The Vols have to beat the Commodores to remain eligible for the postseason.
Tennessee finds itself in a very unusual situation this weekend — a home underdog to Vanderbilt. Unfortunately for Derek Dooley, his Vols have been setting some programs lows throughout this season on the way to an 0-6 SEC record.
According to the numbers, Vanderbilt was the worst team in the nation last season relative to its conference. The Commodores were outgained in their eight SEC games by an average of 245.4 yards and outscored by an average of 21.0 points.
Enter James Franklin.
With two games still to play, Vanderbilt has already won more games this season (five) than the last two seasons combined (four). And there has been nothing fluky about the Dores’ 5–5 mark; in fact, Vanderbilt, with three SEC losses by five points or less, is a few plays away from being 7–3 or even 8–2.
This season, Vanderbilt has only been outgained in SEC games by 31.5 yards (an improvement off over 200 yards per game) and outscored by 1.7 points (an improvement of 19.3 points per game).
The most dramatic difference has been on the offensive side of the ball. The Dores, for the first time in several years, feature legitimate playmakers at the skill positions. In four starts, quarterback Jordan Rodgers has averaged 232.5 yards passing and 52.8 yards rushing. Junior running back Zac Stacy, healthy for the first time since his freshman season, has rushed for 891 yards and nine touchdowns, and he leads the league (min. 80 carries) with a 6.5-yard average. Sophomore wide receiver Jordan Matthews has been on a tear of late with 21 catches for 452 yards and three TDs in the last three games.
“They made the quarterback switch (from Larry Smith to Rodgers), and they do everything,” said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley. “You can’t cheat against them, meaning every time they do this, they are going to do that. You got to go play. And what’s interesting is they really find a way to generate big plays, as good as anybody. I think Arkansas is the only team with more big plays than they’ve had.”
To Dooley’s point, Vanderbilt ranks second in the SEC (to Arkansas) in plays of 30 yards or more and leads the league in plays of 40 yards or more.
Last week, in a 38–8 win over Kentucky, the Commodores rolled up 410 yards of offense. Over the last four games, they have averaged 444.8 yards and twice in that stretch had over 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same game.
And it’s with this momentum that Vanderbilt heads to Knoxville — as a one-point favorite — to take on a Tennessee team that is 0–6 in the SEC for the first time ever.
“We feel real confident,” said sophomore defensive end Walker May. “We feel good, loose, ready to go. It's so fun. We are looking forward to this weekend, not looking back on the Kentucky win.”
The Commodores need to beat either Tennessee this week or Wake Forest next week to become bowl-eligible for the first times since 2008 and only the second time since the 1982 season.
Vanderbilt last defeated Tennessee in 2005, when Jay Cutler was a junior. Prior to that, the Dores had not won in Knoxville since 1975.
“I am not too familiar with the rivalry,” said Rodgers, a California native who enrolled at Vanderbilt last year after two seasons in junior college. “I know it has been pretty lopsided between the two schools.”
Rodgers believes his team is peaking at the right time of the season.
“With how much we’ve improved, I think it is a good time for us to be playing anybody,” he said. “I feel like we've gotten to the point where we’re confident that we can get a win against anybody we face, if we play how we know we should and execute how we know we should. So, for us right now, we go into every game thinking that we should win, that we should be able to compete. So, right now it's a good time for us to be playing anybody.”
AROUND THE SEC
• Florida scored a total of two touchdowns in its last three road games, losses at LSU, Auburn and South Carolina.
• South Carolina won six SEC games for the first time since joining the league in 1992.
• Arkansas held Tennessee to seven points in last week’s win in Fayetteville. It was the first time the Hogs have held an SEC team to single digits since beating Ole Miss, 44–8, in October 2007.
• Ole Miss is giving up a league-worst 6.67 yards per play against SEC competition. Alabama, the league leader, is giving up 3.5 yards per play.
• Alabama’s Eddie Lacy is averaging 12.2 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and 9.9 yards in the second half.
• Georgia has allowed 16 points or less is six of its eight wins this season.
• Auburn’s 195 yards in the loss to Georgia were the second-fewest of the Gus Malzahn era. Two years ago, the Tigers had 193 yards in a loss to LSU.
