No. 24 Tennessee can dim Vandy's bowl hopes
With the SEC East Division title now resting in Florida, No. 24 Tennessee looks to play to enhance its bowl credentials.
Vanderbilt is playing for automatic bowl eligibility, though the Commodores still may get into the postseason even with a loss.
And, of course, there is always the reward of beating an intrastate rival.
Such is the situation when the Volunteers (8-3, 4-3 SEC) and Commodores (5-6, 2-5) face off at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. The SEC Network has the telecast.
Until last weekend, the Vols were hoping that LSU would pin a third conference loss on Florida to give them an opportunity to play in the SEC Championship. Tennessee held the tiebreaker over the Gators to get the berth if each team finished with 5-3 marks.
About halftime of the Vols' 63-37 rout of Missouri last weekend, however, Florida was holding on for a 16-10 victory over LSU to finish conference play with a 6-2 record to snuff out Tennessee's last opportunity.
That may have been a downer, but coach Butch Jones doesn't see that as an issue this week.
“In terms of putting the East behind us, I guess the greatest illustration I can give you is that our players came out and played one of their best second halves in the second half against Missouri,” he said. “I'm not naive enough to tell you — they knew what had happened. They knew exactly the situation. We never addressed it, but kids are kids.
“They know. I think that's what defines who we are as a football program and what defines our players. We went out and had one of the best second halves.”
It's a bit early to see how things will eventually shake out in the bowl picture, but with a quarterback like Josh Dobbs and a receiver like Josh Malone, the Vols can be an attractive team. Dobbs has rushed for a team-best 660 yards and nine touchdowns and passed for 2,315 yards and 24 touchdowns with a 60 percent completion rate, while Malone is averaging 19.2 yards on 38 receptions.
That's if Tennessee can go into the postseason with nine wins and alone in second place in the division, not tied with Georgia and Kentucky at 4-4.
“There's a lot to be played for,” Jones said. “This has the makings to be a great, great, very, very special season. You look at all the great things that we have accomplished and all the great things that are ahead of us — and I think also it's a great illustration of persistence and resiliency of all the adversities that have gone through this season.
“I have never been through a season like this in 30 years of coaching in terms of the adversities, the injuries, the setbacks, the big wins, all that that goes into it.”
Vanderbilt's Derek Mason could express similar sentiments.
“This group has earned the right as you look at what they've had to go through, the close ballgames that have been,” he said.
The Commodores have done a remarkable turnaround after ranking 128th out of 128 FBS teams in total offense just a few weeks ago. After starting the season at 2-4, they have almost reversed that by winning three of their last five games.
Last week against Ole Miss, they amassed 481 yards in total offense, their season high against an FBS opponent, and the 38-17 win over the Rebels were the most points they have scored against a conference opponent since Mason took over in 2014.
In particular, Vanderbilt's receiving corps stood out with Trent Sherfield gaining 73 yards on two receptions and Darius Sims getting 53 on just two grabs. C.J. Duncan had four catches and Caleb Scott three.
“They made some great plays,” Mason said. “They gave us chances to be successful. They've been maligned all year, so it's good to see them have a breakout game.”
The win kept the Commodores' hopes alive for getting to six wins and not having to depend on their academic credentials to get them into a bowl if not enough six-win teams are available to fill the slots.
“Why settle for second when first is available,” Mason said.