The stakes are high for Vanderbilt’s football game with Tennessee, and in a twist no one saw coming, the stakes may be higher for the Commodores than the Vols.
Although Tennessee (9-2, 5-2 SEC) is still in contention for a New Year’s Bowl Six, its college football playoff hopes were dashed after a loss to South Carolina. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5) can become bowl eligible with a victory Saturday (6:30 pm CT, SEC Network) after beating Kentucky and Florida.
The Commodores have won five of the last 10 meetings with the Vols, but have lost each of the last three. The previous matchup that Vanderbilt fans hope to repeat was in 2016, when the Commodores beat a Tennessee team 8-3 for their sixth win.
Here’s what you should know about the matchup:
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Tennessee’s star quarterback Hendon Hooker will be out for the season with a torn ACL suffered Saturday. Replacing him will be backup Joe Milton, a big, tough pitcher who can struggle with accuracy. Milton has good numbers this year (23-of-33, 573 yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs), but most of his playing time has been in junk time against lower-level teams.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt has his own quarterback question. Freshman AJ Swann has missed the last two games with injury. Mike Wright led the team to victories in both games. With just one game to go, it’s unclear if Swann will return.
Vanderbilt will have to deal with Josh Heupel’s up-tempo offense. The pace means Tennessee has the ability to score quickly, something that has plagued Vanderbilt all season. It could also test the Commodores’ defensive depth, as Vanderbilt tends to stick with its best players on defense.
While Milton has a somewhat similar skill set to Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, the pace adds an extra wrinkle that Vanderbilt will need to prepare for.
Both Vanderbilt and Tennessee have decent run defenses, but have struggled to defend the pass. That could be an interesting matchup, as the Commodores typically go with a run-heavy offense, especially if Wright is the quarterback. In the meantime, the Vols will probably want to incorporate more of the quarterback run game with Milton, but Vanderbilt has generally been able to stop the quarterback run thanks to a lot of practice against Wright.
The Commodores may have to accept a few bombs down the field if they can keep the offense from consistently moving the ball, but even without Hooker, Vanderbilt will have to figure out how to consistently score to keep up with Tennessee.
Tennessee 38, Vanderbilt 24: The loss of Hooker makes this one a lot closer than it could have been, but even with a backup quarterback, Vanderbilt isn’t a good fit for the Vols.