Back during Butch Jones’ first year in Knoxville in 2013, the Vols entered the penultimate game of the season against Vanderbilt needing a win out against the Commodores and Kentucky Wildcats to make a bowl game.
UT lost 14-10 in a hapless showing, and as I was walking out of Neyland Stadium, fans grumbled, and I heard the first questions about whether or not the first-year Tennessee coach could get the job done.
As we all know now, he couldn’t. And while I don’t know how fair it is to begin to question at that early juncture of the season, it’s something Jeremy Pruitt will hear a little if the Vols leave Nashville with a loss this season in a winner-take-all (some?) game this weekend.
Personally, I figured this season would be on the brink of 6-6 or 5-7 all year, so I’m going to dial back the criticism. The roster was in terrible shape this year, and though the lack of talent and consistency have killed UT, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Clay Travis reminded us of that this week:
How bad of shape did Butch Jones leave Tennessee in? Worse than Fulmer, Kiffin, & Dooley for sure. Vols have been underdogs in all 8 SEC games this year for the first time in program history. This week Vols are +3.5 vs Vandy, the shortest SEC underdog Vols have been all year.
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) November 21, 2018
Tennessee was a six or more point underdog against 8 of 9 FBS teams on the schedule this year. Only favored to beat UTEP, Charlotte, & ETSU. If Pruitt gets Vols to 6-6 he will have won three games as an underdog. Would be a fantastic coaching job that is being overlooked by most
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) November 21, 2018
Of course, there’s never an excuse when you’re Tennessee to lose to Vanderbilt. But the harrowing fact is, regardless of how the Vols have beaten the Commodores in recruiting classes, VU has developed better recently. They have a senior starting quarterback in Kyle Shurmur, some playmakers on offense [looking at you, Ke’Shawn Vaughn] and arguably a better defense than Mizzou. This is not a great matchup for Tennessee.
This season has been equal parts hopeful and frustrating. The game to look back on that should sting is the South Carolina second-half collapse. Win that, and this game is virtually meaningless. Instead, this one means a good bit to Pruitt and VU coach Derek Mason.
For Pruitt, though, this is uncharted waters, as he mentioned this week. He’s used to this last game meaning something, and 6-6 — you can just tell when he talks — is not something he’s trumpeting in the least. He probably wants this season to just be over so he can trade 25 players for those of his own, but he knows the value of winning for his young guys is the extra 15 practices.
That’s the most important element of this game for him. For us, it’s not wanting to lose to Vanderbilt again, which has quite frankly owned us recently. Those words taste bitter, but they’re true.
Tying things together
I have this vision of Tennessee celebrating at Vanderbilt Stadium and Ty Chandler being hailed as the hero, going home and having one of the biggest games of his two-year college career.
UT needs it to happen, but in order for it to, the offensive line must play better than it has at any point this season. Vanderbilt’s rush defense is 13th in the league, allowing 195 yards per game. The Vols have to run the ball, and they have to get Chandler touches in space, whether that be rushing to the edge or catching passes.
Saturday has to be Ty’s game, and the offensive line needs to make sure he can take it and run with it. If he stars, the Vols win.
The reason Tennessee lost against Missouri last week was not that Jarrett Guarantano went out early in the first quarter with a head injury, but it sure didn’t help.
Again, that’s an indictment of an awful offensive line that needs to drastically improve in this offseason, or position coach Will Friend needs to be fired. It’s been that bad, and there’s been very little glimmers of improvement. The O-line finally got JG hurt after all the shots he’s taken this year, and it crushed UT’s offensive hopes.
Hopefully, JG can go this weekend, the line can keep his jersey relatively clean. The Vols need to hit a few of their customary shots downfield, and Guarantano’s health entering the game and sustained throughout are paramount to the Vols making enough offensive plays to win.
Last weekend, Tennessee failed to get any pressure at all on Mizzou veteran quarterback Drew Lock thanks to a sturdy Tigers offensive line, and Lock sat back there in the pocket and shredded UT’s secondary with as much time as he needed. He delivered precision pass after precision pass in a resume game for the NFL. His numbers would have been much better had the Tigers not dropped a pair of deep balls.
