Lately, there’s been a role reversal. Vanderbilt has won four of its past six with Tennessee and enters Saturday’s regular-season finale (4 p.m., SEC Network) looking for a third straight victory over its in-state rival. The Commodores haven’t achieved that in nearly a century.
“It’s a little closer,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said of the series. “But with that being said, everybody thinks that we’re the little brother, OK? ... But we’ve never felt that way. ... I think it’s going to be a good football game based on the simple fact that these two football teams that have something to play for.”
Bowl eligibility is on the line for both Tennessee (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) and Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5). Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt can cap his first season by earning some extra practice time, while Mason can earn a second bowl berth in three seasons. Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur can post a third straight victory over the Vols, which the Commodores last managed with six straight wins between 1920 and 1926.
This game means much more to the Vols than it did when they dominated this rivalry. Tennessee cornerback Baylen Buchanan acknowledges his thoughts on this rivalry have changed over the last couple years.
“My impression of it was Tennessee beats Vanderbilt,” Buchanan said. “That was my impression of it when I got here. I was not expecting to lose two years in a row to Vanderbilt. It’s very important to us that we win this game this week.”
Shurmur has been a big key to Vandy’s back-to-back wins against Tennessee. He threw for a career-high 416 yards in a 45-34 upset in 2016, and Shurmur had four touchdown passes last year in a 42-24 victory that gave the Commodores their third win in Neyland Stadium since 2005.
Pruitt’s Alabama defense shut out Shurmur and the Commodores last season, but the Tennessee coach was working with much more talent when he was the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator. Tennessee ranks ninth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense.
Both of Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr.‘s parents went to Tennessee, and his father was a first-round draft pick in the NFL. That only adds to the stakes on the line for the Vols after they were routed 50-17 last week by Missouri.
“That kind of speaks volumes to how the rest of our season will go, if we win or lose this ballgame,” Kelly said.
Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano didn’t play the final three quarters of a loss to Missouri last week after sustaining an apparent head or neck injury. Vols wide receiver Marquez Callaway also left that game early with a bruised chest. Both have been practicing this week.
UNPREDICTABLE RUNNING GAME
It’s hard to guess how Tennessee’s rushing attack will fare from week to week. Tennessee had just 20 yards rushing on 26 carries in a victory over Charlotte, followed that up by running for 215 yards in an upset of Kentucky and then had only 82 yards on 28 carries against Missouri. Mississippi is the only SEC team allowing more yards rushing per game or more yards per carry than Vanderbilt.
The Commodores finally showed in their 36-29 overtime victory over Mississippi that they could finish off a game. Vandy blew second-half leads against Florida and Missouri earlier this season and couldn’t score despite having the ball late in a loss at then-No. 8 Notre Dame.
Vanderbilt running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn has rushed for 481 yards over his past three games and has gained at least 127 yards in each of them. Vaughn, with 976 yards rushing this year, is chasing just the eighth 1,000-yard rushing season in Vanderbilt history.
Tennessee is the only SEC team that has scored in each of its red-zone opportunities (11 touchdowns, six field goals) in league competition. The Vols rank fifth in the SEC in overall red-zone conversion percentage, while Vanderbilt is last among all SEC teams in that category.