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The Game to Watch
Vanderbilt at Tennessee (7 ET/ESPNU) – Tennessee and Vanderbilt typically have little more than state pride on the line when they meet every November. Typically, Tennessee is a heavy favorite and the Vols usually win when they face the ‘Dores. This year has been anything but typical, though. Vandy rides in sky high, and for perhaps the first time in history, will walk into Neyland Stadium as a slight favorite. Tennessee is winless in the SEC, but the Vols will look to break this year’s run of bad luck by claiming their sixth win in a row versus their I-40 rivals.
Which team’s bowl hopes will still survive after Saturday night? The post-season fate of both teams will likely be determined in Knoxville this weekend. A win for Vanderbilt not only gives them a year of bragging rights against their in-state rival, but it would also make them bowl eligible for the first time since 2008. The Commodores don’t have to win against Tennessee to still make a bowl appearance in the 2011 season, but with a road trip to Wake Forest looming next week, there’s no time like the present. They need to win one of two, and a case could be made that the Tennessee game might be a better opportunity. Tennessee must win out against Vanderbilt and Kentucky to avoid finishing with a losing season for the fourth time in the past seven years (2005, 2008, 2010.)
Is Tyler Bray healthy enough to give it a go this weekend?
The talented sophomore signal caller injured his hand earlier in the season and has missed several weeks of action, but his cast was removed earlier this week and it appears his injured thumb and hand are strong enough to bring his playing status back into serious question. The tandem of Justin Worley and Matt Simms has been nothing short of horrendous in Bray’s absence, so despite Dooley hedging his bets and playing coy when discussing Bray’s probability to the media, expect Bray to be a game-time decision and attempt to play if at all possible. It’s a clear-cut question of choosing the devil you know versus the devil you don’t. We know what Tennessee’s offense looks like with Worley leading it. If Dooley thinks that unit can beat Vanderbilt, Bray will get another week to rest. There seems to be little risk of re-injury, so if Dooley has any doubts about whether Tennessee can compete without Bray, expect to see him taking snaps this weekend on at least a series or two, if not more.
Postseason hopes for both teams hinge on two factors: whether or not Bray plays, and whether or not Tennessee can slow down Jordan Rodgers. Since taking over the full-time QB duties for James Franklin midway through this year, Rodgers has displayed poise and playmaking abilities that can keep Vanderbilt hanging around versus most teams. If the offense clicks early like it has in recent weeks, the Commordores can and should beat Tennessee straight up. If Bray starts, he’ll need to finish. He’s the X-factor that could alter this game in either direction, and the Vol offense needs consistency more than anything else.
These teams look like two ships passing in the night. They have two different temperaments, and the identities of the programs couldn’t be any more opposite from one another at this point in the season. Vanderbilt will be looking for that one key play to get things rolling in the right direction, while Dooley’s Vols will be waiting on one bad play that sends everything headed south. Attitude is everything. Right now, Vanderbilt is playing with confidence, and Tennessee simply isn’t, and that’s a reflection of the two men leading these programs. The scoreboard will reflect it on Saturday night.
OKTC Prediction: Vanderbilt 28, Tennessee 23
Other quick reads:
Will Mississippi State please settle on a full-time quarterback?
Chris Relf and Tyler Russell continue to split time, with Russell more of a passing threat and Relf a bruising runner that offers a change of pace. Russell has taken the bulk of the snaps lately, but Dan Mullen continues to bring him to the sideline at critical times. The adage that if you have two quarterbacks you really have none applies here. Against good teams, the Starkville (QB) Shuffle has led to wild inconsistency. State’s running game and passing game have both suffered because of it, and the offense has been stagnant at best against the meat of the schedule.
The Bullies’ defense stood tall against Alabama on Saturday and has played well enough of late, but against Arkansas this team simply must score points if it wants to win, and there has to be a singularity of purpose on the offensive side of the ball. Inexplicably, Dylan Favre is even making occasional appearances to muddy the waters a bit more. Pick an option between Relf and Russell and leave him in long enough to build momentum. In fact, leave him in the entire game. It won’t be enough this weekend, but it will create a sense of continuity and confidence in a unit that’s been plagued by false starts, poor execution and a revolving door in the backfield.
OKTC Prediction: Arkansas 37, MSU 24
LSU 38, Ole Miss 7
Georgia 41, Kentucky 10
Auburn 45, Samford 20
Alabama 44, Georgia Southern 6
Florida 38, Furman 9
South Carolina 40, Citadel 13
Season Prediction Record: 49-9
Season ATS: 28-27-3