Vanderbilt seeks to beat Tennessee for 2nd straight time
By STEVE MEGARGEE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) There was a time not too long ago when Tennessee could always count on beating Vanderbilt no matter how the rest of its season had gone.
After going 1-28 against Tennessee from 1983-2011, Vanderbilt has won three of its last five meetings with the Volunteers. Vanderbilt (4-7, 0-7 SEC) will try to get the best of its in-state rival again Saturday at Tennessee (4-7, 0-7) in a matchup between two teams trying to put the best possible finish on disappointing seasons.
"We didn't have the season that we wanted, but this game is a huge rivalry," Vanderbilt linebacker Oren Burks said. "You know, bottom line, we need to get this win by any means. I think the guys are committed to making it happen."
If Vanderbilt beats Tennessee for a fourth time in six seasons, it would continue the Commodores' most successful stretch in this series since the 1920s. Vanderbilt beat Tennessee six straight times from 1920-26, but the Volunteers have dominated ever since.
Even the players who aren't from the Volunteer State understand what this game means to people who've grown up here.
"I didn't know too much about it coming into it, the magnitude of it, just because I'm from Florida, I'm not a Tennessee guy," Tennessee wide receiver Brandon Johnson said. "I see it now. We're not supposed to lose to Vanderbilt."
Vanderbilt posted back-to-back victories over Tennessee in 2012 and 2013 before former Commodores coach James Franklin left for Penn State. Franklin was replaced by Derek Mason, who lost his first two matchups with Tennessee but directed a 45-34 upset last season that likely cost the Vols a Sugar Bowl berth.
"That was probably the worst loss I've had at UT," Tennessee linebacker Colton Jumper said. "That one hurt a lot. That's definitely in the back of our minds."
Vanderbilt hasn't won a Southeastern Conference game since that night. Then again, neither has Tennessee.
Tennessee must win to avoid its first eight-loss season ever and its first winless season in Southeastern Conference competition since the league formed in 1933.
Here are some other things to watch when Tennessee hosts Vanderbilt.
BOWL PROSPECTS: While both teams are assured of losing seasons, this game still could have bowl implications. Vanderbilt's impressive Academic Progress Rate score means that if it wins Saturday and there aren't enough bowl-eligible programs, the Commodores would be near the front of the line of 5-7 teams seeking bids. Tennessee's APR isn't as strong and makes the Vols much less likely to get a bowl invitation with a 5-7 record.
WEBB WATCH: Ralph Webb will make his 49th straight start Saturday, the longest streak on the Vanderbilt roster. Injuries have made this his least productive season, as he has rushed for just 668 yards. He has 4,010 career rushing yards to rank ninth in SEC history, just 25 yards shy of LSU's Charles Alexander (1975-78) and 40 yards away from LSU's Dalton Hilliard (1982-85). Tennessee ranks 125th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision programs in run defense.
MORE INTERIM MAGIC?: The last time Tennessee was one loss away from a winless SEC campaign, interim coach Jim Chaney led Tennessee to a 37-17 victory over Kentucky in a 2012 season finale between two teams that hadn't won an SEC game up to that point. Now that Brady Hoke has stepped in for the fired Butch Jones, the Vols are again relying on an interim coach in a season-ending matchup between two teams without an SEC win. Tennessee lost 30-10 to No. 19 LSU (No. 18 College Football Playoff) last week in Hoke's debut as the Vols' interim coach.
VOLS' INJURY-RIDDLED LINE: Injuries forced Tennessee to end the LSU game with an offensive line that included two true freshmen (Trey Smith and Riley Locklear), two redshirt freshmen (Devante Brooks and Ryan Johnson) and a sophomore walk-on (Joe Keeler). Hoke hasn't updated whether any injured linemen might return to action this week.
SLOWING SHURMUR: Tennessee must do a better job of containing Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur, who threw for 416 yards against the Vols last season. Shurmur has 22 touchdown passes this year to match the school single-season record set by Whit Taylor in 1982.
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Updated November 24, 2017