Tennessee and Vanderbilt, both sharing space in the basement of the SEC East, will shoot it out on Saturday with the winning prize most likely being a minor bowl invitation to take on another middling-at-best team. The loser will end the season with a disappointing 5-7 record but that, as they say, is life in the Southeastern Conference.
It’s not for the faint of heart and programs that could rival top teams in lesser conferences become cannon fodder for the likes of Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Florida and Auburn. Moreover, recruiting top talents is not an easy job when a coaching legend, ala Nick Saban, is eagerly wooing the same teenage pool.
Speaking of coaching, Vanderbilt’s man in charge, Derek Mason, has been the subject of discussion regarding the direction of the Commodores’ football program. Mason has not had a winning season during his four-year tenure in Nashville, and if his team bows to the Vols this week, Vandy will finish 5-7 overall and a dismal 2-6 in conference play. That’s not exactly the stuff of legends but according to the best online sportsbooks, found all in one place at Sportsbook Review, Vanderbilt is being offered as a 3½ point favorite over Tennessee, and if proven correct the Commodores will be bowl eligible and have a crack at ending the season above .500.
Therefore, it’s not an understatement to say that winning on Saturday could determine Mason’s future at Vanderbilt. However, even that victory may not be enough if his charges fail to complete the second leg of the exacta with a postseason victory. Coaching at the SEC’s only private school is a tall task, and if competing for national championships was the expectation then there would be an endless coaching carousel at a school renowned for its academic excellence vs. gridiron greatness. We will all find out soon enough if Mason will get the opportunity to improve his program’s fortunes next season or whether another will take his place knowing full well that Vanderbilt’s success in the SEC is all a matter of perspective.
Saturday’s game is equally as big for Tennessee as they will be gunning to become bowl eligible, but their last two meetings with the Commodores have been hardly successful. If we go back to 2016, the last time these programs met in Nashville, the best online sportsbooks were dealing the Vols as 7½-point road favorites but the home team stunned their guests 45-34 and sent the boys from Tennessee packing with a surprising defeat on their record. Last year, the Vols welcomed the Commodores to Knoxville as 2½- point home chalk but were once again trounced by their Tennessee neighbors in a 42-24 setback.
The health of Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano and Marquez Callaway are the wild-cards leading up to this showdown in Nashville as both left last week’s game, a 50-17 loss to Missouri, with injuries and their availability is uncertain as of this writing. If they are unable to go then it would be a blow to the Vols’ chances but senior backup Keller Chryst would take the reins under center and would have to perform better than he did in relief last week after connecting on just 7-of-19 for 173 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions.
Vanderbilt is coming off a solid 36-29 win over Ole Miss last week and a win here would not only put a little salve on a wounded season but could save Mason’s job in the process.