(If you're new to the orange dog, Derek Dooley's explanation can be found here)
For the first time since the Georgia game way back on October 8, the Vols will face an SEC opponent of similar strength with Tyler Bray in the fold (we think). The sad state of affairs that is Vanderbilt being "of similar strength" to the Vols has been well documented throughout the week; that doesn't matter on Saturday. This game isn't about the future of Derek Dooley either. This is win or go home for this Tennessee team. So let's get right to how the Vols can get it done.
1. Start Fast
Rarely has there been a game where the first quarter feels so important. If Tennessee wins the toss, I'd take the ball in a heartbeat. Almost everyone involved with Tennessee, from players to fans, seems to be waiting for the next thing to go wrong. If Vanderbilt gets off to a fast start, the "here we go again"s will come out and history suggests the Vols will fold. The Commodores will be a very confident football team, and this is the game they would most like to win. If it starts going bad for Tennessee, there's nothing to suggest the Vols can pull out of a flat spin.
But if it starts going well, it may be Vanderbilt who folds. You don't lose 27 of 28 to your in-state "rival" without it bleeding through a little bit. Tennessee needs to make sure if anyone is saying "here we go again", it's Vanderbilt. And the biggest key to a fast start is, of course...
2. Tyler Bray at x%
What's good enough to beat Vandy? Bray at 70%? 80%? Whatever the number actually is, it seems by all accounts that it is high enough to be better than what the Vols would get with Justin Worley at 100%.
Bray's presence alone will give Tennessee's offense a spark. It would be nice if that spark produced a fire similar to the one we saw this time last year, where the Vols exploded against Ole Miss and Kentucky. From there, the confidence could spread to the defense, which has spent the last six weeks needing to pitch a shutout to win.
Bray won't be 100%, but his presence alone will make a difference with this team at first. Can Bray play well enough to sustain the free momentum?
3. Da'Rick Rogers vs. Vandy's Secondary
Vanderbilt's secondary is celebrated for their fifteen interceptions, but the Dores are actually 10th in the SEC in pass defense. They have fifteen picks because they got five against Ole Miss and another four off of Stephen Garcia.
Rogers is clearly the primary option in Tennessee's passing game, and defenses having that information hasn't kept him from getting it done when quarterbacks other than Matt Simms were playing. Vanderbilt shut down Alshon Jeffery (2 catches for 34 yards) but wasn't as successful with Jarius Wright (10 for 135). Rogers needs to trend toward the latter, especially if Bray continues to look to him first and foremost. Last year Tennessee beat Kentucky under similar circumstances because Denarius Moore was better than every DB the Cats had on the field. Da'Rick needs to be the same on Saturday.
4. Jordan Rodgers' Feet
Have defenses figured Rodgers out? Maybe that's not the best way to look at it, but after really hurting Georgia, Army, and Arkansas on the ground (47 carries for 241 yards), he's been kept in check by Florida and Kentucky the last two Saturdays (25 carries for 49 yards).
Mobile quarterbacks have hurt Tennessee all season, whether they played for Buffalo or LSU. Aaron Murray was able to keep drives alive for Georgia with his feet. For a Tennessee defense that continues to suffer in the second half, the Vols have to get off the field and make sure Rodgers doesn't get away from them with his feet.
5. Remember who you are
Feed the orange dog. Seniors like Tauren Poole, Austin Johnson, and Malik Jackson can go out on a good note. And maybe the Tyler Bray we know and love returns to throw for another 300 yards and another big win.
Either way, if you can't be confident against Vanderbilt, you can't be confident against anyone. Tennessee should run through the T believing in themselves. They need to play in that belief with every snap. Play for and make the breaks. Pursue the winning edge. Carry the fight to Vanderbilt and keep it there for sixty minutes.