Most years when Vanderbilt plays Tennessee, it’s the de facto bowl game for the Commodores.
But this year it’s different for the Volunteers’ in-state rivals in Nashville. Under first-year coach James Franklin, Vandy enters Neyland Stadium needing a win in either of its last two games to become bowl eligible for just the fifth time in program history.
A win against the Vols would also be the ’Dores first since 2005 when Jay Cutler led Vandy to a 28-24 victory over UT in Knoxville.
“I think our guys are gaining and building in confidence each week,” Franklin said. “It’s a great challenge and I’ve talked about it with the team, and winning on the road in this conference, there’s no doubt about it, that’s where our focus is, to go out and improve each week. We’ve had enough experience playing in difficult environments. I would think all of those experiences that we had this year would help us go to Tennessee and play well.”
The ’Dores are 0-3 on the road this year, with losses to South Carolina, Alabama and Florida. Vandy does have two SEC wins: a 30-7 win over Ole Miss on Sept. 17 and a 38-8 victory over Kentucky on Nov. 12.
“With how much we’ve improved, I think it is a good time for us to be playing anybody,” Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers said. “I feel like we’ve gotten to the point where we’re confident that we can get a win against anybody we face, if we play how we know we should and execute how we know we should. So, for us right now, we go into every game thinking that we should win, that we should be able to compete. So, right now it’s a good time for us to be playing anybody.”
Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, has started the last four games for Vandy after splitting time with Larry Smith through the team’s first six games this season. With Rodgers under center, the ’Dores have scored at least 21 points in each of the four games, and lost to Arkansas and Florida by a combined eight points.
Rodgers is completing 51.6 percent of his passes (80-of-155) for 1,166 yards and seven touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s also run for 305 yards and scored four rushing touchdowns.
“He moves the chains,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said of Rodgers. “He does it in a lot of different ways. He’ll throw it, he’ll run it, he’ll scramble. He just makes plays. When it’s third and six, he finds a way to get a first down. That’s probably the best way to describe him. He has done an excellent job. Schematically, they do a lot of different things. He gives you issues because of the quarterback runs and those type of things.”
Junior running back Zac Stacy leads the ’Dores’ ground attack, averaging 6.5 yards per carry with nine touchdowns. He needs only 111 yards to top the 1,000-yard mark on the year.
On the other side of the ball, Vandy presents a challenge to a UT offense, even if sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray returns to help the struggling Vols.
Regardless of whether Bray plays on Saturday or not, Vandy is preparing the same.
“I hope he plays,” Franklin said. “It’s not going to change a whole lot based on what they do scheme-wise. It’s not like you are going to see an option quarterback come in and change everything. They might have a few little wrinkles, but it doesn’t really affect how we are preparing for the game whatsoever and we are expecting to see him.”