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Preview: Tennessee Volunteers vs. Vanderbilt Commodores

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Tennessee is bowl eligible. Now it’s time to finish the season off strong with a win over the Commodores.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
The Vols are bowl eligible for the first time since 2019.
Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Tennessee Volunteers (6-5, 3-4) are bowl eligible as it heads into its final matchup of the season with the Vanderbilt Commodores (2-9, 0-7) this week. The thought of a seven-win season for the Vols was few and far between among most entering this season, but alas, here we are.

The Vols have a chance to end their season strong with a big win over their in-state rival. What will take to get the job done? Or what can Vanderbilt do to pull off the upset?

Let’s dive in to this week’s game preview.

Overview

  • All-time series: The Vols lead the series, 77-33-5.
  • Largest margin of victory: Vanderbilt absolutely decimated Tennessee, 76-0, back in 1918.
  • Longest win streak: Tennessee won 22 straight games from 1983-2004.
  • 2021 offensive and defensive rankings: The Vols currently have the 16th-ranked offense (47th passing, 22nd rushing) and the 86th-ranked defense (104th passing, 76th rushing). They average 38.5 points per game (11th) and have allowed an average of 28.1 points per game (86th). The Commodores are 120th in total offense (107th passing, 101st rushing) and are 119th in total defense (119th passing, 104th rushing). They average 15.3 points per game (129th) on offense and have allowed an average of 35.5 points per game (119th).
NCAA Football: South Alabama at Tennessee
A potential 7-5 record in 2021 is a big-time accomplishment for Josh Heupel and the Vols.
Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

What To Watch For

  • Playing with house money: Vanderbilt knows it has nothing to gain with a win outside of bragging rights and setting itself up with a good pitch for the 2022 recruiting class, so it won’t be a shock if the Commodores come out and throw everything at the Vols in this game. Tennessee needs to be ready for any and everything this week.
  • Vanderbilt’s opportunistic defense: The Dores defense may not be good in terms of an overall unit, but they have the ability to make plays and get turnovers when needed. Especially interceptions. Vandy is second in the SEC with 13 interceptions on the year. They get it done at both levels, too. Ethan Barr, the team’s sophomore linebacker, and Dashaun Jerkins, their senior safety, are tied for the team lead with three interceptions apiece.
  • Mike Wright’s legs: Wright can really get it done on the ground. He’s second on the team with 367 rushing yards and he averages 4.6 yards per carry. Tennessee has had issues containing opposing quarterbacks who can also run and Wright’s mobility will add another dimension to Vanderbilt’s ground game.
  • Tennessee’s air attack: Vanderbilt has some playmakers in their secondary, but those guys will be tested against the likes of Hendon Hooker, Cedric Tillman, Velus Jones Jr., and JaVonta Payton. The Vols receivers vs. the Vandy secondary will probably be the game’s tightest competition. It’s just too bad the broadcast angle will keep us from seeing most of it.
  • Finish strong: It would not be an ideal scenario if Tennessee were to lose this game. The Vols can’t afford a slip-up in the season finale. An upset loss would not only raise a bunch of questions, but it would leave a sour taste in both the team’s and fan’s mouths until whichever bowl game is played.

Impact Players

Tennessee Volunteers

  • QB Hendon Hooker: He’s been a revelation for the Vols and has a chance to finish out this season strong. The only question that remains with Hooker is whether or not he’ll return in 2022.
  • RB Jabari Small: Vanderbilt’s run defense is not good. Small has shown he can carry the load and should have a big day.
  • WR Velus Jones Jr.: The sixth-year receiver has 100+ receiving yards in two of his last three games. His ability to make plays in space will come in handy against a Vandy defense that struggles in space.
  • DL Matthew Butler: Butler’s development has been fun to watch this year. He currently leads the Vols defensive linemen with 5.0 sacks and will look to rack up more this weekend.
  • DB Trevon Flowers: Vanderbilt is going to air it out and Mike White will make plays with his legs, therefore, the Vols secondary will have to make plays on Saturday.
  • DB Theo Jackson: See above. Jackson’s abilities as a blitzer will help the Vols put the pressure on White, who has five interceptions on the season.

Vanderbilt Commodores

  • QB Mike White: Ken Seals is banged up, but could probably play this week. Regardless, Clark Lea said Tuesday he plans to start White, who’s played pretty well over the last couple of weeks. White is more mobile, which can help offset Vandy’s protection issues.
  • WR Cam Johnson: Vanderbilt’s top red zone threat, Johnson leads the team with four touchdown receptions.
  • WR Chris Pierce: He’s got immense size at 6-foot-4, 234-pounds and can move, too. The Vols’ leaky pass defense needs to find a way -or ways- to corral Pierce.
  • LB Anfernee Orji: The Vols are going to want to run the ball. Orji is Vanderbilt’s leading tackler, so expect to see him/hear his name quite often on Saturday.
  • CB Jaylen Mahoney: He can cover and play run defense. This type of versatility will go a long way in helping Vanderbilt defend the Tennessee offense.
  • S Dashaun Jerkins: Vandy’s secondary has been good this year and Jerkins is a big reason why. He’s tied for the team lead in interceptions with three. Hooker needs to be aware of his presence throughout this game.
NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Mississippi
Mike Wright and the Vandy offense are looking to end Tennessee’s season on a sour note.
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Game Outlook

Tennessee is clearly the better team and should win this game. Vanderbilt has had more success than it usually does over the last decade, but that shouldn’t be the case this week.

There’s little reason to doubt that Heupel will have his team ready, even if the season finale does represent a matchup with a lesser opponent. But at the same time, Vanderbilt isn’t Tennessee’s typical lesser opponent. Hate certainly exists between these two teams and their respective fan bases, therefore there will be more “umph” in this game than what appears on the surface.

Then there’s also Clark Lea vs. Josh Heupel. Lea has had his fair share of issues guiding the Dores through his first year at the helm, while Heupel has found ways to raise the Vols past their 3-7 record from 2020. One has to assume that this coaching advantage will push the Vols past the Dores, too.

Tennessee is still a 31 point favorite in this matchup, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See DraftKings.com/sportsbook for details.