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November 20, 2010

Previewing Tennessee at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt and Tennessee renew a long-standing football rivalry for the 106th time, when the two teams face off in Nashville at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday evening.

It's been a long season for both squads; the Volunteers (4-6, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) have struggled most of the season with a young squad in the first year for coach Derek Dooley, but with wins in the last two weeks over Memphis and Ole Miss, they're in position to get to a bowl game if they can beat the Commodores, and then Kentucky next week.

Vanderbilt is battered and bruised physically with a number of starters out, in addition to the damage done to their pride after the 'Dores have lost their previous five games by an average of 30 points.

With that in mind, Commodore coach Robbie Caldwell has appealed to the pride of his players, knowing what a win over the Vols would mean for a VU fan base that's struggling to retain interest in this season.

"We're at that place where a win would just cure a lot of ailments that we have," Caldwell said.

There's not been much good news for the Commodores of late, but VU did learn this week that they'll likely have All-SEC linebacker Chris Marve and offensive lineman Joey Bailey back this week.

Marve missed most of last week's Kentucky game, which hurt a defense that's struggling to stop anyone right now. The 'Dores have consistently fielded quality defenses over the past few years, but between injuries and the fact that Vandy's offense averages just 26:02 in time of possession, they've slipped to 106th in total defense nationally.

It's even worse on offense, where the Commodores rank 115th in total offense and scoring offense, 120th in first downs, and 119th in third-down conversions.

On the bright side, senior tailback Kennard Reeves ran for 105 yards in helping VU gain 400 yards for the first time against an SEC opponent since the Nov. 10, 2007 game vs. Kentucky.

Vandy's also found encouragement in the play of a pair of talented freshman receivers. Jordan Matthews, who's now listed first on the depth chart after back-to-back games with garbage-time touchdowns against Florida and UK, and Jonathan Krause turned his four touches into 108 last week.

Tennessee has also found encouragement in the play of a pair of freshmen, quarterback Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter. Since wrestling the starting job away from Matt Simms two weeks ago, Bray has thrown for 648 yards, eight touchdowns, and no interceptions the past two weeks.

Hunter chipped in with 114 yards and two touchdown on three catches last week against Ole Miss.

Bray's top target, though, is emerging senior Denarius Moore, who has caught 16 balls for 419 yards and three scores in the last three games.

UT's Tauren Poole has also given the offense a big lift by rushing for at least 100 yards in six games, including three of his last four.

Like Vandy, though, the Vols have struggled on defense. They've given up over 400 yards on six occasions, and over 500 twice.

However, UT appears to be getting better there, holding Memphis to 308 yards, and Ole Miss, to 295.

Last week, Tennessee was aided by a pair of interception returns by Prentiss Waggner and Nashville native Eric Gordon. Wagner has returned all three of his interceptions for scores this season.

How Vanderbilt can win

While it's unlikely that the Commodores will win, it's not impossible. While the Vols have won two in a row, they did it against a pair of teams with awful defenses, and lost their first five SEC games, four of which came by 14 points or more.

As good as Bray has been in the last three weeks, he's also a freshman, and like most freshmen, he's prone to making mistakes. Bray has been criticized for throwing into coverage and "getting away" with a few bad throws, and so defensive backs like Casey Hayward will be on the spot.

Hayward is about the only player on Vandy's team who's had a great year, but even he's dropped a number of interceptions. With the VU offense struggling to do much, and the defense finding it hard to stop anyone, the Commodores must make good on every opportunity that Bray gives them.

Offensively, Vandy may actually have a chance to move the ball a bit this week against a Tennessee defense that's not very good. But they'll have to sustain a few drives, not make turnovers, and make some big plays.

The biggest two threats to do the latter are Krause and Matthews, which the staff has come to realize. This week, the key will be to get the ball into their hands more.

How Tennessee can win

The bad news is that, while UT racked up huge numbers against teams that aren't stopping anyone, VU's defense fits pretty well in that category as well. The Vols should not have a ton of trouble putting up points against a Commodore defense that's been porous against the pass and the run.

Poole should be able to run well against VU, so the key offensively will be for Bray not to commit turnovers. If they can do that, and keep Krause or Matthews from busting a number of big plays, it's likely that UT wins.

Final analysis and prediction

Caldwell has tried to motivate this team by reminding them that it's UT week, and frankly, VU has appeared to be a team that has lacked motivation for a good part of the last month.

But even if the 'Dores are properly motivated, and even though the Vols are far from world-beaters themselves, it will probably take VU's best performance since the 2008 Music City Bowl to win.

When it comes down to it, there are a lot of broken things on both teams right now. Dooley has found a way to fix some of those things for UT, while Caldwell hasn't been able to do the same. Given that it's game 11, it's hard to imagine it happening now.

Prediction: (8-2, 7-3 vs. the spread): Tennessee 38, Vanderbilt 17


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