Vanderbilt Commodores vs. Tennessee Volunteers Complete Game Preview
The Tennessee Volunteers and Vanderbilt Commodores are heading in different directions as the season winds down.
After their signature win over South Carolina back on Oct. 19, the Vols have lost lopsided contests against top-10 opponents Alabama, Missouri and Auburn. Meanwhile, James Franklin's 'Dores have won two consecutive games and seven straight in November dating back to 2011.
The last time these two in-state rivals met was former UT coach Derek Dooley's final game. He was relieved of his duties following last Nov. 17's 41-18 thumping.
That night's star will be a formidable force for the Vols to face yet again. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews hauled in seven passes for 115 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown. He also scored on a 47-yard end-around.
The Vols must do a much better job containing the edge against Vanderbilt than they did in any of the previous three games.
If the Vols haven't shored up their defense over the bye week, VU will win back-to-back games over UT for the first time since the 1925-26 seasons.
That would be particularly crippling this year. A loss to VU—just like last year—would mean UT sits at home during bowl season again. Beating the rival 'Dores keeps Butch Jones' bowl hopes alive and gives the Vols the opportunity to have a 6-6 season, which would be a major step in the right direction from the Dooley era.
Here's everything you need to know about the upcoming game.
Date: Saturday, Nov. 23
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Place: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville
Radio: Vol Network, NewsTalk 1510 WLAC, VU flagship, Sirius Premiere Channel 128/XM Channel 199
Spread: Tennessee by 3 points, according to Sportsbook.com
Tennessee Keys to Victory
By now, you're sick of hearing it. But it's a key to every single game Tennessee plays.
The Vols must do a better job containing the edges.
This is one of the worst major college defenses in the nation in letting opponents get outside the ends and downfield. UT has to put more speed on the edges and remain disciplined in their rush lanes. Most importantly, the Vols can't have their ends and safeties collapse and let plays get around them.
With an off-week of preparation, UT should have a pair of more athletic freshmen—defensive end Corey Vereen and outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin—ready to contribute. They also should have spent time focusing on gap control and taking better angles.
Vanderbilt has the speedy skill-position players to exploit UT if it hasn't taken measures to improve since Auburn.
With a recent defensive surge in its past four games, Vanderbilt has skyrocketed to second in the SEC in takeaways.
The Commodores have forced 16 turnovers in those games, and that's how they managed to beat Kentucky in a sloppy game last week.
UT freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs did a better job protecting the ball in his second career start against Auburn, but the Vols have to make sure they don't give VU any extra possessions. Tennessee needs to play a mistake-free game.
Jordan Matthews will be the best player on the football field on Saturday night. This is yet another opportunity for UT star freshman cornerback Cameron Sutton to assert himself as one of the league's top young talents.
According to a VU press release, Matthews was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week after catching a career-high 12 passes for 141 yards in a 22-6 win over Kentucky.
He is also a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation's top receiver.
Sutton has smothered some of the SEC's best receivers this weekend and allowed just one touchdown (to Alabama's Kevin Norwood), but he'll have his hands full with Matthews. The Vols have to make sure that junior Justin Coleman doesn't get isolated on Matthews, and while they're at it, a little safety help to that side wouldn't hurt.
Vanderbilt Keys to Victory
Tennessee hasn't had a lot of defensive answers lately, which is exactly why James Franklin needs to create ways to get the ball in the hands of his biggest weapon.
Jordan Matthews proved last season against Tennessee that he could score on a handoff, and VU needs to do some of that again. The Commodores also need to throw quick hitches and bubble screens to him and let his athleticism take over against the Vols' slower defenders.
"What can I say? Jordan Matthews is as good as any receiver in the country," UT coach Butch Jones said during his Monday press conference, according to UTSports.com. "They do a tremendous job of finding ways and creative ways to get him his catches and get him the football."
Matthews should touch the ball at least 10 times. If he does, it'll be tough for the Vols to win.
Score in Sevens
A big reason for VU's success this season is the Commodores aren't having to settle for field goals when they get inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Vanderbilt leads the SEC in red-zone success, converting on 39 of 44 opportunities for an 89 percent success rate. The Commodores have scored touchdowns 70 percent of the time.
The Vols are third in the league in red-zone defense, so something's got to give.
If the 'Dores score touchdowns when they get in range, it's going to be tough for UT to win a shootout.
VU quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels has done an excellent job this season of distributing the ball to his players on the perimeter.
Vanderbilt doesn't have the bevy of athletes that Missouri or Auburn has, but there are still many players who pose matchup problems for UT.
Jerron Seymour is playing well at running back and has some game speed. He'll have plenty of touches against the Vols. Though former top recruit Brian Kimbrow hasn't really carved a niche in VU's offense, he is a burner who may see a bigger role this week against UT's slow defense.
Franklin is smart enough to get players in space against a team that has struggled as much as UT has in the open field. The Vols must find ways to make better open-field tackles if they want to slow VU.
Players to Watch for Tennessee
The freshman defensive end burst onto the scene early in the season, but he has struggled to be an every-down defender and to harness his emotions.
A costly unnecessary roughness penalty during Georgia's game-tying touchdown drive and a couple of quarterback hurries against South Carolina were the last real noise Vereen made. Now, he's trying to become more than just a "pass-rush specialist," and UT needs his speed and athleticism on the edge.
