Derek Mason proved his worth as a head coach with a convincing win over Ole Miss last week. On Saturday, he can endear himself to a fanbase that was ready to turn on him weeks earlier by beating Vanderbilt’s arch rival Tennessee.
Mason earned plenty of criticism as his Commodores dropped a winnable game at Missouri, seemingly dashing the team’s bowl hopes. He walked back the message board grumbling by dispatching Mississippi with ease and showing off an improved offense in the process. Vanderbilt didn’t just win its fifth game for the first time since 2013 last Saturday, it also looked as good as it ever has in the process.
That has the Commodores’ momentum rising as a date with the most hated opponent on the schedule looms. No. 24 Tennessee shot out to a 5-0 start thanks in part to improbable comeback wins over Appalachian State and Georgia, then lost three straight to Texas A&M, Alabama, and (sucks air over teeth) South Carolina. The Volunteers have rebounded in the weeks since. Over their last three games, they’ve scored nearly 56 points per game — albeit against lackluster defenses like Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, and Missouri.
UT has plenty of transitive property bragging rights over the ‘Dores. They’ve beaten Florida, Missouri, and Kentucky this fall — all opponents who escaped close games with victories over Vanderbilt. They can use that confidence, and that game film, to figure out a plan of attack in Nashville.
Vanderbilt is probably already bowl eligible thanks to the team’s strong academic record, but few things would be sweeter than gaining entrance to the postseason on the back of a win over Tennessee. The Volunteers have the momentum in this series after crushing Vandy in 2015, but last week’s performance proved this team has come a long way since then.
But they’ve got plenty more to prove when a wave of orange sweeps over Dudley Field Saturday.
Christian D’Andrea: My favorite thing about Andy Ludwig’s awakening as offensive coordinator is that he’s finally found a way to incorporate Darrius Sims into the team’s playcalling. Sims has long been one of the most dangerous Commodores when given the ball, but he’s had few opportunities to shine outside of special teams.
In Vanderbilt’s last four games, he’s carried the ball 27 times for 213 yards — 7.9 yards per rush. That’s exactly the kind of secondary weapon the team has needed, especially with Ralph Webb limited by an ankle injury. Not only does Sims move the ball, he also creates the space that allows Kyle Shumur softer coverage and more open targets downfield.
The willingness to sweep Sims to the outside has also resulted in a much wider passing base, using short-to-medium routes that expand the field near the line of scrimmage. Those plays trust Shurmur to make the right reads and deliver an accurate pass when his windows open. He’s been able to step up and make those plays this fall, and with his first game against UT already on the books, he should have the poise and confidence to do it on Saturday.
If the Commodore offense can be as competent as it was against Ole Miss, that will shift the pressure on this team’s defense. Vanderbilt got a big push from its defensive line to keep Shea Patterson jittery in the pocket, but they’ll have a tougher time against Joshua Dobbs. Patterson struggled to identify open running lanes on his scrambles and often tracked backward or parallel to the line of scrimmage. Dobbs is too much of a veteran to do the same.
If Vanderbilt hasn’t evolved to stop a mobile passer as dangerous as the Volunteer QB, Saturday night will be frustrating. Dobbs has proven time and time again he’ll make bad decisions when pressured, but his easiest way to avoid tough choices is to tuck the ball and run. If Vanderbilt can’t spy him successfully and shut him down he’ll have every opportunity to leave Nashville with a win.
The ‘Dores have the personnel to do that, but the question is whether Zach Cunningham fills that role or gets called into more traditional middle linebacking duties. Cunningham has the speed, power, and vision to be a game-changer against the Vols. If Saturday turns out to be his last game at Dudley Field, it’s probably going to be a big one.
Ultimately, I like Vandy’s chances very much. But this team seems to do better when I pick against them. Take this with a grain of salt and while knocking on every piece of wood you can find.
The Pick: Tennessee 23, Vanderbilt 20
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Georgia Tech (+4) over GEORGIA. Did you SEE what Georgia Tech did to Vanderbilt? Ugh.
Tom Stephenson: Tennessee’s defense, if you want to call it that, gave up 740 yards last week. To Missouri.
Let me repeat that: 740 yards. To Missouri.
Andy Ludwig, if you can’t score on this team, you deserve to be not only fired, but summarily flogged and executed for our entertainment. As far as who will win this game, I am back to “blind optimism” after the Ole Miss game and make my pick thusly.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 35, Tennessee -7. Yes, negative 7.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Auburn (+17) over ALABAMA, because why the hell not?
VandyTigerPhD: I’ve been saying all season that Tennessee has been playing to the level of their competition and little more. Let’s not forget how this team started - needing OT to beat Appalachian State and barely surviving Ohio. Tennessee undoubtedly had the TEAM OF DESTINY (TM) thing going for a while, barely beating a string of games they really had no business winning.
It’s easy to get a little optimistic here. None of us saw that shellacking of Ole Miss coming. Not only did we win big, we played like we deserved to win and win big. This team came out furious about what they let happen in Columbia.
If THAT team shows up, I don’t care what Tennessee team shows up Saturday, we win. If some other team shows up, then it’s first to make a mistake. Unless the Temple 2014 team shows up, in which case, burn the stadium down.
I am hoping that VU can earn a bowl the real way. It feels very cheap to get one based on academic standings. I’m not at all happy with getting a bowl that way.
The Pick: Screw everything, going with Memorial Magic somehow leaking over once again into Dudley field. Last weeks team takes that momentum and hangs 31 on the Vawls. Vanderbilt 31 - Vols 24.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: I’m rolling with Mississippi State (+8) upsetting the bowl hopes of Mississippi in the egg bowl. CLANG CLANG!