NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt plays its final game of the 2021 season when it heads three hours East to face rival Tennessee at 2:45 p.m. CT Saturday.
The Commodores (2-9, 0-7 SEC) are on a six-game losing streak as they prepare to face the Volunteers for the 116th time. Vandy dropped a 31-17 contest last week at No. 10 Ole Miss, a contest in which it trailed 24-9 at halftime.
Tennessee (6-5, 3-4 SEC) beat South Alabama 60-14 last time out, but is 1-3 in its last four league games.
Here is more on how to watch, listen to and follow Saturday’s contest as well as five key matchups to consider when the Commodores face the Volunteers:
When: 2:45 p.m. CT Saturday
Location: Neyland Stadium (102,455)
Television: SEC Network
Dave Neal (play-by-play), Deuce McAllister (analyst), Andraya Carter (sideline)
Vanderbilt Sports Network from Learfield
On-Air Time: 2:30 p.m. CT
Pregame Show: 1 p.m. CT
Affiliates: Nashville WQZQ 830 AM, 93.3 FM; Chattanooga WALV 105.1 FM; Lewisburg WJJM 1490 AM, 94.3 FM; Memphis WMPS 1210 AM, 103.1 FM
Satellite: SiriusXM 383; SiriusXM online 973
52 degrees at kickoff, zero percent chance of rain
1. Putting Six on the Board
Finding the end zone has been a struggle for the Commodores all season long. Only New Mexico State has scored fewer touchdowns (16) than Vanderbilt’s 18.
But there may be some promise this weekend in Knoxville against a Tennessee defense that has surrendered 40 touchdowns and ranks 115th nationally in red zone stops. Only Tennessee Tech, South Carolina and South Alabama failed to finish 100 percent in their red-zone chances against Tennessee.
It will be crucial for the Vandy offense to find six points instead of three Saturday in Neyland Stadium. It won’t be able to keep up with the Volunteers’ high-powered offense if it doesn’t.
2. Harass Hooker
Tennessee has relied this season on the play of quarterback Hendon Hooker — and with good reason. The senior and Virginia Tech transfer is completing 70 percent of his passes and has a 24-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
A 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior, Hooker is also a threat with his feet having run for 486 yards and five scores.
But Tennessee’s offensive line has not done a good job at protecting Hooker or whomever is behind center. Opponents have recorded a whopping 42 sacks against the Volunteers, nearly four per game.
Vanderbilt has struggled this year getting to the quarterback – it is tied for last in the FBS with only nine sacks this season. The numbers indicate, however, that this is a matchup where the Commodores could bring some pressure to harass Hooker play after play.
3. Stay on – And Get Off – the Field
Vanderbilt had its most third-down conversions of the season last Saturday against No. 10 Ole Miss with nine. But as quarterbacks coach Joey Lynch pointed out this week, the Commodores also had their most third-down plays of the season as well with 21.
So while the conversion rate was a positive one, Vandy hopes it not only continues the momentum of keeping drives alive but also finds a way to avoid third downs altogether.
The Commodores will face a Tennessee defense that has allowed a first down 44.3 percent of the time on third down. That bodes well for the young Vandy offense which has shown strides of improvement down the stretch, especially in second halves against Kentucky and Mississippi, respectively.
Time of possession will also be key for the Dores in helping to leave the high-octane Tennessee offense on the sidelines.
4. The Time is Wright
Coming into the 2021 season, Vanderbilt turned to Ken Seals to be its starting quarterback and leader of the offense. But an injury to the sophomore halfway through the campaign allowed Mike Wright to take the reins behind center.
Wright has shown tremendous growth down the stretch in starting four of the last five games – and he’ll be the starter Saturday in Knoxville. The Atlantan is now second on the team in rushing yards (367), 156 passing yards away from 1,000 for the season and has completed 53.5 percent of his 144 throws. He threw for a career-high 241 yards at No. 10 Ole Miss in his last outing and ran for 61 yards.
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound sophomore will now have to play his best and most-complete game of his young career to give the Commodores a chance in a hostile environment Saturday.
5. Hold Nothing Back
What would a win for Vanderbilt mean Saturday? Well the lasting effects could be immeasurable.
But a refrain from Lea throughout the course of the 2021 season is for his team, his staff and his coaches – and even the fans of the program – to not get completely caught up in the end result. While that facet is certainly of the utmost importance, how Vanderbilt approached this week or practice and how it performs in the season finale holds a little bit more weight in the first season for Lea.
So by that measure, Vanderbilt should be able to play loose and carefree on the final Saturday in November, the last time this particular team will all be together on the same field. Lynch hinted this week that the offense’s playbook will be wide open. Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said by this point his defense knows when to be aggressive and when to hold back.
There is no “next game” for Vanderbilt football in 2021. That could very well play to its advantage come kickoff.
(6.) First Time Against the Orange
Only two coaches in the past 86 years have defeated Tennessee in their first try: Fred Pancoast in 1975 and Ray Morrison in 1935.
Fifteen other first-year Vanderbilt head coaches have been on the short end of their initial matchup with the Tennessee Volunteers. Does that give any insight into a coach’s future successes or shortcomings? Likely not. But it is an indicator perhaps of the challenge that lies ahead of Lea on Saturday.
Perhaps one advantage Lea has is having grown up entrenched in the rivalry before playing in it as a fullback for the Commodores from 2002-04.
“This is about being a Nashvillian and being a Vanderbilt fan since I was a child,” he said this week. “So this game has always meant more and been something that we celebrated. Obviously I grew up in black and gold and cheering on the Commodores. So when I got to play in the game, obviously, it had a heightened sense of meaning to me.”
After dropping 22 in a row in the series at one point and then six more from 2006-11, Vandy has leveled the playing field since 2012 by winning 5 of 9. Now Lea has the opportunity to better that mark as the head coach of his alma mater and end his first season with a bang.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.