With the way this season has gone, Tennessee hasn’t really faced a must-win situation.
If the Volunteers want to get to a bowl game, though, that’s exactly what they have.
The Vols host Vanderbilt Saturday at 7 p.m., still searching for their first conference win of the season.
With last week’s demoralizing 49-7 loss at Arkansas, the Vols dropped to 4-6, 0-6 SEC, their worst conference record in school history.
“Defensively, a real veteran group — real veteran group,” UT coach Derek Dooley said of Vanderbilt. “Tough, extremely disciplined, never out of position, great tackling football team. They just play really sound football.”
Tennessee has won 27 of the last 28 matchups with the Commodores (5-5, 2-5), the loss in that stretch coming in 2005.
Does that give the Vols a mental edge?
“Not this year,” said senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who has watched a few Vandy games this season. “They’re very capable of coming out and beating us when they play their best.”
The Vols will receive a boost, though, as sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray is expected to return after fracturing his thumb Oct. 8 against Georgia. Bray had his cast removed last week, and has been practicing this week.
Bray missed five games, four of which the Vols lost (all to top 15 teams). While he was unable to play, Bray hit the film room and studied the playbook under the watch of Dooley, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and QBs coach Darin Hinshaw.
“I study a lot and also, you realize how much football really means to you,” Bray said. “(You) kind of take it for granted that you have to come out and practice every day. Once you get hurt and that’s taken away from you, you see things differently.”
Bray averaged 316 yards a game while throwing 14 touchdowns and two picks before his injury.
Tennessee’s youth has been well documented, as they rank third in the nation with 16 true freshmen played this year, but this weekend is not about them. Saturday is Senior Day for Tennessee, as the Vols celebrate the careers of 14 players. Austin Johnson, Tauren Poole, Ben Martin and Malik Jackson are the only starters.
Sitting with four wins, the Vols have to win against Vanderbilt and Kentucky to reach bowl eligibility.
“Every year when you’re training and stuff, you look at the schedule, and you look at it realistically, and you’re saying we’ll beat these guys, we’ll beat these guys,” Johnson said. “I do that every year kind of in my head. It’s not what I thought, but it’s kind of the hand we’ve been dealt. We’ve been dealt this card, and our backs are against the wall and we’ve got to win these last two games.”
Johnson, a Hickory, N.C. native, leads the team with three interception and has amassed 65 tackles this year.
Poole will finish his second season as the No. 1 running back after nearly transferring before his junior year. Poole had 22 touches in his first two seasons behind the likes of Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown. The first two are in the NFL, and the latter transferred to Kansas State.
Last season, Poole rushed for 1,034 yards and averaged over 5 yards a carry.
The game kicks off at 7 p.m. and will air on ESPNU.