• LSU has given up four total touchdowns in six SEC games.
• Tennessee is converting 66.7 percent (42 of 63) on third down in non-conference games but only 24.7 percent (20 of 81) in league games.
Athlon hands out some hardware for the opening weekend of college football
The first week of college football action is complete in the SEC. Here is our look at the week that was.
Team of the Week — LSU
The Tigers outclassed Oregon in the marquee game of the opening week of the college football season. The LSU run defense was dominant, holding Oregon to 95 yards on 28 carries. The Ducks did pass for 240 yards, but Darron Thomas averaged only 4.4 yards on his 54 attempts — a number that LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis would take every single week. LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee didn’t do much — 98 yards passing with one TD — but he didn’t make many mistakes, either. The Tigers’ offense was powered by tailbacks Spencer Ware (99 yards on 26 carries) and Michael Ford (96 yards on 14 carries).
Disappointment of the Week — Auburn
Auburn deserves credit for keeping its focus and rallying for 14 points in the final three minutes of its 42–38 win over Utah State, but there were far more negatives than positives. Led by a true freshman at quarterback, Utah State rolled up 448 yards of offense and did not turn the ball over once. And on the other side of the ball, Auburn managed only 364 yards against an Aggie defense that allowed 428.8 yards per game in 2010. It’s not necessarily time to panic, but it’s clear — as we all knew heading into the season — that the ’11 Tigers are a work in progress.
Player of the Week — Vick Ballard, Mississippi State
All he does is score touchdowns. After leading SEC running backs with 19 rushing scores last season, Ballard reached the end zone three times on only 10 carries in Mississippi State’s 59–14 win at Memphis. The senior leads the league in rushing after one week, with 166 yards on a gaudy 16.6-yard average.
Freshman of the Week — Trey Depriest, Alabama
It was a relatively quiet week for freshmen in the SEC, but Alabama’s Trey Depriest played very well in his collegiate debut. The true freshman from Springfield, Ohio, led the Tide with 10 total tackles and added one quarterback hurry.
Around the SEC
• Nine of the league’s 12 teams played more than one quarterback in the opening week. Some were by design (Alabama, South Carolina and Ole Miss) while most the of the others were due to the lopsided scores. Some of the notable relievers were Arkansas’ Brandon Mitchell, who completed 10-of-11 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown, and Vanderbilt’s Jordan Rodgers, who threw a 30-yard touchdown on his first pass attempt of his FBS career.
• Kentucky had only 190 yards of total offense in its 14–3 win over Western Kentucky, with 58 coming on a late scramble by quarterback Morgan Newton.
• Ole Miss’ defensive effort against BYU looks pretty good on paper — the Cougars scored only one offensive touchdown and had a total of 316 yards — but the Rebels struggled to get off the field in the second half. BYU’s two drives in the third quarter went for 67 yards and 59 yards and the first drive of the fourth quarter went for 72 yards and a touchdown.
• Utah State had five drives of 65 yards or longer against Auburn. Four of Auburn’s six second-half drives went for 43 yards or more.
• Alabama’s defensive effort against Kent State — 90 yards allowed — is even more impressive if you consider that the Golden Flashes ran 70 plays from scrimmage. The Crimson Tide allowed an average 1.29 yards per play, by far the best in the nation in the opening week.
• There were a couple positives for Georgia in its 35–21 loss to Boise State. Tight end Orson Charles caught six passes for 109 yards, and true freshman wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell caught three passes for 64 yards and had one carry for 18 yards.
• Bruce Ellington, the starting point guard for South Carolina’s basketball team, had the first two carries of his Gamecock career, running for a total of 18 yards in USC’s 56–37 win over East Carolina. Ellington did not play football for South Carolina last fall.
• Vanderbilt redshirt freshman wide receiver Chris Boyd became the first Commodore to catch two touchdown passes in the same game since D.J. Moore scored twice against Kentucky in November 2008. Moore, an All-SEC cornerback, played sparingly as a wide receiver late in the ’08 season.
• LSU did not play a game against a Pac-10 opponent from 1982-2003 but has played five since. The Tigers have defeated Oregon State (2004), Arizona State (’05), Arizona (’06), Washington (’09) and Oregon (’11) over the past seven-plus seasons.