Tennessee football: What's at stake for the Vols against upset-minded Vanderbilt?
No, it was not a bad dream.
Throw whichever adjective you want on Tennessee’s embarrassing (there’s one) loss to South Carolina on Saturday night. It would not be enough to describe what will go down as its worst setback since Georgia State in 2019, Vanderbilt in 2016 or even as far back as LSU in the 2001 SEC Championship Game.
South Carolina, a team that dropped just 6 points last week in a lopsided loss to Florida, scored 63 points against a Tennessee secondary that didn’t look like it could hang with your local high school powerhouse. Spencer Rattler, a quarterback who entered Saturday night with 8 touchdown passes on the season, went nuclear. He was good for *ahem* 438 yards on 30 of 37 attempts with 6 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.
To make a bad night worse, star QB Hendon Hooker went down with a rough-looking non-contact injury in the final quarter. With this being his final year at Tennessee, it’s hard not to wonder if we have seen the last of the star QB in a Vols uniform. The only hope is that the injury is not as severe as it looked.
The offense moved the ball fairly well, but still not to the standard it has all season. Defensively, “lost” doesn’t even begin to describe Tennessee’s worst defensive performance since the Derek Dooley days.
South Carolina was the better team when it mattered. Just like Tennessee’s College Football Playoff hopes, the Gamecocks are now in the past. Let’s move on, shall we?
Here are 3 things at stake for Tennessee football in next week’s matchup against Vanderbilt.
Tennessee sportsbooks are live in the Volunteer state since November 1, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.
Citrus, Orange or Sugar?
Tennessee will play 2 more games this season; what type of game the final one is depends on next week’s matchup against a Vanderbilt team that has won 2 in a row and is searching for its first bowl appearance since 2018. Essentially, ask yourself this question if you are a Vols fan: Citrus Bowl or Sugar/Orange Bowl? A blowout win over the Commodores likely gives Tennessee its first New Year’s 6 appearance since the creation of the College Football Playoff in 2014.
A loss to Vanderbilt — we’re suspending all assumptions after Saturday — would likely mean no worse than the Citrus Bowl for Tennessee. For now, it looks like the SEC bid in the bowl would face off against either Penn State or the winner of the B1G West, which is likely to be Iowa. Of course, things can change very quickly.
Tennessee finished 2019 0-8 in the SEC. For the Citrus Bowl to be worst-case scenario 3 years later is quite the achievement. And yet still it seems somewhat disappointing.
Funny how that works out.
Vanderbilt’s bowl hopes
Let’s talk for a minute about the Commodores.
I think everyone knew from the beginning of the season that this was not a normal Vanderbilt team. Don’t get me wrong, the Commodores are still a bottom 3 SEC team — but they are also not the worst team in the conference, which is not often the case.
Vanderbilt has quietly put together a pair of nice wins against Kentucky and Florida with its back against the wall. The Commodores are 5-6 on the season and an upset win over the Vols away from .500. For Vanderbilt, that’s like winning the Super Bowl. And the chance to clinch a bowl bid against Tennessee? The Commodores are emboldened enough as it is. A chance to play upset against the reeling Vols has them champing at the bit.
Sensationalism aside, it’s still Vanderbilt. Tennessee also still has a top-5 offense in the country, and it has a lot to prove on the defensive side of the ball that competing in a bowl game the caliber New Year’s 6 will demand.
The Vols have a chance to both reach a Sugar/Orange Bowl while keeping a rival from playing in the Gasparilla Bowl.
The first 10-win season in more than a decade
Tennessee has not had a 10-win season since 2007, when the Vols won the Outback Bowl after an SEC Championship loss to LSU, the eventual national champions.
That could change next Saturday in Nashville. The Vols will be out for blood against the Commodores, and head coach Josh Heupel will be keen on using a big win over Vanderbilt as fuel heading into a strong bowl in just his 2nd season on Rocky Top.
Ten wins preseason was a fantasy for a lot of people. That was more of a Year 3 goal. For now, even with a loss to South Carolina fresh on the mind, it seems Tennessee is ahead of schedule.
Let’s see if the Vols actually show up this time on the road against the Commodores.