Tennessee faced the first real dose of adversity in the Josh Heupel era last week at South Carolina. The Vols defense was torched for nine touchdowns against a Gamecocks offense that failed to score against Florida the week before. The loss knocked the Vols out of a likely College Football Playoff position. There are stories swirling around discontent in the locker room. And Tennessee’s Heisman hopeful, Hendon Hooker, suffered a season-ending injury. All in all, it could not have been worse for the Vols last Saturday. The big question this week for Heupel’s charges is whether they can get back on track and likely secure a New Year’s Six Bowl berth with a win against in-state Vanderbilt.
Vols at Vanderbilt: Three Things To Look For
Vanderbilt, on the other hand, has shown improvement in the last two weeks. After losing 26 straight SEC games, Vanderbilt has beaten Kentucky and Florida in back-to-back weeks. The Commodores are one win away from bowl eligibility in head coach Clark Lea’s second season on West End. And Vanderbilt would love nothing more than add to Tennessee’s late-season slide.
Last week was, in a word, embarrassing for the Volunteers. Tennessee looked materially different against South Carolina. And in the aftermath of the Columbia Catastrophe, there were several as yet unsubstantiated reports of discontent in the locker room. Whatever the reason, the Vols players better figure out a way to play better. The Commodores are athletically out-matched but will come into this game with plenty to play for and hungry to make another statement against a Top 10 in-state opponent.
What to Look For: No Measurables — Just watch how the team interacts with each other.
With Hooker’s season-ending injury, Joe Milton takes the reigns of the Vols’ high-powered offense. Milton is an incredible athlete and has the strongest arm in all of college football. Milton casually tossed a 60-yard strike last week while rolling to his left. There are only about five NFL quarterbacks that could have made that throw. Milton is also a powerful runner.
Milton’s issue has always been his accuracy downfield and his ability to put touch or take a little bit of heat off of the short- and intermediate throws. If Milton can master the art of passing, he can put up numbers similar to Hooker with all the speed and talent that Tennessee has at wide receiver and tight end.
What to Look For: Joe Milton > 70% completion percentage.
It will come as no surprise that Tennessee must be better on defense. They’ll face a different threat this week, as Vanderbilt quarterback Mike Wright will stress the Vols defense on the ground more than Spencer Rattler did. The good news is that it’s unlikely (but not impossible against this defense) for Wright to duplicate Rattler’s passing performance from last week.
The Vols defense struggled in just about everything last week. Third down conversions, coverage in the secondary, pass rush. Jeremy Banks’ return will help, particularly against the elusive Wright. But every unit will have to play better to get rid of the taste of last week’s disaster.
What to Look For: Vanderbilt < 24 points.
Vols at South Carolina: The Last Word
Tennessee still has plenty to play for. And the Vols have shown maturity in game situations all season – they’ll need that maturity to surface both in Saturday’s game and during preparation this week.
Ultimately, the Vols strength on defense is against the run and that’ll keep Vanderbilt from pressing the secondary as South Carolina did.
The only thing standing between Tennessee and a ten-win season is Tennessee.