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Fearless Prediction: Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt

The Fearless Prediction couldn’t have been more wrong regarding Tennessee’s game against South Carolina. We take no comfort in the fact that no one picked the Gamecocks to win by 25 points except maybe Frank Beamer (Shane’s dad and one hell of a football coach).

But in baseball there is no crying and no points for 2nd place. Use any cliché you like. It’s time to pick the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game.

The Volunteers started the season 8-0 and were ranked top of the College Football Playoffs. Since then, they’ve lost 2 of 3, lost their starting quarterback to an ACL tear, and could miss a big bowl game with a loss to the Commodores.

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel has been criticized for refusing to take a knee and count down the clock at the end of a stunning win over Missouri. But the argument made sense. The Vols needed to run their regular offense and get backup QB Joe Milton more snaps should he be called later in the season.

Milton, who started the first two games of 2021 for the Vols, will get the start against Vandy. He’s a liability for defense trying to bring it down and he still shows the ability to throw the deep ball at an amazing level. Milton is still struggling with accuracy and touch and that needs to improve for the Vols to win on Saturday night.

The rest of the offense needs to close the gap with Hendon Hooker out for the season. Running backs Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small have combined for 1,243 yards and 18 points. If Hooker is out, the run game could play an even bigger role on Tennessee’s offense.

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Sports betting in Tennessee has been live since November 1, 2020 in the state of Volunteer. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.

As for defense, by some reports there was a locker room incident that kept Tennessee linebacker Jeremy Banks at home rather than at Columbia. Heupel expects Banks to play against the Commodores, but he didn’t want to discuss why Banks didn’t make the trip.

I don’t know if South Carolina’s offense would have slowed if Banks had played. But his return should be a boost for the UT defense, which is now ranked 100th in the nation and allowing 411.9 yards per game.

Two weeks ago, Vanderbilt was 3-6 and seemingly heading for a disappointing end to their season. But the Commodores eventually found some answers with a win over Kentucky and snapped a 26-game SEC losing streak. Then came a flurry from Florida for the Dores’ first consecutive SEC wins since 2018.

Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea has tried to make the Commodores more than an SEC doormat. Those were the first signs that they might be able to climb a few rungs in the years to come.

Mike Wright has taken over as the Commodores’ starting QB. He won’t light the stat sheet, and he threw just 108 yards on a 10-for-18 pass to Florida. But he made those finishes count with 3 TD passes. At 51.9 yards per play on the ground, he’s a threat on the run. Running back Ray Davis is Vandy’s all-time leading offensive player, averaging 89.3 rushing yards per game.

Defensively, the Commodores are one of the worst groups in the country with 456.6 yards (125th national) and 34.18 points (118th national) per game. Senior LB Anfernee Orji doesn’t make every tackle for this Vandy team, but it feels like it. Orji has 103 tackles this season, including 7.5 for a loss.

Most years this will be a de facto home game for the Vols and there will be plenty of orange again at FirstBank Stadium. But there’s reason to believe this won’t be the walkthrough that Tennessee fans were expecting.

Hooker has been a starting XI for the Vols in their last 22 games, and you wouldn’t be surprised if that offense has some hiccups even against a lousy Vandy defense.

This game might boil down to simple motivation. The Vols no longer have the playoffs as an achievable goal, while Vandy needs a win to qualify for the Bowl and keep his season going.

These factors favor the home side. I just think there’s too much talent on the visitors’ sidelines to lose this game.

Fearless prediction time…

Tennessee 27, Vanderbilt 17