Derek Mason has led Vanderbilt to an improvement in his second year as head coach, but nothing would endear him to the Commodore faithful more than a road win in Knoxville. He'll have his hands full this year against a Tennessee team that's won four straight bowl games en route to their natural habitat in the Citrus Bowl.
This year's showdown will provide a little extra motivation for Vanderbilt. The 'Dores are 4-7, and a fifth win could push them into possible postseason contention. With more bowl slots available than eligible teams, the NCAA may have to dig down into the catacombs of the five-win programs to fill out the lowest-tier bowl slots. Those participants will be determined by APR score - the NCAA's calculation of how many student-athletes graduate in a specific program. Vandy's strong academic reputation could be the key in gaining some extra revenue and an extra month of practice for this young and developing team.
Of course, they'll have to get by a Tennessee team that's a 16.5-point favorite first. The Volunteers don't do any one thing exceptionally, but they're a solid team that can beat you in any phase of the game. They've even seemed to put the fourth-quarter woes that had doomed them in games against Oklahoma and Florida behind them. Being them on Saturday wouldn't just give Vandy a rivalry win, it would also be the team's most complete victory since Derek Mason took over in 2014.
So can the 'Dores swim upstream against history, momentum, and odds-makers? Let's take a closer look.
Christian D'Andrea: I want to believe in a Vanderbilt win. After the first half of the Kentucky game, I was ready to buy in on the idea that this team, incomplete offense and all, could roll into Knoxville and derail the Volunteers' winning streak. Since then, the Commodores have passed for 58 yards in six quarters. My optimism has drained on pace with Nashville's supply of whiskey during last week's 25-0 loss to Texas A&M.
Vanderbilt can win this game. But they won't if their only offensive option is to force Ralph Webb and Dallas Rivers into an eight-man front play-after-play while Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek just shrugs when his cornerbacks glance at the sideline. Derek Mason actually used a two-quarterback set intelligently against A&M - using Johnny McCrary's legs as an asset but also allowing him to throw the ball to keep the defense honest - but that doesn't matter if you're only completing 30 percent of your passes.
Ideally, I'd like to see a 70/30 split between Shurmur and McCrary in a gameplay that ideally allows the freshman quarterback to dial up the midrange passes that he threw with accuracy against Kentucky. Tennessee has been a middle-of-the-pack team against the pass in 2015. However, Missouri and Kentucky, two teams with similarly untenable quarterback situations, averaged only about 160 yards of aerial offense against the Vols in their matchups this season. Getting to 160 would be a major improvement for Vandy - but also probably not enough to pull out a win, stellar defense or no.
The Commodores will need to channel the effort they gave against Florida to keep Tennessee off the board and give this team's flagging offense the numerous opportunities they'll need to come up with a game-winning drive. While that's unlikely, I'm not going to say anything's impossible with a defense led by Zach Cunningham, Torren McGaster, and a certain defensive lineman who hates Knoxville more than anyone else. 14 of Vanderbilt's 21 points against UK were set up by this team's defense. They'll need to have a similar result to shock the Volunteers on their home field.
The Pick: Tennessee 20, Vanderbilt 10
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Missouri (+13.5) over ARKANSAS. Come on. Are you really going to bet against Gary Pinkel in his final game as head coach - especially when a win means bowl eligibility in Columbia? The karma differential between Pinkel and Arkansas's Bret Bielema is like the climate change between Nova Scotia and the Bahamas. Get it done, Mizzou.
VandyTigerPhD: Two weeks ago, I didn't post a prediction because life. I noted after we beat Kentucky that BOTH SEC wins we had this season were when I kept my mouth shut in the predictions AND didn't write a Tailgate. As such, we've been without either the last two weeks. Assuming I can recover from my food coma Friday, I'll have one of those up too.
Like CDA, a few weeks ago I was willing to believe this team could do it, that we could beat THEM. Our horrendous offense however fills me with negative confidence. That's a thing, right? I just see no way we can rely on our strength (running) if we cannot be somewhat threatening with the pass. I know I was saying we abandoned the run after the Aggie game. What I was trying (poorly) to say was we panicked. Once we started getting too far down we started getting away from the gameplan. We MUST stick to it, whatever it is, even if losing if we want a chance.
I wish I could be as optimistic as CDA here. Our defense did not look themselves last week. Couple that exposure with THEM hating us more than they hate studying and book learnin', and you have a recipe for horrible things. I predict UT is still very upset that we didn't know our place those two years ans will try their best to run up the score.
Maybe our defense will keep us in the game the whole time like they have most of the other games... I don't know. I just, don't know.
The Pick: Tennessee 27, Vanderbilt 6
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week:Georgia Tech +5.5 over Georgia. Richt rumors will really heat up after this weekend.
Andrew VU '04: You two are the worst. Let me make it all better. After two years into the Derek Mason era, this is our team:
After three years of the Butch Jones era, this is THOSE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED:
The Pick: Tennessee 6, Vanderbilt 7. Somehow, we're going to drag them into the fire and melt their funnels. This game will be unwatchable. Close your eyes and pray for fire. Fire in their butts.
Their hopes? Put it in the dumpster. Their dreams? Put it in the dumpster. Their team? Put it in the dumpster. Butch Jones? Put it in the dumpster. Wig shop? Put it in the dumpster. Boxed wine? Put it in the dumpster.
Drink heavily, but with your mouths, like people.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: THE FIRE (+1) over Les Miles. He's falling in it, as well. It will not work. He will still be on the television, spouting insane nonsense weekly. He is our generation's Lou Holtz, only he didn't need old lady dementia to strike to be who he is. Like the T1000, you will have to drop him into a molten vat of some sort to rid yourself of him. No one knows who will hire him, but I'm going to guess the South Cackalacky Game Penises, or whatever space business VandyTigerPhD works for. I don't pay attention when he speaks about his job. Probably something to do with lasers. Space lasers. Or math. Space math.
Knoxville Delenda Est.