After a two-game winning streak against their rivals on I-95, can the Commodores take third place?
Things are looking up in the West End. After a 3-6 start, the Commodores notched up two brave victories and are now just one game away from bowl eligibility. The only thing standing in their way? The Tennessee Volunteers.
This is a Tennessee team that started the season 8-0 before dropping games against No. 1 Georgia and South Carolina in a tough November. They also lost their starting quarterback and Heisman frontrunner Hendon Hooker to a cruciate ligament tear. Suddenly this game has become a lot more winnable for black-and-gold.
Forget the checkerboard-like FirstBank Stadium. Forget the Tennessee goalpost somewhere downriver in Cumberland. Forget college football playoff rankings. One of these teams goes up, and the other slips down. What key pairings will define this game?
Tennessee vs. its team identity
This Volunteers roster is undoubtedly littered with talent on both sides of the ball. However, behind Hooker’s arm – and legs – this team lived and died. Hooker threw for 3,153 yards and 27 touchdowns for just 2 interceptions before his season-ending injury. He added 430 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. Who will the volunteers contact if Hooker doesn’t lead this offense?
Will they keep airing the ball and pocketing Joe Milton III where Hooker left off? The Volunteers have thrown 348.8 yards per game this season — by far the most in the SEC. Passing has been the heart and soul of this Tennessee team all year, and it’s hard to imagine them moving away from that.
However, the ground play hadn’t let up either. The Volunteers are averaging 191.5 rushing yards per game behind the two-headed monster of Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small. Although running with the ball wasn’t important to them on offense, they’ve done well all season.
They’ll likely rely more on ground attack than they have in the past few weeks, but they can’t afford to give up their passing attack.
Joe Milton vs. Expectations
The fifth-year quarterback has been underwhelmed in his career with the Volunteers and started as a starter last season before the team finally turned to Hooker. However, Milton III is a special athlete. At 6ft 5in and 245 pounds, he has the physical tools to be an elite quarterback like Hooker. He has an absolute cannon arm, but accuracy has been an issue for him. Over the course of his career, he has only completed 57.1% of his passes. Worse, last year he had a poor graduation rate of 51.6 for the volunteers.
He’s improved this season, albeit in a small sample size. Milton III has thrown for 573 yards and 6 touchdowns on 23 of 33 passes (69.7%) in a limited role this season. He’s also played clean football and hasn’t turned the ball over yet.
Clearly, Milton III has big shoes to fill, and no one expects him to step in and replace Hooker without missing a beat. But if Tennessee still has hope of attending a New Year’s Six Bowl game, it’s up to Milton III to lead the Volunteers to a win in Nashville.
Jalin Hyatt vs. Vanderbilt secondary
The Commodores have been burned by elite wide receivers all season. They’ve conceded the most passyards in the SEC at 303.2 yards per game. Ole Miss wide receiver Jonathan Mingo caught 9 passes for 247 yards and 2 touchdowns against Vanderbilt. More recently, Florida receiver Deajon Reynolds torched them for 8 catches, 165 yards and 2 points. Vanderbilt has allowed an opposing team’s receiver to score multiple touchdowns on six separate occasions this season, and they face their toughest matchup yet with Jalin Hyatt on Saturday. Hyatt has 64 receptions for 1,181 yards and 15 touchdowns in the season. He leads the Power Five in yards and touchdowns.
The predicted first-round pick has had multiple touchdowns in five different games this season. Do you see where I’m going here?
Hyatt has been a one-man wrecking crew towards Secondary all season, and things are expected to remain that way this weekend. While it’s unrealistic to expect the Commodores to shut it down entirely, the defensive focus will be on Hyatt. If they can stop him, it will be a lot harder for Milton III and the rest of Tennessee’s pass attack.
With bowl eligibility at stake, the Commodores will take on Tennessee this Saturday, November 26 at 6:30 p.m. CST at FirstBank Stadium.