By Frank Gale
The game that fellow columnist Jim Butler and I wait for each year is just hours away. While the season has flown by way too fast, this game has been forever getting here after last year’s debacle in the Music City.
The Vols have reached a part of the schedule where they at least can play opponents not in the "top anything." After a steady diet of top 10 teams, they are the odds maker’s favorite against their in-state rival, Vanderbilt, tomorrow night in Knoxville.
The Vols are at a crossroads for the season. Will they again take the fork in the road that keeps them at home in December or will they finally go down the road that takes them toward a bowl game?
Butch Jones said after the loss to Auburn that the senior class will be remembered for how they finish this season. When the seniors walk off the field tomorrow night, Vol fans are hoping the memories of this final home game on Rocky Top will be happy ones.
There is no longer any margin for error if Team #117 wants to extend the season into December. This game, despite the series 73-28-5 domination by the Vols, has always been a hard fought contest. Two years ago, it took overtime before the good guys in orange left the field victorious over the visitors from Nashville.
The Vols will not have to deal with a spread offense or a team that has run the ball well this season. The Commodores do have a decent passing attack. Containing senior wide receiver Jordan Matthews and pressuring the quarterback will be a large part of the Vols’ defensive game plan.
The special teams could be the deciding factor in this game. It had been one of the strengths of the Big Orange prior to the Auburn game. Michael Palardy is one of the best kickers in the SEC, if not the country, so don’t be surprised if this contest comes down to this senior’s foot.
Vanderbilt has a very opportunistic defense and beat Florida largely because turnovers shortened the field for their offense. Turnovers are always a great equalizer against a better opponent and the Vols can not help Vandy out tomorrow.
The Big Orange offense will need to help their young quarterback manage the game. That starts with a consistent running game and owning the line of scrimmage. With the off week to prepare, the coaches could have a surprise or two for the Commodores.
The Vols will be donning their Smokey Gray uniforms for this rivalry game. A week off to prepare, special uniforms, Senior Night, the 12th man in the stands and last year’s game still fresh on the minds of the players should be enough to carry Tennessee one step closer to a bowl game. That would be very rewarding for the Vol Nation. For me, giving Jim Butler a year’s worth of grief – well, that would be just priceless! Go Vols!
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)