Vols very aware that Commodores believe they can win

Vanderbilt Athletics photo / Vanderbilt junior quarterback Mike Wright celebrates one of his three touchdown passes during last Saturday’s 31-24 upset of Florida at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville.

There are suddenly multiple concerns for the Tennessee Volunteers following their defensive ineptitude in last weekend's 63-38 loss at South Carolina and with the season-ending knee injury to star quarterback and team leader Hendon Hooker.

There is also this thing called the opponent itself.

Standing in the way of a 10-2 season and a desired New Year's Six bowl destination for the Vols this Saturday night are the Vanderbilt Commodores, who began this month with a 38-27 home loss to South Carolina that resulted in a 26th consecutive Southeastern Conference setback. Since then, however, Vanderbilt has knocked off Kentucky and Florida as a double-digit underdog and could attain bowl eligibility at 6-6 with a triumph over Tennessee.

"It's obviously a big week for us and an exciting week to have something at stake here late in the year to be playing for," Vandy second-year coach Clark Lea said this week during a news conference. "We're enjoying the back-to-back wins in our conference and seeing the fruits of the labor. I'm so happy for our players to be enjoying that success, and we're still in the early stages of this, but seeing them stay faithful to the process and how it is paying off and stepping into that fight each week has been exciting.

"Obviously we've got a tough task this weekend with a really good team coming in, but we're going to be excited for that task."

Saturday's game reached sellout status at FirstBank Stadium on Tuesday afternoon.

Vanderbilt has won as many SEC games the past two weeks as Lea enjoyed during his time as a Commodores fullback from 2002-04, when they were just 2-22 in conference play. The players are savoring this instant infusion of accomplishment as well, as Vandy's combined record the past three seasons entering the Tennessee game was a woeful 5-25.

A win Saturday would clinch Vanderbilt's sixth bowl in the last 12 seasons.

"It is obviously great to be coming off back-to-back SEC wins," Vandy fifth-year senior tight end Ben Bresnahan said, "but we're focused on this week and beating the team from across the state. That's our main focus this week, that and playing at our highest level."

Said senior linebacker Anfernee Orji, who leads the league with 9.4 tackles per game: "This is a playoff game for us. Being able to have the opportunity for another game is just tremendous."

Lea believes a huge key to this week is not adding any emotion or doing anything differently other than "practicing for the schemes and concepts that are unique to Tennessee."

Vanderbilt's recent surge certainly has Tennessee's attention, as round one between Josh Heupel's Vols and Lea's Commodores last November in Neyland Stadium resulted in a 45-21 Tennessee trouncing. The Vols built a 24-0 lead until Mike Wright connected with Will Sheppard on a 56-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the half.

"They're playing as a team," Heupel said this week of the Commodores. "They've created turnovers, and they've created plays on special teams. Defensively, they've done a nice job here the last couple of weeks of making you earn it, so we have to be efficient and play ahead of the chains.

"The quarterback run game is potentially a portion of what they're going to do in this one, so we have to do a really good job of handling that and defeating blocks. We need to start fast in this one."

Vanderbilt built a 28-12 lead against the Gators last Saturday, benefiting from three Wright touchdown passes and by recovering a fumbled Florida punt return in the end zone. The Commodores were outgained 445-283, but they held the Gators to just 45 rushing yards on 21 carries.

Wright, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound junior from Woodward Academy near Atlanta, and AJ Swann, a 6-3, 225-pound freshman from Cherokee High near Cartersville, have combined to throw for 2,141 yards this season with 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Swann has not played this month due to injury, and it's not known whether both will see action Saturday.

Their effectiveness has complemented the rushing of senior Ray Davis, a 5-9, 205-pounder from San Francisco who enters Saturday 18 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season.

"They believe they can win," Vols junior center Cooper Mays said. "Any week in the SEC is not a given week. They're just going out there, playing what they're coached to do and playing hard. It's come together for them these last two weeks."

Staying the same

Lea is not expecting Tennessee to look drastically different with Joe Milton III taking the reins from Hooker. It will be Milton's first start since the second game of last season against Pittsburgh, and it will be the first road start of his two-year stint with the Vols.

"I just don't see it changing them that much," Lea said. "They've had a good formula, and the formula has worked. I think Milton has the tools he needs to go in there and make the transition seamless."

Odds and ends

Of the 131 teams in the Bowl Subdivision, the Vols rank 130th in pass defense (allowing 303.4 yards per game) while the Commodores are 129th (303.2). ... Western Kentucky (six) and Pittsburgh (five) are the only FBS teams this season with more defensive touchdown's than Vanderbilt's four.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.