Friday, November 21, 2008

Moral Victory Prediction: Tennessee at Vanderbilt

12:30 EST Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008
Dudley Field, Nashville, Tennessee
Televised by Raycom (check local listings)

At the beginning of the season, the experts believed Tennessee could be the most underrated team in America, capable of a high national ranking and a BCS bowl if the ball bounced the right way against, say, Florida and Georgia. But the Vols couldn't even beat Wyoming at home.

At the beginning of the season, the experts picked Vanderbilt dead last in the SEC and gave them an outside chance to win four games. But with two games remaining in the season, the Commodores are already bowl eligible.

The Commodores have a better offense than the Vols, despite the fact that Vanderbilt is ranked 116th in total offense and Tennessee is ranked 115th. Vanderbilt gains about 50 more yards a game on the ground, hasn't had the desperation passing yardage that the Vols have amassed in their seven losses, scores six points a game more than the Vols and are much better in the Red Zone (90 percent to 73 percent). Hawkins and Nickson are solid rushing threats and the line looked much improved against the tough Kentucky defense. And Nickson, when in a rhythm, can put the ball on the money, as evidenced by long scoring strikes to Brandon Barden against South Carolina and twice to D.J. Moore against Kentucky. Speaking of D.J. Moore, his presence only helps the offense and it was great to see him on the field in Lexington.

The problem: Tennessee has one of the best defenses in college football, ranked seventh in passing yards (164 per game), seventh in total yards (276) and 15th in points allowed (18.1). Imagine how even better the Vol D would be if the offense wouldn't go three and out so much? But one bright note: for such a tough defense, the Vols allow an almost 40 percent conversion rate on 3rd down.

The Tennessee offense is bad, bad, bad. But why? They've got stud running backs operating behind a veteran offensive line. And some talented receivers. Oh yeah, quarterback. Jonathan Crompton has been bad, and so has Nick Stephens, and now freshman B.J. Coleman's getting thrown into the fire. And these guys are all drop-back passers.

The Commodore defense is capable of shutting down the Vols. While maybe not as impressive as their East Tennessee counterparts, they're among the SEC leaders in quarterback sacks and scoring defense and they're fifth in the nation in red zone defense. Their veteran secondary is a big play waiting to happen. In other words, if the Commodores can grab the lead early and force Tennessee to the air, the game is over.

Vanderbilt has the edge in punt returns (Tennessee's punt defense is 108th in the nation) and Tennessee has the edge in kickoff returns. Both teams are decent in net punting and have hot-and-cold field goal kickers.

Coming off an encouraging performance in Lexington, the Commodores are hot and the Volunteers are not. But Tennessee has had two weeks to ponder a nightmare loss at home to Wyoming and a nightmare season in general. Surely, the players want to send Fulmer out a winner. On the other hand, the Commodores have had a huge burden lifted and are now bowl eligible, and with each win from here on out the bowls could get better and better. Talking stats, Vanderbilt has a better turnover margin and are less penalized than Tennessee.

If the Commodores jump on the Volunteers early, scoring a couple of times and forcing the Big Orange to go to the air, they could win big, say 28-10. But if they stumble out of the gate and allow the Vols to get some early points and some early hope, then Fulmer will turn things over to his defense and we could be on our way to a 10-7 type of game. We haven't been favored over Tennessee in a long, long time. I hope we've got more black and gold than orange in the stands, but with all those students heading home early for fall break, it might not happen.

Vanderbilt 17-14

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