It only seems fitting that this series come to end as the Vols prepare to kickoff the 2012 season Friday night in Atlanta. It has been a fun ride and while it has been 99% conjecture and snarky comments, I do feel that this team is on the cusp of an extraordinary season.
The final three games might appear to be all downhill on the surface, but if college football has taught us anything as fans, assumptions will smack you in the face.
Saturday 11/10 Missouri
2012 Conference expansion has given the Tennessee Volunteers’ another Eastern division rival in the Missouri Tigers. At this point the threat the Tigers pose is mostly unknown. It’s hard to make predictions about the goings on in Columbia when Mizzou has never consistently been forced to play a full season at the level they will face in the SEC.
If I were to rank the games the Vols play this season with Alabama at 1 (the hardest), I would put Missouri at 5 (behind the rest of the East but in front of Vandy and Kentucky).
The Vols will have been grinding it out at this late point in the season, but Missouri will have also been running the conference gauntlet too, except this SEC rookie team may be losing steam when it finally makes it to Knoxville. Tennessee will have just come off the Troy game while the Tigers will have played the Gators in Gainesville the week prior.
Missouri wants to make a big impression this year but the staggering losses to its offensive line coming off last season may put a damper on that until more talent can be recruited to Columbia. Injuries and inexperience may haunt this line for the entirety of its schedule.
These are all distinct advantages for the Volunteers. But don’t get me wrong, these Tigers, while new to the conference, had six consecutive eight-win seasons in the Big 12. This game will not be easy.
The Tigers’ offense is pinned on dual-threat quarterback James Franklin. In just his sophomore season, Franklin passed for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns. He ran for another 981 yards and 15 scores. His 36 total touchdowns were the third-most in a season in school history.
Newcomer Dorial Green-Beckham is a five-star recruit drawing a lot of comparisons to Calvin Johnson, both in terms of size and his game. He will make an immediate impact at the wideout position as a freshman.
The Volunteer defense may spend more time on the field than they expect in this game.
The Missouri Tigers are unquestionably holding a nice hand but the Conference deck is stacked and playing in the SEC is the one questionable wildcard in their game this season.
Prediction: UT: 30 Missouri: 23
Saturday 11/17 @ Vanderbilt
I want to go ahead and say this, the Vanderbilt Commodores are the most overrated team in the Conference.
I have recently developed (see last year) a particularly bad taste in my mouth when it comes to Vandy. I won’t bother wasting my time with much else concerning the Commodores except to say that this is team that needs to remember its place in the hierarchy of the Southeastern Conference. It takes a lot to make me pause to comment on James Franklin and company but I will take a moment to say that the current state of that program in Nashville gets under my skin just a bit.
Regardless, I expect them to have an adequate season. Franklin has done much to improve the Vanderbilt Commodore football program and if he chooses to stay in Nashville he will probably continue to make progressive strides for this team. There is potential there but it will take more than one season to unseat the football traditions forged on The Hill by General Neyland.
The Vandy offense returns talented and key contributors from last season.
Led by senior Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt’s stable of running backs will be the focus of the offense. Stacy, who rushed for nearly six yards per carry last year, is joined by redshirt junior Warren Norman and sophomore Jerron Seymour.
But ultimately, the success of Vanderbilt’s offense may come down to quarterback Jordan Rodgers. Rodgers has consistently shown his ability to make plays on the run and has a talented corps of receivers to throw to again this season. Vandy is looking for its passing game to find the consistency that it lacked in 2011.
If the roster remains healthy at this point in the schedule, the Vols can return to Rocky Top having handed the Commodores their seventh straight loss to The University of Tennessee.
Prediction: UT: 42 Vanderbilt: 24
Saturday 11/24 Kentucky
It’s Senior Day in Neyland Stadium and there will be more to play for today than just a bowl game. Many of those in the Big Orange Nation, myself included, have not been able to forget that afternoon last November in Lexington. If I had written this article at this point last season, I would have laughed in someone’s face if they had told me the real outcome of the 2011 UT/UK game.
“The Streak won’t be broken this year!”
Famous last words.
But this year a new Streak begins.
Another era was actualized as time expired on that day in Kentucky last season.
That loss could manifest itself this year in one of two ways: the Vols return this season flat and still scorched from the defeat in Lexington.
Or a phoenix could rise from those ashes and inspire a team and a fanbase with the promise that new days have arrived on Rocky Top and reposition this program back into national recognition.
I choose to believe the latter.
Prediction: UT: 49 Kentucky: 17