Let's skip with the pleasantries. We know what tomorrow is. We know what's at stake; the opportunity to keep Tennessee from a bowl game and the chance to extend Vandy's winning streak over the Vols to three. Both are big deals in Nashville.
But, if you're like me, you've spent most of the 2014 season averting your eyes whenever the creamsicle-colored tribe from the bad part of the state pops up on television. In my mind, the Vols feature a still-wheezing Cordarelle Patterson on kick returns and are led by the quarterback whose completion rates were better with beer bottles than footballs, Tyler Bray. In football heaven, it's 2012 all over again.
Unfortunately, that's (probably) not the case anymore. So, to break down Saturday's matchup, I enlisted the help of an expert. Hunter Turner is a big shot over at Rocky Top Talk, SBNation's Tennessee headquarters. He's also an occasional commenter in the AoG archives as well. He was nice enough to sit down with me and talk Volunteer football despite dealing with various madnesses related to Thanksgiving. Here's what he had to say about Tennessee in 2014:
1. What's more important for Tennessee fans on Saturday - securing bowl eligibility, or beating a Vanderbilt team that has injected a little bit more life into this cross-state rivalry in the past three seasons?
Hunter Turner: Bowl eligibility, and it isn't even close. In most years, Tennessee fans approach the game against Vanderbilt like the entertainment portion of an enjoyable Saturday night: an overmatched opponent is ground into a fine paste, followed by a fine meal at Calhoun's and a glass of good whiskey. After a disastrous five years that saw the Vols run through coaches like a speed-dating event, fail to top six wins a season, and lose both times they reached the post season, Tennessee fans desperately want to believe that Butch Jones is the right guy to return the program to prominence. While the Vols have been more competitive this season, a sixth win and a middle-tier bowl game would go a long way toward validating all the Vol Nation's faith in the current coaching regime.
Tennessee fans hated losing to Vanderbilt, but more than anything, that dislike coalesced around a single point: James Franklin. Vol fans hate James Franklin more than Alabama fans hate book-learnin' and more than Mizzou fans hate recruiting rankings. Franklin's acrimonious departure for Penn State has reduced the anger over consecutive losses to the 'Dores by reinforcing two things most Vol fans hold to be true: 1) Franklin is an unrepentant, dishonest jerk (his looting of the Vandy recruiting class on the way out brings back memories of Ed Orgeron calling Vol recruits in 2009); and, 2) Vandy football is significantly worse without him. In fact, while there's some schadenfreude from observing disappointed Vandy fans, the swift and stunning reversal of Vanderbilt's football fortunes has engendered some modicum of sympathy toward the Commodores. After all, at least you're not Florida.
2. Joshua Dobbs is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback that can extend drives, but he had his least effective game of the 2014 campaign against Missouri last week. How did the Tigers limit him to just 13 rushing yards despite 17 carries?
Think of it as an irresistible force (Shane Ray) meeting a series of moveable objects (the Tennessee offensive line). It's pretty much that simple: Missouri's defensive line is the strength of their defense, and Tennessee's offensive line was too young, too inexperienced, and too injured (starting center Mack Crowder didn't play) to give Dobbs any breathing room at all. Dobbs was under pressure all night, and that led to miscues (incompletions and negative plays) that prevented the offense from sustaining drives.
3. Jalen Hurd has been a solid starter as a freshman tailback in the SEC. What do you expect to see out of him in his return to middle Tennessee? Can Vandy fans expect to see a heaping dose of carries if the Vols run out to an early lead?
Hurd is a fantastic athlete who has made the most of his opportunities behind the aforementioned terrible horrible no-good very bad offensive line. He's the most reliable option in both the running and the short passing game, so expect him to touch the ball early and often, regardless of the score. If the score starts to get out of hand, I'd expect Tennessee to try and rotate in fellow freshman running back Derrell Scott, who's been struggling with a hand injury (he's been wearing a cast for the last few weeks).
4. Tennessee has given up 29 points or more in five of their six losses this season. They've scored 34 or more in each of their five wins. Are these Volunteers equipped - athletically and in terms of leadership - to win a sloppy, grinding, and potentially ugly rivalry game?
Well, let's look at those five high scoring losses: they came against offenses ranked #4 (Alabama), #7 (Georgia), #9 (Oklahoma), #27 (Ole Miss), and the obvious outlier #62 (Missouri)(all rankings from Football Outsider's F+). The first four losses are self explanatory, and the Vols were -2 in turnover margin against Mizzou and still had a chance to win in the closing seconds, if the refs hadn't incorrectly called offsides on an onside kick that Tennessee recovered.
The Vols did lose a close-fought rivalry game against Florida at home (10-90 in what was probably the most disappointing loss of the year. If Vanderbilt can hold the Vols to 9 points, they'll definitely have a shot.
5. Johnny McCrary has been a solid quarterback when he's gotten time to plant his feet and find targets downfield. Unfortunately, a shoddy Vandy offensive line has kept that from being a consistent reality. Does Tennessee have the pass rushing capability to keep him backpedaling and dealing with pressure all afternoon in Nashville?
Here's where Vanderbilt fans should steel themselves against heartbreak and might-have-beens: Tennessee's pass rush is led by a player from local Nashville private school Brentwood Academy who absolutely loved James Franklin. Freshman defensive end Derek Barnett has already broken Jadaveon Clowney's SEC freshman sack record (although he remains behind Texas A&M freshman Myles Garrett), and he's been an absolute revelation as a first year starter. If not for Franklin's departure to Happy Valley, he might have been compiling his standout season on West End, as he was purportedly all set to head to Vandy.
6. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's game?
Vanderbilt is playing out the end of a lost season, but that doesn't mean that the players don't have anything for which to play: a win over the Vols would give the 'Dores state bragging rights and an SEC win, while knocking Tennessee out of a bowl game and disappointing orange-clad fans. Vandy has a talented, prideful roster who could surprise a young Tennessee team on the road, especially if things start to go against them with special teams mistakes or turnovers.
This could be, and perhaps should be a good game... but I think the Karl Dorrell factor is too high. He's just a terrible coach. If Bill Snyder is an offensive wizard, Dorrell is a sad three-card monte huckster set up outside a decaying South Florida strip mall.