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VOL. 39 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 27, 2015

Can VU pull off one more SEC win against Vols?

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Running back Jalen Hurd during the away game between the Missouri Tigers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Faurot Field. Hurd ran for a career-high 151 yards on 34 carries in the game

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Tennessee football fans already are talking about their bowl destinations for the Christmas holidays.

Will it be the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, the Music City Bowl in Nashville or the Outback Bowl in Tampa?

Wait a minute, folks.

Tennessee (7-4, 4-3 SEC) needs a strong finish to complete its bowl resume and standing in the way is longtime rival Vanderbilt (4-7, 2-5) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

It will be UT’s Senior Day. The Vols are riding a four-game winning streak. And Tennessee coach Butch Jones doesn’t want to lose the momentum his team worked so hard to gain.

“Anytime you win, it makes it better,” Jones said this week. “One coach told me, ‘When you win, the food is hotter, the drinks are colder and everything’s better.’

“But it’s also keeping things in perspective, continuing to grow and elevate our football team and our football program, and not letting anything be swept under the rug. I think sometimes when you win, you have a tendency to fight human complacency in terms of sweeping things under the rug, and we’ll never do that here.”

UT should know better than to sweep Vanderbilt under the rug.

Tennessee simply hasn’t dominated this series like it once did.

The Commodores went 0-8 in the SEC last season, but they were within a touchdown of the Vols the entire fourth quarter before losing 24-17 in Nashville. Tennessee gained bowl eligibility with the victory.

Vanderbilt beat the Vols 14-10 in Neyland Stadium in 2013 – Jones’ first season as the Vols’ coach – and beat UT 41-18 in Nashville in 2012 in Derek Dooley’s next-to-last game as coach. James Franklin coached the Commodores to those wins, and he’s now at Penn State.

Derek Mason hasn’t yet put Franklin’s magic back into the Commodores’ program, but his team has Jones’ attention.

“We’re going to be challenged tremendously with a great defense,” Jones says. “You talk about watching them run around and the things that they do, you put the video on and right away, it just takes two or three plays, and you know you’re playing a dominant team Saturday.”

Vanderbilt, however, wasn’t the dominant team last Saturday.

While UT was posting a methodical 19-8 win at Missouri, the Commodores lost at home to Texas A&M, 25-0.

Yet the Aggies mustered just one touchdown and needed six field goals to beat Vanderbilt, whose offense continued a season-long struggle.

“Great challenge this week with Vanderbilt,” Jones adds. “(They’re) as good of a defensive football team as we’ve faced, explosive, and can run.”

Tennessee faced a similar defense last Saturday at Missouri and passed the test.

The victory kept the Vols within reach of the program’s first eight-win season since 2007, when Phillip Fulmer’s next-to-last team finished 10-4 after a victory over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl.

UT fans might have wanted more than eight wins this regular season, but another trip to the Outback Bowl would certainly suffice the faithful.

First, the Vols must take care of Vanderbilt.

“The way I look at it is the season’s not over with,” Jones explains.

“It kind of keeps everything in check. We have another game to play after this (Vanderbilt game), and that’s the great thing about it. It’s another time for this football team to be together as team 119 for another month, so I don’t look at it as an end.”

If the Vols lose to Vanderbilt, though, it might feel like the end.

3 matchups to watch

UT Run vs. Vandy ‘D’:

This game matches Tennessee’s offensive strength against Vanderbilt’s defensive strength.

After giving up 150 rushing yards in the loss to Texas A&M, the Commodores are fifth in the SEC in rushing defense (126.1 yards per game).

Tennessee is second in the SEC in rushing offense (213.7) after rolling up 248 yards against Missouri. It was a huge performance for the Vols’ run game – and particularly the offense line – against a Missouri rush defense that ranked 14th nationally and third in the SEC (113.7 yards allowed per game).

UT sophomore Jalen Hurd ran for a career-high 151 yards on 34 carries and has 1,038 yards this season. He’s fourth in the SEC in rushing yards per game (94.4) behind LSU’s Leonard Fournette (158.2), Alabama’s Derrick Henry (138.7), and Arkansas’ Alex Collins (114.7).

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Jones points out about UT’s run game. “Obviously, the maturation of the offensive line, it starts with them. It’s a line of scrimmage game. (Hurd) did a great job in terms of managing the workload.

“Alvin Kamara continues to give us quality yards. I’m excited about him as well. I think the receivers have done a good job of blocking, and I think part of that maturation process has been the growth and development of (tight end) Ethan Wolf.”

Webb vs. UT ‘D’:

Sophomore tailback Ralph Webb is the best player on a Vanderbilt offensive that ranks 13th in the SEC in total offense (318.8 yards per game) ahead of only Missouri (290.9).

Webb is fifth in the SEC in rushing yards per game (91.2) and the Commodores are 11th in the league in rushing offense (150.4). Texas A&M held the Commodores to 125 net rushing yards. Webb gained 79 yards on 25 carries, a 3.2 yard average.

“Offensively, it all starts with Ralph Webb,” Jones says. “I think he’s one of the best running backs in our conference, very explosive, and can hit the home run.”

Tennessee’s rush defense is ninth in the SEC (149.0) after holding Missouri to 88 net yards on 29 attempts (3.0-yard average) last Saturday.

The Vols’ game motto was “Three and Heat,” referring to getting three-and-outs against the Tigers so they could get to the sideline where heaters blasted amid the frigid temperatures.

Vanderbilt hardly has a passing game. It’s last in the SEC in passing offense (168.5) and last in passing efficiency, so running the football will be critical if the Commodores are to pull off the upset.

