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Vanderbilt will try to make it two-in-a-row against arch rival Tennessee, but the Volunteers are playing for a potential bowl bid. Can James Franklin continue his hot streak in November? We turned to an expert to break down UT's strengths and weaknesses.
Vanderbilt can clinch a second-straight winning record on Saturday, but they'll have to get through a Tennessee team that is fighting for bowl eligibility in a hostile Knoxville environment. The Commodores have only beaten UT twice in the past 30 years, but a talented Vandy team is hitting a Volunteer squad that is in the thick of a three game losing streak.
That's not to say that the Vols will make things easier for Vanderbilt. Tennessee has only lost to ranked teams in 2013, with their worst loss coming to a then-#19 Florida in the Swamp. They've got an upset over South Carolina on their ledger, along with an overtime loss against Georgia as well. Though the Vols may be 4-6, they'll be a much tougher opponent than their record indicates.
To better understand the men who play in creamsicle orange, we went to an expert. Will Shelton is an Editor-in-Chief over at Rocky Top Talk, the best Tennessee blog out there and one of the best college sports blogs period. He was kind enough to answer all my questions about UT in 2013. His answers are below:
1. Justin Worley is out at quarterback due to injury, and Joshua Dobbs has taken his place. However, he's struggled against some of the SEC's best teams in his three games this season, failing to throw a touchdown pass. What can Vanderbilt expect out of the true freshman QB in the passing game on Saturday? What can Dobbs do that Worley can't?
The numbers on Worley and Dobbs are almost identical; Dobbs has a slightly higher completion percentage, Worley averaged slightly more yards per attempt, and both have been generally below average. Dobbs, as you mentioned, is a true freshman who has only played against three top ten teams. With a week off and a more reasonable opponent I expect him to be noticeably better this week. Dobbs' mistakes have been of the freshman variety and usually come when he tries to make a big throw instead of living to play another down. But he does have a stronger arm than Worley, and with more time during the off week to work with a young receiving corps (three freshmen and two sophomores are its top five pass catchers) I think you'll see improved productivity.
2. Dobbs has had some success as a ball carrier in his three games. What are the odds that Butch Jones amps up his running game to take advantage of a Vandy team that has struggled against mobile quarterbacks? Any chance we'll see the read option in Knoxville Saturday night?
The Vols have utilized the read option this season, but with Worley it wasn't really an option because he was handing the ball off literally 95% of the time. Dobbs can run and we'll still use the read option some, though his most productive work has come on quarterback draws or scrambling out of the pocket, and we haven't seen the Vols use a ton of that stuff either. Tennessee's strength is in its experience on the offensive line and at tailback, so I think that's where you can expect most of the productivity in the ground game to come from Saturday night.
3. Auburn had a rare 35/444 passing yard to rushing yard ratio in UT's last game, and the Vols are giving up over 225 rushing yards per game this season. What problems have Tennessee faced when it comes to stopping opposing tailbacks? How can Butch Jones address that with an underrated three-man platoon (Seymour, Kimbrow, and Tate) on their way to town?
The bulk of Tennessee's struggles, especially the last two weeks, have been with the other team's quarterback. Maty Mauk had 114 yards on 13 carries, then Nick Marshall went crazy for 214 on just 14 carries. Make no mistake, Tennessee hasn't been great at stopping opposing tailbacks either, but the off-the-charts bad news has come from quarterbacks. The last three weeks UT's defense has fallen back into some of its 2012 habits, mirroring the play of the worst defense in school history by failing to set the edge and then taking horrific angles. Generally speaking you'll find much more success running outside than inside on the Vols, but UT's two best SEC defensive performances have come against Aaron Murray (who still hurt us with a long run) and Connor Shaw (who still had 78 yards rushing but really struggled passing). I'll be interested to see if/how the defense bounces back against a team without a running quarterback this week.
4. Has Rajion Neal been UT's biggest offensive threat? The senior tailback is enjoying a breakout season after a strong 2012 year. Have opponents shifted their defensive game plans to stop Neal now that the inexperienced Dobbs is behind center?
We had some weirdness at Missouri in Dobbs' first start where Neal had eight carries for eight yards. Otherwise Rajion has become a really nice player in his senior year. He was extraordinary against Georgia with 148 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and last week had his next best game against real competition with 124 on just 20 carries before we got too far behind to do what we wanted. Missouri has a strong defensive front and really ate our ground game alive, but otherwise he's been solid even against teams like Alabama. But Vanderbilt seems to have been solid against the run as well, so it'll be interesting to see how much the Dores key on Neal and try to force Dobbs to beat them.
5. Brian Randolph looks like the exact kind of player who can put the clamps on a Vandy passing offense that has been unimpressive over the past month. Who else can the Commodores expect to have an impact defensively for Tennessee this Saturday?
Randolph is the glue guy back there, very solid and a knack for making a big play in a big moment, but the emerging talent here is true freshman Cameron Sutton at corner. He's started every game and is tied for the team lead in pass break ups to go along with a pair of interceptions, one a pick six. Tennessee has also started using him in blitz situations as well; he got Nick Marshall behind the line last week. Sutton is a guy who just doesn't get beat a lot, and I'll be interested to see how the Vols may use him on Jordan Matthews. Another true freshman, defensive end Corey Vereen, is supposed to make his first start this Saturday after missing the first month of the season with an injury and picking up steam from there. Middle linebacker A.J. Johnson is really good up the middle but equally bad at covering backs sideline to sideline in the pass game.
6. Has the Vanderbilt/UT rivalry grown from a fan's perspective after Vandy brought James Franklin to their sideline? Do fans in Knoxville see Saturday's game as a more compelling matchup than in the past?
Yes, absolutely. Some of it is Franklin's charming personality, some of it is the way the 2011 game ended. Vanderbilt's blowout win last year didn't resonate as much with us simply because we were all so tired of Derek Dooley at that point the greater emotional investment was in who was going to replace him and not what happened to us on the field. But if the embarrassment from last year carries over into Vandy's first two game win streak in this series in 88 years, I think you'll really see the rivalry grow to another level. We thought even back in the summer that this would be not the biggest, but the most important game of the year for Butch Jones, and it's really turned into that. We got the one big win over South Carolina to make people buy-in, but fans spent all summer believing Missouri and Auburn could be had and no one saw their seasons coming. So now we need this one for bowl eligibility, and we need it to maintain the forward progress Butch Jones has made. We all know this is going to take time and he's recruiting like crazy, but the fact remains there are few things more hazardous to the health of a Tennessee head coach than losing to Vanderbilt. There's a lot to lose and a lot to gain for Tennessee on Saturday; it's without a doubt as compelling a UT/Vandy matchup as any I can remember recently.
7. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's game?
I like Tennessee at home in a very close game. The Vols have played Oregon, Alabama, Missouri, and Auburn this year and looked terrible against each. But Tennessee is a Pig Howard fumble at the goal line away from being 2-0 against Georgia and South Carolina. I think there's enough evidence to suggest Tennessee is better overall than what we've seen the last few weeks, and Butch Jones is historically excellent off a bye week. Vanderbilt is really interesting to me - you guys are an insane +11 in turnover margin in the last four games. The numbers don't always balance out; we said the same thing going into Missouri and came up on the wrong end of the margin in that one too. But I do question Vanderbilt's offensive efficiency and their ability to win when not creating turnovers, and will be really curious to see what happens with the quarterback position this week. If Tennessee can limit Vanderbilt's offense the way others have and not put too much on Dobbs by having a big day running the football, I think it'll be enough to secure the victory at home. But I don't expect it to be easy. I'll take Tennessee 31-28.
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