Rivalry week is upon us, and that means that Vanderbilt fans will have to be wary of anyone wearing creamsicle and white this Saturday. The Volunteers will travel to Nashville with intentions of making it 30 straight years of Tennessee dominance at Dudley Field. The Commodores have won only once in that span, and they needed Jay Cutler to engineer a game-winning drive in Knoxville in order to do it.
That's not to say that things haven't been dramatic over those years. Eleven of the 29 games since Vandy last beat UT at home have ended with the 'Dores trailing by a touchdown or less. Three of those games were decided by fewer than four points. Vanderbilt has often found a way to be competitive against their interstate opponent, but they've almost always left the field mired in disappointment.
James Franklin came close to breaking Tennessee's latest win streak last season. His Commodores gave the Vols a battle in Neyland Stadium before falling in overtime. A combination of defensive pressure and clutch plays sunk Jordan Rodgers, and his overtime pick-six resulted in Derek Dooley's only SEC win in 2011.
Tennessee is in a similar place in 2012. The team is winless in conference play, but this year it doesn't look like beating Vanderbilt will prolong Dooley's career in Knoxville for another season. The Vols are playing under a lame-duck coach in one of their worst seasons in recent history. So what exactly can we expect from these guys when they come to Nashville on Saturday?
To get a better look at the Vols, we turned to the experts over at Rocky Top Talk. Will Shelton is an editor-in-chief over at SBNation's Tennessee affiliate, and he and Joel run one hell of a website, even if they're forced to cover an athletic program full of mutants. Here's what he had to say about Tennessee's outlook for this weekend:
1. Is there any way that Dooley comes back for 2013? Do you want him back?
Will Shelton: No and no. 100% of the local media say he's gone, and there are no good arguments left for his return. Many Tennessee fans, including most of us at RockyTopTalk, argued for patience when things went south for Dooley last season because the mess he inherited was so great. But by now these are his players and this is his ship, and he's clearly going down with it. I think everybody really wanted to like Dooley and wanted him to be the guy - he says the right things, he wears the orange pants, and more than anything I wanted the guy who cleaned up the mess to be the same guy that took Tennessee back to the mountaintop. But in the end, Dooley was what Tennessee needed the day he was hired - a stabilizer - and nothing more.
2. Tyler Bray has been...uneven in 2012, putting up big numbers but failing to lead Tennessee to big wins. What do the Vols need to get from him on Saturday in order to win? What can Vanderbilt do to force him into the kind of game he had against Mississippi State?
WS: The best way to beat Bray is keep him off the field. That's what happened in Starkville: Tennessee ran 58 plays, Mississippi State ran 80 to the tune of a +13 advantage in time of possession. Bray will join Arian Foster in UT lore as incredible talents who are never fully appreciated because the few times they make mistakes come at the absolute worst moments. Tyler Bray needs 603 yards to break Peyton Manning's single season record for passing yards. He's sixth in the nation in passing yards per game, fifth in touchdowns, and 19th in yards per attempt. But he's considered uneven because he turned it over twice driving to win at Georgia and then was victimized by Jadeveon Clowney at the end of the South Carolina game. And it's true: he hasn't led Tennessee to any meaningful victories. But that's had far less to do with him than the defense. I think Bray is going to get his 350-400, Tennessee's offense is that good. But again, it may not matter.
3. On top of that, will a big day from Bray matter this weekend? Part of his inability to bring home conference wins has been UT's inability to stop opponents from scoring. What has been the biggest reason behind the Vols' shoddy defense this season?
WS: Sal Sunseri, the new defensive coordinator and former LB coach at Alabama, gets the blame here. Under Justin Wilcox Tennessee ran a no-risk 4-3 defense. The Vols forced no turnovers and got zero pressure on the quarterback, playing it safe at all times. This was a disaster when UT's best offensive players got hurt last season and the defense couldn't make any real difference. Now with greater depth and some real talent at linebacker, Sunseri and Dooley wanted to go much more aggressive this season. But it has blown up all over our faces: this is statistically the best offense and the worst defense in the 120+ year history of Tennessee football. And so as a result, all we do is play close, high scoring games, and so far we've only come out on top against Troy. Sunseri hadn't called defenses in 22 years, and boy, it shows. We had South Carolina in 3rd and Goal at the 26 and left one safety deep. Surprise, it's a touchdown. It really is basic football stuff. We tend to leave the middle linebacker alone to cover the entire middle of the field and thus get abused by crossing routes. We still can't get any real pressure on the quarterback. And as a result, we've got the best offense in school history at the place where Peyton Manning played, and we're 0-6 in the SEC.
4. UT won a thriller last year thanks in part to a defense that got plenty of pressure on Jordan Rodgers and forced him into mistakes. Do the Volunteers have the horses to repeat that performance? Who can we expect to see chasing Rodgers in the Vandy backfield on Saturday?
WS: Again, there's nothing about our defense that inspires confidence at this point. I also think Rodgers is a year older and won't make some of the same decisions that really cost him in last year's game. The Vols will stick Daniel McCullers at 6'8" 360 in the middle of the line and try to great problems, but we still haven't had enough speed coming from other places to make it work, and one of our best linebackers, Curt Maggitt, just tore his ACL last week. Rodgers should find life easier this time around.
5. The Vols are fading in conference play and there's a lot of uncertainty behind who will be the team's head coach next season. How has that affected recruiting in 2012?
WS: The Vols just lost a four star commitment Wednesday night to Texas A&M. Right now UT is sitting on 18 commits with five four-stars. But there were some bigger fish thought to be on the hook for us that the Vols will probably lose in the transition. The biggest reason for Tennessee's downfall was a three year recruiting failure from 2007-09; we're very familiar with how much you have to lose when you don't get it right in February, and while Dooley's 2013 class wasn't full of stars, Tennessee still stands to take a hit here unless they make a really sensational hire.
6. We're all familiar with Coach Dooley's thought on Vanderbilt's chances against Tennessee in any given year. Does the rest of Rocky Top Nation share his sentiments, or does an improving Vandy squad make Vol fans a bit less confident in continuing their win streak at Dudley Field?
WS: Losing to Kentucky last season really ended our thoughts of automatic victory against anyone. When Vanderbilt beat Tennessee in 2005, you could at least point to Jay Cutler. Last year Kentucky beat us for the first time since 1984 with a wide receiver playing quarterback. So it's not so much Vandy's improvement that has us worried as it is who we've seen Dooley's Vols lose to and play close with (near misses against UAB in 2010 and Troy two weeks ago). We are incredibly confident in our offense. And we have absolutely no confidence in our defense to stop anyone.
7. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday?
WS: In our stats-heavy preview we took the Vols 40-39; I'd expect something much like what we've seen all year: very high scoring, very close. Tennessee beat Troy 55-48 and has lost games 51-44, 41-31, 38-35, and 51-48. Something in that neighborhood has become the rule, not the exception. I would say it'll come down to the kicking game but we tend to skip field goals and just go for it these days. If Tennessee makes Vanderbilt punt more than three times, I'll like our chances.