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Tennessee’s bowl hopes depend on their ability to slow down a balanced Vanderbilt offense

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It’s something they’ve struggled with all year.

NCAA Football: Florida at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee will wrap up their 2018 regular season with a chance to add another game to their schedule. You can say the exact same thing for Vanderbilt. Their annual meeting to close the season will serve as a play-in game for one of the SEC’s final bowl bids.

On Monday, Pruitt wasn’t really interested in that aspect of the week. But the first year head coach understands that this is a big game for the state of Tennessee.

“This week we have Vanderbilt. This is a very important game for everybody in this state,” Pruitt said. “They have an experienced team offensively. Quarterback’s been playing there forever, coach’s son, makes very few mistakes.”

That quarterback is Kyle Shurmur, who will be playing in his final home game for the Vanderbilt Commodores. Shurmur has put together a solid 2018 season, completing 61 percent of his passes and throwing 20 touchdowns against just six interceptions on the season.

“He has experience, has a really good understanding of what they’re trying to get done,” Pruitt said. “He makes very few mistakes. He throws the ball where they can catch it and nobody else can. A lot of that comes with playing a lot of ball and he has. He grew up around the game and does a really good job.”

Shurmur has thrown for just under 2,500 yards so far this year. He’s got a chance to end his Vanderbilt career by going 3-1 against Tennessee, which is an unheard of feat for any Vandy quarterback.

If there’s one thing Tennessee has really struggled with this year, it’s good quarterbacks and offensive balance. Will Grier, Tua Tagovailoa, Drew Lock and Jake Bentley all gave Tennessee fits, but each had one key similarity going for them — balance.

In three of those four contests, Tennessee gave up 200+ yards on the ground, in addition to getting torched through the air. That’s a blunt reminder that this defense is far from being ready to consistently compete in the SEC, but you already knew that.

Think back to Tennessee’s standout performances this year. It came against teams with struggling passing games (See Auburn, Kentucky), which allowed Pruitt and Kevin Sherrer to key in on stuffing the run.

The problem for Pruitt’s defense this week? Vandy running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. The Commodores’ homerun hitting back is going to provide them with that aforementioned balance, posing a challenge for the Tennessee defense.

The good news for Tennessee is that they should be able to get something done on the other side of the football. Vanderbilt’s 98th ranked defense is giving up six yards per play and over 430 yards per game. The Commodores are just 96th against the run, which is a pretty large step down from what they faced last week against Missouri.

“Defensively, have a lot of ball hawks on the defensive side of the ball, give you multiple looks,” Pruitt said. “I think probably in the turnover margin in our league, they’re up there at the top and solid on special teams. So, we need to find a way to improve our team this week, eliminate mistakes, tackle better, find a way to be able to run the football and create some explosive plays.”

Vanderbilt has given up 29 points or more in six of seven conference games. That’s not exactly what you expect out of a Derek Mason led team, but the offense has definitely been carrying the team this season.

With the likely return of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee should find plenty of opportunities to move the football on Saturday afternoon. This one will be determined on the other side and will likely come down to whether or not they can bottle up Ke’Shawn Vaughn.

You can catch this one on Saturday, November 24th at 4PM eastern on the SEC Network.