Here we are again at Tennessee week. Vanderbilt takes a confident team on a two-game winning streak to Knoxville on Saturday where the well-rested Vols are coming off a bye week.
The Commodores (6-4, 3-4 SEC) are already bowl eligible. UT (4-6, 1-5) must win out to reach a bowl game.
Toss in the fact that it’s Senior Night at Neyland Stadium on ESPN2 (6 p.m. CT), Vanderbilt embarrassed the Vols 41-18 last year and this is Butch Jones’ introduction to the in-state rivalry, and you have all the ingredients for an intriguing night of football.
Per our game-week “Five Questions” routine, we’ve asked a beat writer who covers Vanderbilt’s next opponent to share his insights. Thanks to Evan Woodbery of the Knoxville News Sentinel for pitching in this week. Follow Evan on Twitter @TennesseeBeat and read his blog at knoxblogs.com/evanseleven.
On to the questions:
1. You’ve covered Butch Jones for nearly a year. What can you tell us about that experience, his system and his challenges in getting the Vols back to respectability.
Woodbery: I’ve been impressed by his aggressiveness and energy in selling the program to current, future and past players, fans and anyone else who will listen. This was going to be a challenging year on the field under any circumstance, but even games that looked winnable in August – Missouri, Auburn – have been more difficult than anticipated. The Vols have a large, highly rated class slated to enter in 2014, which should help. Maintaining that momentum in future seasons – which Derek Dooley struggled to do after a strong start on the recruiting trail – will be critical in getting the program back.
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of these Vols, and who are main guys that should impact this game? Where do you see problems in matching up with Vandy?
Woodbery: The Vols’ lack of overall team speed has reared its head in the last two losses. Tennessee has lost too many one-on-one matchups on the back end of its defense. On offense, the Vols have a young quarterback, young receivers and little depth at tight end, which could present a problem against Vanderbilt’s experienced secondary. On a positive note, Tennessee has most of its experience along the offensive and defensive lines.
3. Is freshman Josh Dobbs the quarterback of the future at UT? What are the pros and cons of his game?
Woodbery: Not necessarily. I expect there will be another tight battle for the starting job next spring, possibly including all four of the current options from this year. True freshman Riley Ferguson would likely be in Dobbs’ position right now were it not for an injury.
It’s become a cliché by now, but Dobbs is in fact incredibly smart. He picked up the offense immediately. Because of Dobbs’ mobility, Tennessee was actually able to expand the playbook when he arrived. He’s made a few freshman mistakes and his arm strength is said to be adequate but not yet exceptional. But barring a major surprise, he will finish the regular season as starting quarterback.
4. What did the Vols need to address during their bye week, and how are they health-wise?
Woodbery: They spent a lot of time on special teams. They normally do that anyway, but there was an added sense of urgency because of the breakdowns against Auburn. The week was also helpful just for healing and rest. Most of Tennessee’s ongoing injuries will only be solved during the offseason, but for players like safety Brian Randolph, cornerback Justin Coleman and others, the week of rest should help. Backup quarterbacks Nathan Peterman (thumb) and Riley Ferguson (leg) also are probably as close to 100 percent as they’re going to be this season.
5. With a new coaching staff in place, has last year’s 41-18 rout in Nashville been discussed? How big of a role does that play in motivating UT on Saturday?
Woodbery: I really don’t think last year’s loss has been a major point of emphasis or a motivational tactic within the program. It certainly remains an unpleasant memory for the players who experienced it, but Butch Jones has stressed the independence of each season, each team and I don’t think he’ll spend a lot of time reminding this year’s group about 2012.
Despite the losing record, Tennessee actually played tough in most of its losses last year. The only real exceptions were a blowout against Alabama (and even that wasn’t as lopsided as it could have been) and the Vanderbilt game, which was by far the worst showing of the year.
Bonus: What’s your prediction for the game and why?
Woodbery: I don’t have a lot of confidence in this pick, but I’ll take Tennessee 24-21. The two factors that pushed my pick to Tennessee are the home-field advantage and the extra week of rest.