Familiar flaws put Vols, Vandy at risk of losing seasons
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee and Vanderbilt are both below .500 in the final week of the regular season because each team has one major weakness that it hasn’t fixed all year.
Inconsistency has been the issue haunting Tennessee all year. Vanderbilt’s fatal flaw has been its inability to protect leads.
Tennessee (5-6, 2-5 SEC) visits Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5) on Saturday with a bowl bid on the line. Neither of these teams reached a bowl last season.
“We want to play in December,” Tennessee defensive tackle Shy Tuttle said. “We know how it felt last year, just sitting around looking people in the face. Home is all right for a couple of days, but more than one week there and it gets old. I’m trying to play a game.”
Tennessee’s at risk of staying home for the holidays again because it hasn’t been able to build off its best performances. The Vols beat Auburn when the Tigers were ranked last month and defeated No. 17 Kentucky (No. 15 College Football Playoff ), but they also have lost five games by at least 26 points.
The week after its victory at Auburn, Tennessee got outscored 28-0 in the first quarter of a 58-21 loss to No. 1 Alabama (No. 1 CFP). Tennessee followed up its 24-7 victory over Kentucky with a 50-17 loss to Missouri.
“It seems like every time we take a step forward, the next week we take a step backward in terms of execution,” Tennessee cornerback Baylen Buchanan said. “Each week is its sown week, so I feel like the one thing we really lacked this year was consistency in our execution. Just because you play good one week doesn’t mean it’s just going to carry over into the next week. You’re going to have to prepare the right way.”
Tennessee’s inconsistency is perhaps most evident in its rushing attack.
The Vols rushed for just 20 yards on 26 carries in a 14-3 victory over Charlotte but recovered the next week to run for 215 yards against Kentucky. One week later, Missouri held Tennessee to 82 yards rushing on 28 carries.
“If the offensive line’s not performing well, then the team’s not going to perform well,” Tennessee offensive tackle Marcus Tatum said. “I put it all on us.”
While Tennessee has been up and down all season, Vanderbilt has been maddeningly consistent in its inability to finish.
Vanderbilt had a 21-3 lead over No. 13 Florida (No. 11 CFP) in the second quarter, owned a 28-19 advantage at Missouri in the third quarter and was tied with No. 17 Kentucky (No. 15 CFP) in the second half. Vanderbilt also was trailing 22-17 at No. 3 Notre Dame (No. 3 CFP) in the closing minutes when it drove inside the Fighting Irish’s 35-yard line and attempted to score a go-ahead touchdown.
The Commodores won none of those games.
Vanderbilt is hoping that it turned a corner last week with its 36-29 overtime victory over Mississippi. After losing so many close games all season long, the Commodores finally managed to produce some winning plays when it mattered most.
“The other night we finally rose to the occasion, so hopefully it changes,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “You got to meet the challenge for it to change you. I thought we met the challenge, and now we’ve got to find a way to come back and do it again.
“From what I’ve seen from our football team, our margin for error is slim.”
Mason noted that Vanderbilt’s history of close games this season suggests that Saturday’s matchups will likely come down to the final possession. The Commodores believe the Ole Miss result could give them a confidence boost if Saturday’s game is up for grabs down the stretch.
“I think now we know how to do that and get to the other side,” Mason said. “So do I have confidence we can do it? Yeah, I have confidence we can do it. But it’s like anything else, you got to play the game.”