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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Opponent Preview: East Tennessee State

Vanderbilt opens the season against the Buccaneers on September 4.

NCAA Football: East Tennessee State at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent: East Tennessee State Buccaneers

Date: September 4, 2021

All-time series record: Vanderbilt leads, 1-0

Last meeting: November 23, 2019; Vanderbilt won 38-0

Last year: 4-2, 150th in Sagarin

Head coach: Randy Sanders (fourth year at ETSU, 15-15 record)

As you already know if you’ve been following our countdown to kickoff series in the Anchor Drop, Vanderbilt will play East Tennessee State on September 4 to open the 2021 football season. The Commodores enter the season on a ten-game losing streak and ironically their most recent win came against these same Buccaneers in the second-to-last game of the 2019 season, and it’s a decent bet that the Commodores will end the losing streak with a win against the Bucs. I don’t know that Jeff Sagarin’s ratings for the 2020-21 football season are all that accurate given the lack of connectivity due to limited nonconference schedules, but his Predictor rating would have pegged Vanderbilt as about a 9.5-point favorite over ETSU last season assuming the game was played in Nashville.

And last season, as we know, was a complete disaster for the Commodores — but not quite so for the Buccaneers. Like a lot of FCS teams, ETSU played in the spring; they scheduled eight games, all against conference opponents, and ended up having games against Wofford and Chattanooga cancelled. In the six games they did play, they went 4-2. They managed a 24-20 win at VMI, which was then ranked in the FCS top 10 and made the FCS playoffs, and had a shot at the SoCon title before a 21-13 loss at Mercer in their last game of the regular season.

As of this writing, the Buccaneers haven’t released their roster for the 2021 season, but we do know that they started redshirt freshman Tyler Riddell for the first three games of the season and he did reasonably well (50-for-82, 575 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) before giving way to JUCO transfer Brock Landis (46-for-92, 436 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) for reasons that aren’t clear, though I’m just going to assume Riddell got injured given the relative effectiveness of the two quarterbacks. The Buccaneers also had FCS All-American Quay Holmes at running back, and he was a junior last season; their top two receivers (Will Huzzie and Juliun Lane-Price) were sophomores. In fact, the Bucs didn’t start a single senior on the offensive side of the ball last season.

Defense is a different matter: ETSU started four seniors last season, and while in theory those guys could be returning in 2021, for now we’ll just assume they have some turnover on that side of the ball. Defense was arguably the strength of the team in 2020, as that unit surrendered just 17.5 ppg.

So... this matchup somewhat surprisingly isn’t a gimme. While I will couch this by saying that ETSU is good for an FCS team, Vanderbilt is coming off an 0-9 season and has a new head coach and a lot of question marks on both sides of the ball. The Bucs haven’t done well in either of their two matchups against FBS teams since rebooting the football program in 2015, with the aforementioned 38-0 loss to Vanderbilt in 2019 (and you may recall that was a pretty bad Vanderbilt team) and a 59-3 loss in Knoxville in 2018, but Randy Sanders seems like he has the program turning a corner. That likely will just mean that the score is closer than their previous two tries against the state’s two SEC schools, but I am too smart to rule out a disaster.