Last fall, Vanderbilt exorcised the demons of 30 futile years when they beat Tennessee at home for the first time since 1982. Now, they'll look to make it two in a row against the Volunteers for the first time since the Calvin Coolidge administration.
Vandy travels to Knoxville for a matchup that always promises to be one of the biggest of the season when they face their in-state rivals. This year, the Vols will be looking for more more than a rivalry win. A loss to Vanderbilt would keep them from playing in a bowl game for the third straight year. That's a fate that UT's Butch Jones would like to avoid.
Beating the Commodores would also be a testament to Jones's leadership from the sideline. The first-year head coach has earned dynamite reviews on the recruiting trail by convincing a consensus top five class to pick Tennessee. He'll have the chance to prove that he can back up that big talk with cunning strategy and rivalry game wins when he gets his first look at James Franklin's team in a SEC matchup. Jones has beaten Franklin and the 'Dores once before, carrying Cincinnati to a 31-24 win in the 2011 Liberty Bowl.
Vanderbilt will have to snap out of their recent offensive funk if they want to hand Jones his first loss against the Commodores. While Vandy is riding a two-game winning streak, they've had just four drives of 60 yards or more in those victories. Instead, they've been buoyed by a dominant defense that has forced eight turnovers (seven interceptions and a fumble) and created short fields for scoring opportunities. This team will have similar opportunities against UT backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs (the third straight backup signal caller they've faced), but Franklin's team can not afford to rely on turnovers alone in Saturday's rivalry game.
That means that the pressure will be on Austyn Carta-Samuels's shoulders to prove that he's not just healthy, but strong enough to lead the 'Dores to a rare road win in Knoxville. Carta-Samuels executed a conservative gameplan well against Kentucky, but failed to put points on the board, leading Vandy to just one offensive touchdown before Patton Robinette's last-minute jump-pass TD. He should be more mobile with another week to allow his injured leg to heal, and the potential return of wideout Jonathan Krause would open up the Vandy offense even more.
The tools will be in place for Vanderbilt to defeat Tennessee. Making use of them will be another story altogether. Can the Commodores continue their hot streak on defense and find a way for their offense to catch up? Or will Butch Jones record his first win over Vandy in creamsicle orange? Let's take a closer look.
Christian D'Andrea: Tennessee has trouble against strong runners. They've given up more than 200 yards per game on the ground this season. That provides a big opportunity for Jerron Seymour, a grinding tailback who has been limited in the Commodores' last two games.
Seymour was called upon to plunge straight ahead in Vandy's conservatively-called two-game winning streak and he was been solid - but unspectacular - in that role. He chipped in three short touchdowns against Florida and had a 64-yarder called back against Kentucky despite very little evidence of a penalty on the play. He's gained just 3.1 yards per carry in that span, but that can be attributed more to the team's conservative play calls than Seymour himself. Against the Wildcats, Seymour was brought in to run up the middle on almost every play despite A) Kentucky's strength along the defensive line and B) the team's success when it came to running off-tackle as the game wore on.
I don't think that's a strategy Vanderbilt will stick with on Saturday. Seymour is explosive enough to run to the sideline and gain yards, and his primary backup Brian Kimbrow is even more elusive outside the tackle box. If Vandy can rely on him to break a few big runs early and move the chains, it'll take all the pressure off of a still-recovering Carta-Samuels behind center. That would mean a record-breaking day for Jordan Matthews, and a potentially huge return to action from Jonathan Krause.
Defensively, the 'Dores will face a quarterback similar to the last two that they beat. Joshua Dobbs, like Tyler Murphy and Jalen Whitlow, is a mobile passer who tends to be more efficient as a runner than as a passer. While Murphy and Whitlow were able to put a scare into this team's linebackers early on, pressure from the Wild Dogs on the Vandy defensive line ultimately forced them into the mistakes that shifted the game in Vanderbilt's favor.
Caleb Azubike is currently listed on the Vanderbilt depth chart, and that suggests that he'll be ready to go despite leaving the final minute of the Kentucky game with a lower leg injury. He'll play a huge part - alongside Walker May and Kyle Woestmann - when it comes to making Dobbs uncomfortable and preventing the Vols from getting into a consistent rhythm on offense. Vanderbilt is lucky to roll into this game with their starting defense more or less intact from the preseason, and that should help the team's recent stinginess continue for a third straight game.
That defense may be able to carry the team on its own, but the Vanderbilt offense should be due for a return to form on Saturday. Tennessee is a tough opponent, and they'll have a sea of orange supporting them, but Vandy has been careful not to make mistakes in 2013 and the Commodores are playing smart football right now. Vanderbilt has only lost to high level quarterbacks in the SEC this season - Bo Wallace, Connor Shaw, Johnny Manziel, and James Franklin - and Tennessee doesn't have that kind of weapon this fall.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 27, Tennessee 20
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: See above. Vegas currently has the Commodores as a 2.5-point underdog on the road. That suggests that the bettors believe that Vandy is just a hair better than Tennessee on a neutral field. That's understandable; Tennessee has a tougher schedule and a better marquee win (South Carolina) than Vanderbilt, but Vandy has the better record and the momentum. The real smart bet here? The prop wager that someone in your section at Neyland Stadium will sneak a baggie of Burnett's into your section (2:5) and eventually spill it on you (3:1).