He needs to make a serious impact against VU and inject some life into a Tennessee defense that is last in the league in sacks.
Tennessee's senior running back was one of very few bright spots against Auburn, running as well as he did early in the season.
The Vols need him and Marlin Lane to take some of the pressure off Joshua Dobbs and keep Vanderbilt honest. The running game is going to be vital if UT is going to beat its in-state rival, and Neal needs to make the most of his opportunities.
A couple of breakout runs are possible against this Vanderbilt defense. Neal should have a big day on his Senior Day.
The junior linebacker seemed a surefire first-team All-SEC candidate entering the season, but it has been a while since he took over a game.
Playing 70-plus snaps per game early in the season due to a lack of depth at his position certainly didn't help matters. Now after a bye week, Johnson should be rested. He seems poised to have his biggest game of the year.
Tennessee must have one of those games from A.J. where he has 15 tackles and is all over the field making plays and wreaking havoc.
Players to Watch for Vanderbilt
Running backs have terrorized the Vols recently, and Seymour will have an extra chip on his shoulder after former UT coach Derek Dooley never made him an offer despite recruiting him.
The sophomore hasn't been flashy this year, but he has 618 yards and has asserted himself as VU's top running option. UT coach Butch Jones discussed in his press conference his familiarity with the Seymour family due to Jerron's brother playing for him at Central Michigan:
Jerron Seymour is playing at a very high level. I have a ton of respect for the Seymours. I coached his brother at Central Michigan. He probably goes in the top 3 or 4 best players I've ever had the privilege of coaching. I know a lot about him and his makeup, his family background.
Vanderbilt's top defender is positioning himself to be an All-SEC candidate, especially during a torrid stretch that coincides with VU's defensive resurgence.
During the past five games, Ladler has four forced fumbles, three interceptions and 46 total tackles. He dominated Kentucky with eight tackles and an interception last week.
The Vols must find him wherever he is on the field, but Ladler is going to be all over it regardless.
The senior transfer quarterback has made VU tick all season, and the 'Dores missed him for two games after he injured his knee against Georgia.
But upon his return last week, he completed 19-of-24 passes for 184 yards. Though he wasn't flashy, he managed VU's offense much the way he has all season.
Carta-Samuels is very difficult to force into mistakes, but UT must pressure him and try to get him to throw interceptions.
If he's as sharp as he's been recently, Carta-Samuels can lead VU to a big road win.
What They Are Saying
It's not every day that coaches bring up bulletin-board material spoken four months ago, but Vandy coach James Franklin probably has spent time this week referencing Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson's comments from SEC media days.
Back in July, Richardson took the podium and offered the following words, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker.
I mean, give Vanderbilt credit. They went, what was it, 9-4 or something like that last year? I mean, they’re on the come up right now, but the thing is, we’re Tennessee. Us losing to Vanderbilt, that happens every so often. But it’s not happening again. I promise you that.
Richardson's words haven't meant much recently. He also guaranteed an upset of Missouri.
Franklin is a favorite target of hatred for Tennessee fans, but VU's coach was very candid during his press conference this week about the UT-VU game.
He told the Tennessean's Jeff Lockridge that he has "come to a good place" with Tennessee fans.
I use the block button as much as I possibly can. And that’s not with any specific fan base. I don’t have time for anything but positive things. And if there’s not going to be a positive thing, I’m going to block it, I’m going to move on and keep spreading the Vanderbilt gospel.
He also talked about the Tennessee-Vanderbilt "rivalry."
People call it a rivalry. I don’t think it’s at that point. It hasn’t been as competitive as it needs to be to be considered a rivalry. But I know a lot of people are excited about this game.
I think it’s good for the state (if it becomes a rivalry). I think it’s good for Vanderbilt. I think it’s good for Tennessee. I think it’s good for the SEC. You’d love for it to be a rivalry, and those games are fun because there’s so much riding on it.
Tennessee senior kicker Michael Palardy has gone from an inconsistent lightning rod for criticism to arguably the team's MVP this season.
With his Senior Day coming up, the kicker who has handled all duties and is 13-of-15 on field goals and averaging 44.6 yards per punt told the Chattanooga Times Free-Press' Patrick Brown he's trying not to focus on it being his final home game.
I'm not really looking at it as my last home game. I'll worry about that after the season and worry about those emotions and those feelings. Right now we're trying to get win number five and just focus on beating Vandy and preparing for them this week. We know we've got a nice test ahead of us.
A rugged stretch of highly ranked opponents is over for the Vols.
Though they suffered their share of bumps and bruises—in the injury department as well as on the scoreboard—they have survived intact enough to make a final run at a bowl.
Last week's bye came at a perfect time.
Tennessee faces must-wins at home against Vanderbilt and next week at Kentucky in order to make a bowl game.
They're rested, they've had time to prepare, and even though the Commodores are playing good football, the Vols will find a way to win this game. After playing such high-level competition, the game should slow down a bit.
Though Tennessee will have to find a way to neutralize Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt doesn't have the speedy playmakers of Alabama, Missouri and Auburn.
Look for UT to protect the ball, make some big early plays and grind out a tough home win to keep VU from winning consecutive games against it. It's been a long, hard road for the Vols' seniors, but they'll exit Neyland Stadium on a positive note.
Tennessee 27, Vanderbilt 21