Is Vandy Still Candy for Tennessee?
Last week against Kentucky, Vanderbilt enjoyed its biggest SEC win in 40 years, a 38-8 thumping of Kentucky. Vandy did it despite squandering three different scoring opportunities in the first half, but also in part by holding the Wildcats to an 0-11 mark on third downs. That, of course, is perhaps more of a measure of how bad Kentucky was/is.
Nonetheless, in 11 months, head coach James Franklin has done more for Vandy football than anyone in decades. Perhaps keeping Franklin from being lured for a better gig is the school’s biggest near-term goal. But, based on Franklin’s premise that he’s in Nashville to thoroughly change a culture, perhaps he will be around a lot longer than Vandy fans fear, or Vol fans would care for.
If he defeats Dooley’s Vols, I would vote for Franklin to be SEC Coach of the Year, because after going 2-10 for two consecutive seasons, a bowl appearance would be an award-winning performance at a school more known for sports like cross-country running and baseball.
Tennessee and Vanderbilt — two programs seemingly heading in opposite directions. But things can turn on a dime. A Vandy loss on Saturday could lead to another at Wake Forest, putting the renaissance on pause. A Vol win on Saturday, followed by a streak-extending victory in Lexington, would send Tennessee bowling, and a win in a bowl game would give Dooley an even .500 record as the head of the Volunteers.
People would all of a sudden breathe a lot easier, most notably Dooley himself.
But before getting ahead of ourselves, here are a few things I’ll be looking at on Saturday.
The chippy factor
Largely driven by their amp meter reading in the red zone, the Commodores gave up over 100 yards in penalties against Florida. But the red-ass factor really got going earlier against Georgia. Franklin and Georgia coordinator Todd Grantham got into a heated shouting match when the sidelines came onto the field as the game ended. It was all started by Franklin shouting at Georgia DB Shawn Williams, reportedly because the game was a chippy affair with a host of cheap shots. Tennessee is about the quietest squad I’ve ever seen wear the orange jersey. Some Vol swagger would be nice to see on Saturday, especially if it could goad Vandy into stupid infractions. But that kind of thing, especially against a club that feeds off of the emotion factor, could backfire against the Vols in a big way.
Coming from behind
Vanderbilt has proven to be a very resilient team when the chips are down, especially against Georgia and Florida. A 17-0 first-half deficit at The Swamp didn’t seem to faze the Commodores. Outscoring the Gators 21-9 the rest of the way, although not enough in their 26-21 loss, should send shivers up the spines of the Volunteer faithful. Based on our 2011 play, Tennessee would have wilted under a 17-point deficit in Gainesville (actually I think we did something like that). Vandy also came back from the dead in the second half against Georgia and nearly upset the Dawgs. Tennessee’s performance when trailing this season is dismal, the early 7-0 deficit against Cincinnati notwithstanding.
One of the strong points of the Commodores’ play has been their secondary. Before the Arkansas game a couple of weeks ago, the Vandy defense led the SEC with 15 interceptions. It has only been the last four weeks that the Vols have been able to steal some opponents’ passes. Presuming that Justin Worley starts (seems that he will at the time of this writing), he’s got a challenge that must be overcome, because the alternative — the running game — is not helping the cause.
Vandy’s defensive line has shown problems finishing tackles. This was especially true at Florida. Such a tendency could really help a struggling Vol running game. As for Tennessee, one look at the Joe Adams’ pinball-esque punt return for a TD is all you need to know about Tennessee’s problems with fundamentals like tackling.
The elusive quarterback factor
Vandy’s QB is not the one who started the season. Jordan Rogers, making his first start at QB against Army during the middle of the season, passed for 186 yards and also ran for 96 yards. His predecessor, Larry started the first six games of the season, but finished only one of them. An example, against Georgia, Rogers replaced Smith and led the Commodores to three second-half scoring drives to bring Vandy back from the dead and nearly upset the Bulldogs. Rogers has evolved into a very good player, elusive in the pocket and making good decisions. Smith was criticized for holding onto the ball too long and getting sacked too often. Whether it’s Bray or Worley, or both on Saturday, neither are known for being especially mobile in or out of the pocket.
Finding new ways to lose
Down a TD, Vandy looked ready to score against Arkansas. Instead, Commodore RB Zac Stacy fumbled the football — his first fumble lost this season — and could do nothing but watch as it was run back for a Razorback score. Instead of an even game, Vandy found itself down 35-20. Of course they battled back, and at the very end had a chance to send the game into OT with a 22-yard FG. But PK Carey Spear missed waaaaay right. Game-losing f*ck-ups are a Vandy tradition. Let’s hope the cause is in the team’s electrolyte solution bottles and not something that Franklin and his bunch can know about. As far as the Vols are concerned, this hasn’t been a problem. Tennessee just doesn’t show up for the second half and gets destroyed.
It seems so Vandy-esque that one of their players would pick the week before the biggest game of the season to get suspended for being involved in an armed robbery. Well, that’s exactly what happened. Sophomore safety Andre Simmons is suspected of being a party to an armed robbery which occurred on campus (in Lupton Hall). He has been charged with felony counts of burglary and robbery. Simmons has only played in one game this season, on special teams. But Franklin doesn’t need this kind of issue to arise as a potential distraction when they are favored to win in Neyland Stadium for probably the first time in a half-century. So improbable, yet so Vanderbilt. Nice job, ‘Dores.
For the previous 10 games this season, I haven’t had to navel-gaze too much to predict the outcome (yes, I’m 10-0, but we’ve been SOOOOO predictable). But this game against our in-state enemy is a tough one. It’s a real tug-of-war between personal emotion and realism. As Rocktop78 calls it, the “left-brain vs right-brain battle.”
Nothing like jumping in the deep end and just trusting your gut.
Tennessee 17 Vanderbilt 14
PLEASE LET ME NOT BE INSANE