Tennessee (4-7, 0-7 SEC) welcomes Vanderbilt (4-7, 0-7 SEC) into Neyland Stadium on Saturday looking to avoid losing an eighth game this season for the first time ever. The Vols lead the all-time series, 75-31-5 — Tennessee won 22 straight games from 1983-2004 against Vanderbilt and have dominated the series since the two first met in 1892.
However, after being outmatched for nearly 100 years, Vanderbilt has won three out of the last five games against Tennessee. Last season, the Commodores spoiled the Vols’ Sugar Bowl hopes in a 45-34 shootout in Nashville. Vanderbilt’s 45 points were the most it had scored in the series since 1923, and many fans believed it to be the beginning of the end for Butch Jones.
For Tennessee, the only good that came out of last season’s meeting with the Commodores was Derek Barnett tying Reggie White’s career sack record at Tennessee (32).
As for this season, both teams have had a rocky road to get to this point. Tennessee and Vanderbilt are both winless in conference play, and this game has no serious implications for either team — besides bragging rights for the next 364 days — which isn’t much.
Here is a foolproof plan for the Vols to come out and pick up their first win in conference play on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Stop the run
Tennessee has been dominated on both sides of the trenches all year long en route to giving up 252 rushing yard per game.
The Vols’ pass defense has been the only bright spot this season for the team — the “No Fly Zone” allows 151 yards per game through the air, but mainly because teams have discovered the weak spot in Tennessee’s defense is on the ground.
It all starts up front with the defensive line stopping the run and forcing Vanderbilt to throw the ball.
Tennessee’s pass defense hasn’t been truly tested all season, mainly due to the running yards given up, but in the most important game of the season, the Vols will have to force the Commodores to be one-dimensional.
Ralph Webb ran for 114 yards and two scores a season ago in Nashville, and the Commodores racked up four rushing touchdowns on the ground.
In order to force Derek Mason to turn to Shurmur early, and for Tennessee to prove it has upgraded its pass defense from a season ago, the Vols will have to make it their first priority to shut down Vanderbilt’s leading rusher Ralph Webb.
Get to Kyle Shurmur
This is easier said than done for Tennessee’s pass rush, but the Vols’ defensive line will have to get to Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur on Saturday.
Last year, Shurmur torched the Vols for a career-high 400 yards and two touchdowns, and was only sacked one time — which explains why Tennessee struggled so mightily in the game stopping the pass.
With a star-littered defensive line in Jonathon Kongbo, Kahlil McKenzie, Kyle Phillips and Darrell Taylor, the group has been the biggest disappointment this season for the Vols.
Combining for only 8.5 sacks all year, the defensive line has been dominated in both the run and passing game. Brady Hoke has taken the reigns as head coach for the remainder of the season, and if anybody can get production out of the defensive line, it should be Hoke, who now controls all of the personnel on the field, not just the defensive line.
If a particular player isn’t getting enough production in the game on Saturday, Hoke should pull them out and let the next man up crack a shot at it.
In games where Vanderbilt has been successful this year, Shurmur has only been sacked six times. In losses, he has been sacked 12 times. The key to beating Vanderbilt is getting tohim in the backfield.
In conference play, Shurmur has been sacked 15 times and thrown 10 interceptions. In key conference losses to Ole Miss and Missouri this season, Shurmur was sacked nine times in the two games.
Get the ball downfield
John Kelly has been the only player with a pulse on offense this season for Tennessee. Kelly has rushed for 758 yards and averaged a hair over four yards per carry so far this season.
Unfortunately, teams have discovered the only thing they have to do to beat the Vols is to stack the box and stop Kelly.
Jarrett Guarantano will get the nod against Vanderbilt and will be looking for his first win in a full game this season. Guarantano picked up the win against Southern Mississippi on homecoming, but was injured and replaced by true freshman Will McBride — so Guarantano will be hungry for his first win in a full game against rival Vanderbilt.
Guarantano, in order to keep a streak that has been active 1891, will have to stretch the ball both vertically and horizontally. This means getting the ball to playmakers, whether it is on screen passes or deep bombs, to keep the pressure off of Kelly on Saturday.
Marquez Callaway and Jeff George both came up with big receptions that sparked the offense last week against LSU, but Tennessee struggles in the red zone. If a team can’t score in the red zone, it might as well find a way to score on big plays.
Callaway has been the go-to guy all season long with star receiver Jauan Jennings sidelined with a broken wrist, and he should get an ample amount of targets in the game if Tennessee wants to come out with a win.