Tennessee and Vanderbilt could be bowled over tonight.
The Volunteers (0-6, 4-6), who host the Commodores (2-5, 5-5) at 7 p.m. (ESPNU), need a victory and another one next week at Kentucky to become bowl eligible. A win against the Vols would give Vanderbilt bowl eligibility for the first time since 2008.
Vanderbilt has nine players looking to become the program’s first players to make multiple postseason appearances. The handful of UT seniors, who, like the Commodores, have played for three head coaches, would become part of a rare UT class that missed bowls in multiple seasons.
It would be the third time in seven years the Vols haven’t reached a bowl. They missed in Phil Fulmer’s final season in 2008 and in 2005, a year when former Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson had the bear necessities, if you will, to win in Neyland Stadium with Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett.
“It’s a big game for this season, because if we lose we don’t go to a bowl,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “That’s a big thing.”
Losing to Vanderbilt would be a big thing, although the Vols are a 11â„2-point underdog. However, they could quickly look like a favorite if 6-foot-6 sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray returns and is anything like he was before breaking his thumb in the second half of a home loss to Georgia on Oct. 8. He has been practicing since having the cast removed at the beginning of the week.
True freshman Justin Worley has started at quarterback in losses to South Carolina and Arkansas and a win against Middle Tennessee State.
Whether it’s Bray or Worley, they aren’t expected to be complemented by an effective ground game. The Vols’ running game (91.9 ypg) is a distant last in the SEC and nearly last in the nation (116th). The Commodores’ seasoned defense, which Dooley describes as disciplined, is fourth against the run in the league.
“They just play really sound football,” Dooley said. “Because of their experience, they know when to take chances and they can read intentions. They are a lot more aware than young players on what the other side is doing.”
Dooley also lauded Vanderbilt’s tackling, something Tennessee isn’t inspiring him to do. The Vols’ low point of the season — other than injuries to Bray and wideout Justin Hunter — was Joe Adams’ 60-yard punt return in Arkansas’ 49-7 win last week in Fayetteville. Adams retreated some 11 yards after catching the line-drive punt, made would-be tacklers of seemingly every Vol and tight-roped the right sideline to the end zone.
“We had about seven guys who could have made the tackle — a couple of them twice,” Dooley said. “I don’t have an explanation for that, other than it was as disappointing a play as I’ve ever been a part of.”
Vanderbilt’s offense has been gaining ground since going to redshirt junior quarterback Jordan Rodgers. The brother of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a dual threat, and so is Vanderbilt with him at the wheel. The Commodores rushed for 222 yards and passed for 240 in a game against Arkansas that they all but could’ve sealed before Zac Stacy’s fumble was returned 95 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
It’s been an otherwise successful season for Stacy, a junior who’s gained 891 yards and scored nine TDs while averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
Vanderbilt’s wins under first-year coach James Franklin have come against Elon (45-21), Connecticut (24-21), Ole Miss (30-7) and Kentucky (38-8). The Commodores lost to Georgia, Florida and Arkansas by a combined 13 points.
“The quarterback scrambles and he’s really fast,” Dooley said. “He’s changed what they’ve looked like on offense, and it’s showed by their points.”
Franklin expects to see the Vols return to Bray.
“I think the Worley kid is playing really well for them for a freshman but … when you’re able to get a guy back like that on your roster, I think it has an effect on the coaches in terms of confidence in what they can call when you have an experienced quarterback,” Franklin said. “And receivers seem to run better routes when they’ve got their guy; tight ends, same thing. It’ll have a spark for them for sure.
“But it won’t change a whole lot on what we do and how we approach. If you look at what they’re doing offensively, it hasn’t changed a whole lot. This Worley kid seems to be a pretty smart kid and pretty poised kid.”
Tennessee has four seniors in the lineup for Senior Night — defensive linemen Malik Jackson and Ben Martin, linebacker Austin Johnson and running back Tauren Poole.
Other scholarship seniors are Anthony Anderson, Art Evans, C.J. Fleming, Matt Simms and Daryl Vereen.
“They’ve been through three coaches, probably four position coaches, five strength coaches and kind of stuck with it,” Dooley said. “I know this year isn’t going the way they had hoped, but it would be good to send them out of Neyland Stadium with a win.”
And a chance to play for a bowl.