Vandy Rush vs. Vols’ O line:

The Commodores have one of the better pass rushes in the SEC – fifth with 26 sacks, or 2.36 per game – after getting three sacks for minus-17 yards against Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen.

Tennessee is seventh in the SEC in sacks allowed (21), but Missouri didn’t get a sack on Joshua Dobbs and the Vols’ QB was only hurried a couple of times.

The Vols’ offensive line faces another stiff task against Vanderbilt.

Sophomore inside linebacker Zach Cunningham leads Vanderbilt with 4.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss (third in SEC). Outside linebacker Stephen Weatherly has 3.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, tackle Adam Butler has three sacks and seven tackles for loss, and defensive end Caleb Azubike has three sacks and six tackles for loss.

Cunningham, of Pinson Valley (Ala.) High, is seventh in the SEC in tackles with 93.

5 things to watch

The Red Zone

Tennessee’s red-zone troubles were apparent against Missouri when it was forced to settle for five field-goal attempts; Aaron Medley made four and missed a 31-yard try.

It won’t get easier against Vanderbilt, which is second in the SEC in red-zone defense. UT is eighth in red-zone offense – scoring 80.8 percent of the time – but has settled for field goals 13 times, which is tied for the second-most of any team in the SEC.

“I think first of all, part of Vanderbilt being so successful in the red zone is they’re a very difficult defense to move the ball methodically down the field (against),” Jones says.

“Eventually, they’re so good, they’re going to have a negative yardage football play. They’re going to generate a disruption. They’re going to generate something. I think the longer the drive goes, the better they become, so it’s really hard to score on them.

“For us, it comes down to execution. … What happens in the red zone, is your landmarks shrink. The game becomes condensed. The field becomes condensed. Your throwing windows become tighter. Everything shrinks, so you have to be that much more perfect in your execution and in your technique.”

Another fast start

The Vols could use another big first quarter against Vanderbilt.

Against Missouri, Tennessee led 6-0 after one quarter, 16-0 at halftime, and played conservative offense the rest of the way as its defense controlled a hapless Tigers offense.

During the current four-game winning streak, the Vols have outgained opponents 589 to 102 yards in the first quarter. Tennessee has allowed an average of 289 yards total offense against Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, and Missouri.

Special teams

Tennessee’s special teams continued to excel against Missouri and that led to great field position – with the help of the Vols’ stingy defense.

Punter Trevor Daniel had four punts inside the Tigers’ 20-yard line and still averaged 45.3 yards on seven punts with a long one of 61 yards. Daniel is sixth in the NCAA and second in the SEC in punting average (45.6 yards).

The Vols, meanwhile, were outstanding on kickoff and punt coverage against Missouri.

Tennessee leads the SEC in kickoff returns with a 38-yard average, while Vanderbilt is ninth (19.4). The Vols are third in the SEC in kickoff coverage and Vanderbilt is eighth.

Evan Berry gives the Vols a big threat as a kickoff returner. He leads the nation in kickoff return average (39.6) and is one of four players in the nation with three kickoff returns for touchdowns (against Western Carolina, Arkansas, and Kentucky).

UT’s Cameron Sutton is fourth in the nation in punt return average (45.6).

Let’s go bowling

Tennessee has its sights set on the Outback Bowl, the best of the second-tier bowls with a tie-in to the SEC.

Oddly, Vanderbilt could still become bowl eligible by beating the Vols because the NCAA probably will have to take several five-win teams since the bowl field was expanded to 80 teams this year.

Here are the bowls with SEC tie-ins that don’t involve college football playoff games:

  • Dec. 26 Independence Bowl, Shreveport, La.: ACC vs. SEC
  • Dec. 29 Texas Bowl, Houston: Big 12 vs. SEC
  • Dec. 30 Birmingham Bowl, Birmingham, Ala.: American Conference vs. SEC
  • Dec. 30 Belk Bowl, Charlotte, N.C.: ACC vs. SEC
  • Dec. 30 Music City Bowl, Nashville, Tenn.: ACC/Big 10 vs. SEC
  • Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, Tampa, Fla.: Big 10 vs. SEC
  • Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.: Big 10 vs. SEC
  • Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl, Jacksonville, Fla.: ACC/Big 10 vs. SEC
  • Jan. 2 Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn.: Big 12 vs. SEC
  • Back-up-bowls:
  • Dec. 26 Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dallas: Big 12 vs. Conference USA
  • Dec. 29 Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth, Texas: Mountain West vs. Big 10

Neyland Turf

UT’s field was a serious issue the last two games in Neyland against North Texas and South Carolina with players constantly slipping and sliding and leaving divots from end zone to end zone.

In a quick-fix attempt for the Vanderbilt game, UT spread loads of sand over the turf in an attempt to stabilize it.

Regardless, this is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Sports Radio WMNL’s Jimmy Hyams wrote in his blog: “Considering the resources UT has in the athletic department – a budget of well over $100 million – the field is a joke. And it has been for two years. In fact, growing grass at Neyland has been a growing concern since groundskeeper Bobby Campbell retired in 2010.”

Hyams also questioned why one of the world’s top experts on growing grass, UT professor Dr. John Sorochan, wasn’t asked for advice by Tennessee officials about field conditions at Neyland until about two weeks ago.

Jones delved into the topic in his Monday press conference before the Missouri game, but wouldn’t go there this past Monday.

“In terms of the field, we’re anticipating the field’s going to be there, and we’re going to play on it on Saturday,” Jones explains. “I’m more concerned about Vanderbilt and the competition and a great defense and hungry football team coming in here and getting our team ready to play our best football game.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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