The stakes for the Vanderbilt Football-Tennessee clash are high — and in a twist no one saw coming, the stakes for the Commodores could be higher than for the Vols.
Though Tennessee (9-2, 5-2 SEC) is still vying for a New Year’s Six Bowl, its college football playoff hopes have been dashed after a loss to South Carolina. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5) can qualify for the bowl with a win Saturday (6:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network) after beating Kentucky and Florida.
The Commodores have won five of the last 10 matchups with the Vols but lost each of the last three. The last clash that Vanderbilt fans are hoping for came in 2016 when the Commodores defeated a Tennessee squad 8-3 for their sixth win.
Here’s what you should know about the matchup:
POSTAL BAGDo Commodores stand a chance against Tennessee Vols?
REPORT CARDVanderbilt Football Grades vs. Florida: Sense of Another Streak-Busting Victory
FIELD STORMING finesWhy Vanderbilt Was Fined Heavier Than Tennessee, Other SEC Schools for Field Storming Against Florida
Star Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker is out for the remainder of the season after tearing his cruciate ligament on Saturday. His replacement will be Joe Milton, a tall, tough pitcher who struggles with accuracy. Milton has strong numbers this year (23-for-33, 573 yards, six touchdowns, no interceptions), but most of his game has been spent in trash time against lower-level teams.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt has a quarterback question of its own. Freshman AJ Swann missed the last two games through injury. Mike Wright led the team to wins in both games. It is unclear whether Swann will return with the game still to play.
Vanderbilt must contend with Josh Heupel’s speedy offense. The pace means Tennessee has the ability to score quickly, which has bitten Vanderbilt all season. It could also test the Commodores’ defensive depth, as Vanderbilt tends to cling to its top few players on defense.
While Milton has skills similar to Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, the pace adds an extra wrinkle that Vanderbilt needs to prepare for.
Both Vanderbilt and Tennessee have decent run defense but struggle to defend the pass. That could make for an interesting matchup since the Commodores typically run a run-heavy offense, especially when Wright is quarterback. The Vols, meanwhile, will likely want to integrate the quarterback run play more with Milton, but Vanderbilt was able to stop the quarterback run in general thanks to practice against Wright.
The Commodores might have to live with giving up a few downfield bombs if they can stop the offense from moving the ball consistently, but even without a hooker, Vanderbilt will have to figure out how to score consistently to keep up with Tennessee.
Tennessee 38, Vanderbilt 24: Losing Hooker makes this game a lot closer than it otherwise could have been, but even with a backup quarterback, Vanderbilt doesn’t sit well with the Vols.