Shurmur is no Lock, but he’s a capable veteran quarterback who has thrown a lot of SEC passes and had a ton of success against the Vols. If UT can’t get to him, he will torch Tennessee’s young secondary, and make Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson look bad. Darrell Taylor and Co. must find a way to generate a pass rush.
And the young cornerbacks need to play better than they did a week ago, too.
Speaking of those young DBs, it’s about time for Alontae Taylor to make his freshman season signature play, isn’t it? He’s had a really strong year, even though he was embarrassed a little a week ago against Missouri. He needs to play for a little pride this week and rebound with a big interception or forced fumble.
Tennessee needs to generate a couple of turnovers deep in Vanderbilt territory and parlay them into extra points. I’m not sure UT can win straight-up without forcing the Commodores into some miscues. This is a very important element of Saturday’s game.
On the flip side of that, the margin for error for this team is zero. A week ago, the Vols were driving for what could have been a late first-half touchdown that could have cut the Mizzou lead to 19-17. Instead, Keller Chryst threw a “bad pass” according to his coach, that was picked off, and the Tigers instead turned it into a touchdown and a 26-10 halftime advantage.
That was a soul-crushing, momentum-seizing play.
In the third quarter, Carlin Fils-aime’s fumble was picked up and returned for a scoop-and-score, and the rout was on. That’s essentially a 21- or possibly even 28-point swing. The Vols cannot do that. No team can, but especially not one as slim on talent as Tennessee.
They’ve got to cut out mistakes, or they’ll lose.
Prediction: Tennessee always beats Vanderbilt, right? Well, that’s no longer the case, now, is it? We’ve endured some embarrassing years, and the biggest disappointments in them all are the ownership of UT by South Carolina and the former cupcake in Nashville.
This is not a good Vanderbilt team. It may be better than the Vols, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good team. If UT loses, there needs to be plenty of grumbles, and it will make Pruitt’s job on the recruiting trail a little harder. I don’t know that I fully believe it, but because I can’t bear the thought of losing again, I’m taking the Vols in a close one.
Vols win 27-24
On the way to the Tennessee game last weekend, I was bragging to my dad about how all these big-wig college football reporters’ records ATS this year were like 10 games under .500, and how even though I was beating myself up over being two games in the black, I was pretty strong.
Then last week happened, and I did the equivalent of the Vols defense.
The college football world threw up a 50-burger on me. I went 1-6, easily the worst showing of the season to fall to 37-40 with just one week to go. That’s incredibly disappointing. Much like the Vols, I fell on my face. Now, I’ve got to rally with everybody against me to come up mediocre.
The only game I won was Nebraska +1.5 against Michigan State. Syracuse pooped the bed against Notre Dame, Texas Tech’s worst performance of the season came against Kansas State, we all know what happened with UT, West Virginia lost outright to Oklahoma State, Florida State upset Boston College and Vanderbilt actually beat Ole Miss. There it is – 1-6. *Shudder*.
Here’s hoping for a 5-2 record and a solid season with a push…
- Memphis and Houston under 76: It’s normally not smart to bet the under in Memphis games, but I’m not sure the Cougars can hold up their end of the scoreboard without D’Eriq King. I think this one scrapes by.
- Syracuse +6.5 over Boston College: I hate picking games during rivalry week because of all the close lines, but this is one of those I can’t believe I’m getting points in. I think the Orange win outright.
- Michigan and Ohio State under 57: I’m staying away from the line in the Big Game, but I love Michigan’s defense, and I think this number is way, way too high.
- Pittsburgh +4 over Miami: It’s not often Vegas hasn’t caught up to a team at this point in the season, but that’s the case with the Panthers, who are still getting disrespected by the oddsmakers.
- LSU +3 over Texas A&M: This is the third game where I’m stunned I’m getting points. LSU is too polished on defense to let this game slip by.
- Oklahoma State -5 over TCU: Could this be a letdown game? Sure. The Cowboys have played their best against the best competition this year, and now they’re going up against one of the best defenses in the Big 12. But they’ll do enough to cover this slight number.
- Notre Dame -11.5 over USC: Things are going downhill fast in L.A. This will be Clay Helton’s last game; I’ve learned by lesson on the Irish after last week.