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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee junior linebacker Roman Harrison (30) tallied six tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss last Saturday night during the 60-14 win over South Alabama.

Envision an elite defensive performance by top-ranked Georgia this season, and the 10-3 win over Clemson and the 37-0 blanking of Arkansas quickly come to mind.

The Bulldogs were smothering and relentless in those contests, with their defenders outscoring the opposing offenses in each case.

Envision an elite Tennessee defensive effort this season, and last Saturday's 60-14 thrashing of South Alabama would be a candidate. Sure the Volunteers gave up a pair of 75-yard touchdown drives, but they racked up 13 tackles for loss, which has been their specialty all season.

"I was definitely proud of their approach," Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks said Tuesday in a news conference. "You talk a lot about one-game mentality and one-snap mentality, and sometimes it becomes lip service, but I really thought our kids bought into it. They understand that in this day and age anybody can beat anybody, because everybody has good players.

"It was our last chance to play in Neyland at night, so we wanted to give ourselves the best opportunity to be successful."

Tennessee (6-5 overall, 3-4 SEC) enters Saturday's regular-season finale against visiting Vanderbilt (2-9, 0-7) with a defense that ranks 88th nationally in yards allowed per game (412.2) and 85th in points surrendered per contest (28.1). Yet the Vols are tied for second nationally with Miami of Ohio in tackles for loss with 89, or 8.09 per contest, with only Oklahoma State having more with 93.

In Tennessee's biggest triumph of the season, the 45-42 topping of No. 18 Kentucky in Lexington on Nov. 6, the Vols surrendered 612 yards but collected three lost-yardage stops in the fourth quarter while turning the Wildcats over on downs twice.

"The biggest stat I look at is whether we win or lose, and I know that sounds corny," Banks said. "I've been in games where we've given up a ton of yards and still won, and I've been a part of games where you statistically shut them down and you still lost. There are a lot of things that go into winning and losing — field position, how many snaps you played, turnovers — and if there was one metric, everybody would use it to be successful.

"The biggest one we talk about is explosive plays and being able to minimize them."

Tennessee's gambling defensive style that has yielded feast or famine results is appreciated by Vols head coach Josh Heupel. Asked earlier this week whether he would be such a risk taker if his career path led him to calling the defensive shots, Heupel said, "Yes. Absolutely. That's what my dad was, and that's what I would be, too."

The Vols have struggled defensively on third downs, ranking 110th nationally in that category, and the scrambling ability of Commodores quarterback Mike Wright could be a challenge this Saturday. Then there is time spent out on the field, as Tennessee's defense ranks second to none nationally at 35 minutes and 45 seconds per game.

When fifth-year senior safety Theo Jackson was asked Tuesday how many snaps he's played this season, he smiled and said, "Ooh, it's got to be upper 800s or the 900s."

 

Quite the bond

Tennessee fifth-year senior defensive tackle Matthew Butler was asked Tuesday about his 2017 signing class, which has been through three coaching regimes and has endured a 26-32 overall record that includes an 0-15 mark against the trio of Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

"If you're still a part of this program, then it obviously means a lot to you, because we've been through everything in the world," Butler said. "We're all thankful for each other and we're all real tight, and that will probably last for the rest of our lives."

 

'An emotional game'

Tennessee leads its series with Vanderbilt by a comfortable 77-32-5 margin, though the Vols and Commodores have split the past 10 meetings.

The series began with Vandy's 22-4 win in Nashville in 1892, and the Commodores built an 11-0-1 advantage before Tennessee's first win in 1914. Vandy held an 18-2-2 series lead after a 20-3 triumph in 1926, but the Vols dominated from the 1930s until this past decade, when James Franklin and Derek Mason combined to lead the Commodores to five wins in an eight-year stretch.

"It's an emotional game, and it's one that means a lot to me personally," Vanderbilt first-year coach and former Commodores fullback Clark Lea said Tuesday in a news conference. "It means a lot to our team. We've been proud of how our program has performed in this game in the recent past."

Tennessee's best run in the series was its 22 straight victories from 1983 to 2004.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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