Derek Mason can validate his second year at the helm of Vanderbilt football with a win on Saturday. It won't be easy though; he'll have to beat a Tennessee team that has won four straight games in a raucous Neyland Stadium.
The Commodores are in the middle of an offensive crisis after being shut out on two of their last four games. They'll have to find an answer for their passing game woes; they completed only five passes for 23 yards against Texas A&M last weekend. The Volunteers haven't had such problems. They're scoring nearly 33 points per game this season - light years ahead of Vandy's last-in-the-FBS mark of 14.
To better understand Saturday's matchup, we turned to an expert. Chris Pendley is a Senior Editor over at Rocky Top Talk, a gem in the sea of often overwrought Tennessee Football analysis. We had questions for him, and he was kind enough to delay his Thanksgiving plans to set us straight on the Vols.
1. The Volunteers have rebounded nicely from a rough start to the season that saw them lose games to Oklahoma and Florida via fourth quarter collapses. What's been the key behind the turnaround that has UT 5-1 in their last six games? How much of their recent win streak is the product of a front-loaded schedule that left plenty of breathing room in November?
Chris Pendley: So if you'd look at Tennessee's schedule, see a bunch of Top 10-15 teams in their first five games, then look at their back half of the schedule and see a bunch of SEC East teams, you'd probably expect the back half of Tennessee's season to be better. Funny enough--that's what happened! Degree of schedule difficulty went down, the defense has gotten a smidge better, and the team is playing slightly better than they did at at the start of the season, but ....yeah, it's 80% schedule.
2. Is Josh Dobbs a better quarterback in 2014 than he was in 2015? Was his 89-yard passing performance last week against Missouri the result of a stout Mizzou defense or was Butch Jones's plan to keep the ball on the ground against the Tigers?
See the previous answer about marginal improvement. Dobbs is good throwing on the run, is good tucking and running, and is an okay pocket passer. That's a bit better than he was in 2014 (I have some broader offensive schematic questions which aren't really on him). As far as Missouri goes: I'm pretty sure Tennessee went into that game convinced if they score 10 points, they were winning the game. They designed their gameplan accordingly.
3. Tennessee's biggest struggle on Saturday may be in the red zone. The Vols rank 85th in the country when it comes to scoring inside an opponents' 20-yard line. The Commodores are 5th in the nation when it comes to squashing those opportunities. What's Butch Jones's philosophy when he's near the end zone, and what can Vanderbilt expect to see in scoring situations this weekend?
You like field goals on 4th and 1? Butch Jones like field goals on 4th and 1. That's the biggest red zone deficiency I can think of, although on the whole (10 red zone opportunities they failed to score) Tennessee isn't that different than Vanderbilt's defense (13 red zone opportunities their opponent has failed to score, with a special shoutout to that Kentucky game), so yeah, let's just chalk up one busted red zone chance for Tennessee and move on. I'm more concerned about the number of red zone opportunities, which Tennessee has done well on this season (averaging 4-5 opportunities a game).
4. Jalen Hurd has gained more yards and scored more touchdowns in his sophomore year, but his yards per carry average is down from 4.7 to 4.4 and he hasn't made the leap he seemed primed for in 2015 (from very good to "terrifying monster tailback.") Is he better in 2015 than he was in 2014? If not, what's holding him back?
See question 2. Hurd definitely passes the eye test better in 2015 than he did in 2014, and I don't come away thinking he's left a lot of yards on the table. When you see "yards left on the table", you should think "hey, what's up with the offensive line?" and that's been an ongoing issue for the Vols. They've been better as the season wore on, but on the list of things Tennessee fans are annoyed with, Jalen Hurd not getting 5+ yards per carry probably isn't on most people's lists.
5. Vanderbilt's offensive line has been ravaged by injuries and features three underclassmen who have been vulnerable this fall. Defensive end Derek Barnett is the headliner when it comes to applying QB pressure, but who else could cause trouble in the Vandy backfield on Saturday?
Pick your poison: Jaylen Reeves-Maybin, Corey Vereen, Darren Kirkland Jr., Owen Williams, any of the freshman D-linemen in the rotation. Really, we don't like to be picky. Tennessee had 10 TFL in the Alabama game. I got some bad news for y'all.
6. How much does the Vanderbilt - UT rivalry mean to fans in Knoxville? It certainly seems like there's been more vitriol in the air since James Franklin took the reins here in 2011.
So ....yeah, I don't really care that much about the Vanderbilt rivalry. James Franklin was--well, is, now that y'all figured out what we figured out--annoying to deal with, and for some reason he's pulling the winning-record-without-ever-
looking-like-a-good-team routine in Happy Valley again so I don't really get him, but after he left, most Tennessee fans started chalking up the Vanderbilt game as a win again. I mean, we still hate the circus arena y'all call Memorial Gym, but in football? Nah. Not really.
(p.s.: I saw Jeff Green went off for 19 points against Dallas on Tuesday night. He looked good!)
Editor's note: ...bruh.
7. FInally, what's your prediction for Saturday's showdown?
We have a score prediction post that goes up on Fridays; I went in for that with a 17-3 Tennessee win, and I'm not particularly inclined to have two different score predictions up when the only thing I'm good at predicting final scores on is women's basketball games.