It is difficult to imagine a more satisfying result for the Vanderbilt faithful than last season’s 41-18 romp over Tennessee.
Sure, the 28-24 win in Knoxville back in 2005 was fun but that’s all it was – a win.
The last meeting between these in-state rivals was a statement in that it was decisive, dominant, definitive – pick your adjective. It was a watershed moment for a program that for decades simply was happy to take victories anywhere it could.
There’s a difference between being the better team on a particular day and simply being the better team.
That makes this Saturday’s meeting in Knoxville (6 p.m., ESPN2) unique in a series that dates back to 1892. For the first time in a long, long time Vanderbilt is the team to beat.
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt will succeed Saturday
• Experience counts: After some injury issues along the way the Commodores’ starting defense once again includes four senior in the secondary and two more at linebacker. Not surprisingly, Vanderbilt is second in the conference in takeaways and turnover margin. Two freshmen and a sophomore comprise Tennessee’s top three receivers, which means it’s unlikely they will show the Commodores something they have not seen.
• The Man: Tennessee is fifth in the conference in passing yards allowed per game (208.4) but only four teams allow more yards per pass play. In other words, opponents don’t throw the ball often against the Volunteers but when they do it’s often effective. No one can exploit holes in a secondary more than wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who needs four receptions to become the SEC’s all-time leading receiver.
• Third down: Vanderbilt has not been as proficient as it would like on third down – either on offense or defense. Its 36.1 percent success rate on offense is 12th in the SEC and opponents have converted 41.5 percent of the time against the defense (11th in the SEC). Disappointing though those numbers might be, Tennessee is worse (13th in third-down offense, 14th in third-down defense).
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt will struggle Saturday
• Experience counts: There is no greater equalizer in football than a dominant offensive line, and Tennessee’s includes four seniors and a junior. UT is one of six SEC teams that average at least five yards per rush, and only two conference schools have allowed fewer sacks. The anchor is right tackle JaWuan James, who in this game will tie Jeff Smith for most career starts by a Volunteers offensive lineman (48).
• Man in the middle: Middle linebacker A.J. Johnson has lived up to his All-SEC preseason first-team status with a team-high 84 tackles, which is fourth in the conference. He has made 10 or more stops in 17 of his 34 career appearances and needs eight stops to pass Rico McCoy for third all-time at UT. Vanderbilt makes teams pay for missed tackles, and Johnson does not miss too often.
• Well-rested: Tennessee’s second open date was last Saturday and it was a welcome one following three straight losses by a combined score of 129-36. The Volunteers came out of their first open date and defeated South Carolina (their only conference victory), and for his career Butch Jones’ teams are 9-1 following a break. Vanderbilt fully understands the value of rest given that its victories over Georgia and Florida came after open dates.
The bottom line
Vanderbilt’s 23-point victory last season was not a fluke. The Commodores were that much better than the Volunteers.
It’s asking an awful lot for a team to make up that sort of disparity in one season, particularly one with a new coaching staff, on its third quarterback of the season (a true freshman, no less) and that has not been close in the majority of its conference games.
Tennessee fans want to believe this is a winnable game. While anything is possible, Vanderbilt has the experience, the momentum and the positive memories from a year ago. So this is one that the Commodores ought to win rather handily.