If you predicted South Carolina would steamroll 5th-ranked Tennessee last week, move to Las Vegas.
If you were the like the other 99 percent of us, you were stunned.
How could a Tennessee team on such a high, play so poorly with so much at stake – particularly on defense?
A week after not scoring an offensive touchdown in a 38-6 loss at Florida, South Carolina scored touchdowns on nine of 10 full possessions and terrorized Tennessee, 63-38.
It was the most points ever scored by an unranked team against an AP top five team.
Now that Tennessee’s hopes of making the College Football Playoff have been dashed, how do the Vols (9-2) respond against an upstart Vanderbilt team (5-6) that has won two SEC games in a row – against Kentucky and Florida?
Vanderbilt has gone from a 17- to a 14-point underdog. A lot of betters are betting the Vols will struggle to regroup. Not only did Tennessee get bushwacked, the Vols lost their Heisman Trophy candidate, quarterback Hendon Hooker (torn ACL).
Three key factors will determine if Tennessee bounces back and remains in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl or allows one loss to become two because players are still licking their wounds.
No. 1: Defense
South Carolina’s offense was downright awful at Florida, but the Gamecocks gained 606 yards against Tennessee and saw Spencer Rattler turn in a spectacular performance: 30 of 37 for 438 yards and a school-record six touchdown passes.
UT’s secondary has struggled much of this season (it allows 303.4 pass yards per game), but the defense played well against Pitt, LSU, Kentucky and the second half against Missouri. It ranked second in the SEC in run defense and fifth in scoring defense.
Until South Carolina.
Tennessee hadn’t allowed that many points in a game since 1893.
So how do you turn the page on a historically poor performance?
It won’t be easy. The secondary is banged up and has bruised egos. There’s no way you can be confident after that display in Columbia, S.C.
At least Vanderbilt doesn’t have a quarterback capable of passing you silly like Rattler.
That doesn’t mean Mike Wright isn’t an effective quarterback. He passed for 108 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-24 win over Florida.
On the season, Wright has 946 passing yards and 12 touchdowns. He has rushed for 467 yards and five scores. He is more mobile than Rattler but isn’t likely to record a 400-yard passing game.
Running back Ray Davis has had three straight 100-yard games, including 122 against Florida. He has 982 yards and five scores this season.
Receiver Will Sheppard has 54 catches for 728 yards and nine touchdowns.
UT’s defense could likely return its leader, linebacker Jeremy Banks. How much difference he makes remains to be seen.
He isn’t having a great season. He has 46 tackles. Last year he had 128. But he is an important cog on defense.
Concern factor for the UT defense: 8.
No. 2: Replacing Hooker
Hooker was the heart and soul of the offense, and a team leader. He took the job over from Milton because of his decision making and passing accuracy.
Milton, no doubt, has improved over last season. But we have seen him mainly in a mop-up role.
How does he react to his first start since Game 2 of last year? Will he make the right reads? Will he throw with accuracy? Will he be poised under pressure?
My guess is he’ll make some throws that wow you and make some throws that make you wonder.
It will be interesting how UT’s game plan changes with Milton. And make no mistake, it will. Don’t expect Milton to be asked to make the same reads on passing routes or zone read runs. And don’t be surprised to see Milton on some designed runs.
Concern factor for Milton: 6.
No. 3: Flushing last week’s loss
It’s hard to tell how a team will react after a blowout loss that cost you a key goal: a berth in the four-team CFP.
The more you win, the more it hurts when you lose.
Now you have to bounce back.
I’m reminded of the 2016 UT team that beat Georgia and Florida and had the inside track on winning the SEC East Division. That team got upset by South Carolina to lose the division title then got upset by Vanderbilt to lose a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
Could history repeat in terms to losing key games to Carolina and Vandy?
It could. But I think UT will be motivated to win one for Hooker. Not to mention achieving a 10-win season, securing a better bowl and avoiding the embarrassment of falling to Vanderbilt for the sixth time in 11 meetings.
If you don’t beat Vandy, you will have undone so much good for this season.
You also bring into question whether UT’s culture is as good as advertised.
Concern factor of flushing last week’s loss: 2.
Prediction: Tennessee 38, Vanderbilt 27.