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Tennessee Football Opponent Preview: Vanderbilt Commodores

Which team will earn its sixth win in the final game of the season?

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

It’s finally here — the end of the 2018 college football regular season.

Tennessee will conclude the season by heading to Nashville to square off against Vanderbilt with each team at five wins. The winner on Saturday will earn a bowl berth and extend its season while the loser will end 2018 with a pretty bitter taste in its mouth.

The feel around Tennessee is markedly different coming off a 50-17 loss against Missouri than after its 24-7 win over No. 11 Kentucky, but the Vols still have a chance to get to a bowl game, which would be an unquestionable success for Jeremy Pruitt in his first year.

Vanderbilt is a 3.5-point favorite over Tennessee.

Overview

Vanderbilt has dealt with much of the same inconsistency which has plagued Tennessee in 2018.

After starting the season 2-1 with its only loss being a 22-17 loss at Notre Dame, Vanderbilt lost by 23 points to South Carolina and then narrowly escaped with a win over FCS Tennessee State. The Commodores lost their next three before winning two of their last three against Arkansas and Ole Miss to set up a winner-take-all — “all” being bowl eligibility — showdown against Tennessee in the final game of the season.

Vanderbilt’s record looks much like it usually does at this time of year, but it has gotten hot at the right time, especially with its momentum-building win last week over Ole Miss. The Commodores also have a pretty balanced offensive attack, something which has given the Volunteers trouble this season.

Last Week

Vanderbilt got its biggest win of the season last week when it defeated Ole Miss 36-29 at home.

Ole Miss scored the first 13 points before Vanderbilt roared back to take a 19-13 lead. The teams went back and forth in the second half, with Ole Miss kicking a field goal with 0:40 left in the game to tie the score at 29-29, which was the score at the end of regulation.

Vanderbilt scored a touchdown on its first possession of overtime. After starting on the Vanderbilt 12-yard line thanks to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Ole Miss appeared to have scored on fourth down of its possession, but A.J. Brown was ruled to have bobbled the ball in the end zone and the game ended in a 36-29 Vanderbilt win.

Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur completed 22 of 34 passes for 191 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Ke’Shawn Vaughn rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown for the Commodores.

Impact Players

QB Kyle Shurmur Vanderbilt’s career leader in touchdown passes as of last Saturday, Shurmur could be a problem for Tennessee’s young secondary. Shurmur has completed 61.4 percent of his passes this season and has thrown for 20 touchdowns against six interceptions.

RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn — Tennessee’s primary problem defensively will be Vanderbilt’s balance. In addition to Shurmur, the Commodores have Vaughn in the backfield, who has rushed for 976 yards and 10 touchdowns on 138 carries in 2018.

CB Joejuan Williams — A 6’3”, 210-pound corner, Joejuan Williams is an NFL Draft prospect after just three seasons at Vanderbilt. Williams leads the SEC with 10 passes defended and is second in the conference with four interceptions.

Game Outlook

Obviously, the implications of this game can not be overstated.

Tennessee has not lost three straight games to Vanderbilt since 1926. The winner of this game will extend its season and go to a bowl game. A win would make Tennessee fans feel much better about the first year of the Jeremy Pruitt era.

Vanderbilt is justified in being favored over Tennessee — it’s about on par with the Vols and is playing at home — but this is a winnable game for the Vols and, more importantly, one they almost have to win.

The difference in 5-7 and 6-6 will be monumental in the minds of Tennessee fans over the next nine months, not to mention the embarrassment of losing to Vanderbilt three straight years for the first time in almost a century.

Coming off an embarrassing loss and coaching a game his team has to win, we will learn a lot about Jeremy Pruitt this week.