, the opposition allows us to reasonably reserve judgment. If he retains the job in the spring, we'll worry about what Josh Dobbs can do against elite competition next year. Right now, I just want to see what he can do period.
Vanderbilt's pass defense has capitalized on poor competition the last two weeks, picking off Florida and Kentucky quarterbacks seven times while holding them to a combined 5.7 yards per attempt. It hasn't always been that way - Vanderbilt was lit up by Connor Shaw (28 of 38 for 359), James Franklin (19 of 28 for 278), and Johnny Heisman (33 of 46 for 376).
So where will Dobbs fall on this spectrum? Tennessee can reasonably hope to throw it better than Florida and Kentucky but also can't ask Dobbs to be Shaw, Franklin, or Manziel. We don't need to see Heisman numbers, we just want to see progress. Dobbs also needs to limit his freshman mistakes and sometimes live to play another down. Which, honestly, is a good trait for a freshman to have to learn; you want the guys who believe they can make every throw coming in, and then you want them to learn as soon as possible that they don't have to make all of them on every down. Even Tyler Bray learned this lesson to a degree: after throwing seven interceptions in a four game span as a freshman, he threw only 18 in his remaining 19 games.
Dobbs isn't senior Bray or freshman Bray, and isn't throwing to freshman Bray's weapons. He doesn't have to be spectacular. He just needs to be better, and I think after a week off and facing an opponent on our level we'll see that tomorrow night. He especially needs to be better on third down, where Justin Worley made enough plays to give us a chance against Georgia and South Carolina. In the first eight games the Vols converted 39.3% of their third downs. In the last three we're 9 for 38 (23.6%). More success for the Vol offense on third down leads to more help in our other categories...
Does the defense have improvement left in them?
Here again the opponent should help, especially because Vanderbilt doesn't have a running quarterback to decimate us all over the field.
One way to measure a defense's performance: how many times did they punt? Case in point: the Vols forced South Carolina to punt a season high eight times. That number is tied with Missouri, who punted three times on their first four possessions but the Vols failed to take advantage. Their last three punts came after the score had already reached the final margin. So it's not always exact science.
But what is exact science is the state of Alabama punted four times combined against us. That's terrible.
Butch Jones will reportedly put some new life in his starting lineup via Corey Vereen and Marlon Walls at end. The Vols should be rested and ready and hopefully back to the form they showed earlier in the year. The Vols don't have to be great defensively, but we can't be a turnstile. Vanderbilt has struggled to move the ball. Will the combination of the two produce a defensive performance we can feel at least okay about, or will the ghosts of 2012 continue to haunt and hand Vanderbilt another victory?
What can we do about Jordan Matthews?
For reference, only one team (Florida) has held him under 75 yards. The Gators' performance against him (5 catches for 45 yards) really stands out; he averages 8 catches and more than 100 yards per outing. We won't shut him down and may not slow him down. We just don't want this thing to turn into a historic performance.
Cameron Sutton has been solid all year, but he's only one man and Vanderbilt has been good about using other targets when teams double up on Matthews, and by "other targets" I mean mostly Jonathan Krause. I'm really not sure I've ever seen a pass distribution chart like this: Matthews has 83 catches, which leads the SEC by 20 (!) over LSU's Jarvis Landry. Krause is second on the team with 32. The next highest pass catcher is tailback Jerron Seymour with 16. That's crazy.
No matter how the Vols choose to defend Matthews, getting pressure on whoever lines up at quarterback for the Commodores would be helpful. Tennessee is having another abysmal year getting pressure on the quarterback after things looked so promising in mid-October. The Vols got Connor Shaw four times and were sitting on a dozen sacks through seven games. Then we went o-fer against Alabama and Missouri, and only Sutton recorded a sack on a corner blitz against Auburn. Those numbers put the Vols back in line for similar performances from 2012 (17 sacks) and 2011 (15). Hopefully new blood on the line will help.
Matthews is one of those rare talents you'll want to watch on every play. Because Vanderbilt struggles to find playmakers anywhere else in the pass game, Tennessee just needs to make sure he doesn't go too far above his average.
What will be the legacy of this senior class?
You'll hear 28 names run through the T on Saturday, including 12 starters: Alex Bullard, Brent Brewer, Daniel Hood, Zach Fulton, Ja'Wuan James, Daniel McCullers, Corey Miller, Rajion Neal, Michael Palardy, Dontavis Sapp, Jacques Smith, and James Stone. It's a group that includes the last Phillip Fulmer recruit in Marlon Walls, who also joins Hood and Greg King as the last of the Kiffin class. Of the 28 who finished, only six started their careers as four-star recruits; Tennessee has said goodbye to 17 four and five stars from the 2009 and 2010 classes who didn't finish their careers at UT.
But the legacy of those who remain won't be the guys who didn't. These seniors don't have the memory of a season ending well, left instead with one Music City Bowl, one loss at Kentucky, and one coach fired in their first three tries. They, like us but even more so, have known only bad endings and long off-seasons.
But there's still a chance to write a new ending, to be the foundation of what Butch Jones and Tennessee Football are building, and their fingerprints can still be on it. To go down in that language, the Vols have to beat Vanderbilt. And despite the loss of so many talented prospects from among their signing day brethren, it is fitting that Tennessee's greatest chances for success on Saturday night rest on the shoulders of seniors: four offensive linemen who've started almost the entire way, a tailback looking at a 1,000 yard finish, and the number one kicker in the nation living up to his billing.
If Tennessee beats Vanderbilt, it will likely come because Rajion Neal ran well behind his line one more time, with perhaps a little help from Michael Palardy. With just enough help from the defense and just enough maturation from the quarterback, Tennessee should find a way to hold serve at home, and Butch Jones should get one up on James Franklin.
We've done enough losing. It's time to do some winning.