Vanderbilt will win in Knoxville if its defensive line stymies Tennessee's rushing attack. And the Vols will triumph if their veteran offensive line pushes around the Commodores' front four.With so many factors that could go into determining Saturday's result, it can't be that simple. Can it?
"It's always the most important battle of the game up front," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. "But because it's their strength, in my opinion, it's going to be very important. We've talked about it all week. I like our guys and how they're playing right now, but it is a tremendous challenge."
Tennessee's offensive line was billed as one of college football's best entering the season. It has paved the way for Rajion Neal and the running game to average for 186 yards per game and 5 yards per carry.Yet consistency hasn't been a strong suit for Tennessee's four starting seniors and junior left tackle Tiny Richardson.
In several losses, the line has been mistake-prone and looked pedestrian.
"We have yet to play our best game," Vols right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We have a bunch of guys doing good here, doing good there, but not all five of us having, like, our greatest game together. We still have two opportunities to do that.
"It's the Christmas tree that has one light out," Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "The tree doesn't look so good. There's a light that's out. Well, on different occasions this year we've had that happen where there's been a couple of guys on a given play and it's not executed the way it should. It's not the physicality we need to play with and that kind of thing.
"Vanderbilt's veteran defensive line is playing its best football of 2013 in November. Two weeks ago, the defensive ends notched four of the five sacks against Florida's Tyler Murphy in a game where the Gators netted 39 rushing yards. The Commodores tallied 10 tackles for loss last week while limiting Kentucky to 33 rushing yards after halftime.
"I would say we're playing really well," Vanderbilt senior defensive tackle Jared Morse said.
This game will test the Commodores' depth and gap discipline. Defensive end Caleb Azubike (team-high 9.5 tackles for loss), who was injured on the last play of the Kentucky game and had to be taken off the field, was not at practice on Wednesday.
Defensive ends Walker May and Kyle Woestmann will be giving up 77 and 66 pounds, respectively, in their matchups with Richardson and James.
"They're phenomenal players, so it's going to take some reps," Woestmann said. "We're going to have to go a couple of plays, kind of get a beat on their pass sets and how fast they set and how deep. The best way to beat them is just work as many moves as you can, and whatever works, works."
"We expect to be a little undersized every week," Vanderbilt offensive line coach Sean Spencer said. "They have one of the best O-lines in the conference. This is what you play for. If you're a D-line coach, you love the challenge. But no matter what group we're playing, I expect our guys to be successful."
Vanderbilt (6-4, 3-4 SEC), a 41-18 winner over Tennessee last season, is aiming to boost its bowl stock. Tennessee (4-6, 1-5) has to win out to become bowl eligible.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that it's Senior Night at Neyland Stadium and three of the Vols' starting offense linemen are Midstate products. Richardson attended Pearl-Cohn, center James Stone played at Maplewood and left guard Alex Bullard is a Brentwood Academy graduate.
Mahoney plans to speak to those three tonight about beating their hometown team during the position meetings at the team hotel.
"When we have our normal Friday night heart-to-heart talk just as a core unit, I think there's going to be some exchanges made between us as a group in terms of me really seeing the true side of them coming out and the importance of this game," Mahoney said."Make no mistake about it. This is of the utmost importance."