Tennessee at Vanderbilt Preview: Tying It All Together

This week, our community gives the Vols a 72.1% chance of victory at Vanderbilt. Some of that is the Dores, for sure: even coming off the Georgia loss, fans gave the Vols a 94.1% chance against Vandy two weeks ago.

The rest of it, of course, is Tennessee. The 72.1% number against Vandy is most similar to the 73.8% chance fans gave the Vols against #19 Kentucky a month ago:

2022 Expected Win Percentage at Kickoff via GRT Win Total Machine

Ball State97.5%
UT Martin98.5%
South Carolina86.7%

We need the full season, including the bowl game, to put this year in its proper context. But a win on Saturday would separate past from present in clear and tangible ways. The Vols would secure their first 10-win season since 2007, could play for their first 11-win season since 2001, and should position themselves nicely for a New Year’s Six bowl. That’s the kind of tangible prize the 2016 team missed out on at the end, something that goes on a t-shirt the way we haven’t seen since the last division title 15 years ago. And if you like looking ahead, every program’s goal is getting ready to be, “Can we make the 12-team playoff?” – win at Vandy, and the Vols would be in good position in a hypothetical expanded playoff if it existed this year. It’s the kind of thing that makes you believe we could do it again.

In that Vanderbilt game six years ago, with the Vols a win away from the Sugar Bowl, things changed very quickly. That Tennessee team had already lost thrice, and was in position to make New Orleans based on the strength of the SEC that season. This Tennessee team can make New Orleans, Miami, or Dallas on their own merits.

But just as Tennessee’s narrative shifted rapidly last week, that 2016 team took a 34-24 lead on the Commodores with three minutes to play in the third quarter. The defense missed opportunities to get off the field on 3rd-and-6 and 3rd-and-10 on the next drive, a Vanderbilt touchdown that cut it to 34-31 in the final minute of the third. Three snaps later, Josh Dobbs fumbled at midfield. Vandy scored again to take a 38-34 lead with 12 minutes to play. The Vols had 1st-and-10 at the 12 on their next drive, but settled for a 37-yard field goal…that missed with 6:46 to go.

Then Vandy went 39 yards on 3rd-and-1. Then they scored two plays later. And just like that, it was out of reach at 45-34 with four minutes to play. The Vols were stopped on 4th-and-4 at the Vandy 13 with 1:37 to play to make it official. Josh Dobbs in that game: 31-of-34 for 340 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. 31-of-34, but we lost.

It’s the “but we lost”, of course, that the Vols want to avoid this weekend. As we’re still thinking about last weekend, we’ll need this one to help put it into full context too.

There are still a handful of “worst loss since” going around late this week; I get it. I think it is definitely the most surprising loss I can remember; it easily clears that bar relative to expectation at kickoff via Vegas (favored by 22, lost by 25). We’ll still need the rest of the year to see what happens – for instance, one of Tennessee Basketball’s toughest losses became Loyola Chicago, not just for how it happened, but for the way the bracket broke wide open and the sense of what could have been. If TCU and USC keep winning, the Vols may not have made the playoffs either way. We’ll see.

One thing I’ve done this week is track down other bewildering losses of the playoff era among contenders. It’s not to explain away what happened last week; honestly, any real off-the-field issues would actually make it more understandable that the Vols allowed nine touchdowns on ten drives. It’s more to say, for at least one and perhaps all of these programs, you’d still believe they can contend again.

The best comparison comes from friend of the blog Jay:

  • 2017: #6 Ohio State lost at unranked Iowa 55-24 as a 21-point favorite. Iowa scored 27 combined points in the previous two weeks, including an overtime loss to Northwestern. A trap game between wins over #2 Penn State and #12 Michigan State, this November 4 loss clearly cost the Buckeyes the playoffs in the long run. One-loss Alabama still got in (and won it all) over these two-loss conference champions, who also fell to #5 Oklahoma in week two.

It’s a great comparison for the sudden surprise of a struggling Iowa offense, the spread, and the stakes. It’s also incredibly helpful in knowing that the Buckeyes, as a program, have had plenty of other chances. A loss like this doesn’t guarantee you’ll never get that close again.

Other comparisons:

  • 2016: #5 Louisville lost at unranked Houston 36-10 as a 14-point favorite. Similar to the, “What in the world happened to our defense?!” vibes, Houston put Lamar Jackson in a bottle: 20-of-43 for 211 yards, 25 carries for 33 yards. A shocking loss on November 17, one they did not recover from in also falling to Kentucky the next week. A playoffs-to-Citrus-Bowl fall we will not seek to emulate.
  • 2018: #2 Ohio State lost at unranked Purdue 49-20 as a 12-point favorite. Again, the Buckeyes: ambushed on the road and ultimately missing the playoffs because of it.
  • 2021: #2 Iowa lost to unranked Purdue 24-7 as an 11-point favorite. Again, Purdue. The Hawkeyes, with three Top 20 wins including #4 Penn State leading up to this one, also lost their very next game to Wisconsin.

So yes, it does happen. And yes, your program can contend again.

How that conversation will sound depends a lot on what the Vols do with Vanderbilt. It will deal specifically with what we see from Joe Milton. But in general, how will this season finish? What will the Vols give themselves a chance to do next: break new ground in the playoff era, or end the season on a two-game slide?

In a season with so many big games and big wins, there’s quite a bit on the line in this last regular season game. Can these Vols find one more big win?

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John Wilbanks
John Wilbanks
1 year ago

Always grateful for the research to create historical context, Will. Time to be thankful for this season, and hope for some grace for the team as they close it out.

1 year ago

I agree with John, this article and research really does put this year in perspective while demonstrating these games happen to many good teams. It also demonstrates how difficult it is to play conference games in a top 5 conference. I will be really disappointed if this team can not finish strong for Hendon and all those Team Members that have been giving their all. Go Vols!