No. 24 Tennessee, Vandy end season jostling for bowl spots

KNOXVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 19, 2016 - quarterback Josh Dobbs #11 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Missouri Tigers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Hayley Pennesi/Tennessee Athletics
KNOXVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 19, 2016 - quarterback Josh Dobbs #11 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Missouri Tigers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Hayley Pennesi/Tennessee Athletics

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vanderbilt center Barrett Gouger knows how he’d like to see Ralph Webb become the Commodores’ all-time leading rusher: Break off a 28-yard run and get it over with quickly.

The way No. 24 Tennessee has defended the run lately, that could come on Webb’s first carry. Not that the Commodores are taking that for granted no matter how the Vols have struggled.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s just like an automatic thing for everyone,” Gouger said.

The only certainty Saturday night is that in-state rivals Tennessee and Vanderbilt will play the final game of the regular season with very different stakes on the line for each. The Volunteers (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference, No. 17 CFP) wants to win its fourth straight and get some help to possibly earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl, while the Commodores (5-6, 2-5) can become bowl eligible if they beat Tennessee for the third time in five seasons.

“There’s one thing left,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “It’s rivalry week. It’s Tennessee, two teams battling for bragging rights in this state, and that’s part of it. Ralph cares more about winning in this game than really setting the record.”

Tennessee offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said the Vols know there’s pressure to perform with so much on the line . The added incentive of trying to deny Vanderbilt a bowl berth is nice too.

“We just think that since they’re playing for that, they’re going to be all hyped up and riled up,” Kendrick said. “And then on top of that, it’s their Senior Night. I think there’s going to be a lot of emotion from them this game, and we’ve got to withstand their opening punches.”

This could be an offensive show with Tennessee averaging 55.7 points per game over the last three games, including a 63-37 win over Missouri last week. Vanderbilt beat Mississippi 38-17 with its most points against an SEC team in Mason’s three seasons.

“This is as good of a defense as we’ve faced all year,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

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Some other things to know about Tennessee and Vanderbilt:

DEFENSIVE STALWARTS: This game features two of the top defensive players in the nation. Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham is a Butkus Award finalist who has an SEC-best 109 tackles. Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett leads the SEC with 11 sacks. Barnett, the only SEC player ever to post at least 10 sacks in three seasons, has 31 career sacks to put him one away from Reggie White’s school record. Barnett also has an SEC-leading 17 tackles for loss, while Cunningham is second with 16 ½.

RUN DEFENSE WOES: Tennessee has allowed 400-plus yards rushing in each of its last two games. In its last five games against Football Bowl Subdivision foes, the Vols have allowed 356.6 yards rushing per game and 6.6 yards per carry. Webb is the SEC’s fourth-leading rusher with 1,058 yards and has five 100-yard games this season.

STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH: Tennessee has scored at least 49 points in each of its last three games and has totaled 167 points over that span. That represents Tennessee’s highest point total for a three-game stretch since 1915. Vanderbilt is allowing just 18.3 points per game in SEC competition.

CONTAINING DOBBS: Vanderbilt’s chances of pulling the upset depend on whether the Commodores can slow down Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who has thrown three touchdown passes and has run for two more scores in each of his last two games. Dobbs has rushed for 337 yards during that stretch, and Mason came close to comparing him with Cam Newton. “Man, what he did last week was pretty impressive,” Mason said.

SHOOP’S RETURN: Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop filled the same role at Vanderbilt on James Franklin’s staff from 2011-13. Shoop coached or recruited many of Vanderbilt’s seniors. Vanderbilt linebackers coach Chris Marve and graduate assistant Javon Marshall both played for Shoop at Vanderbilt.

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AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report.

 

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