NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Interim coach Todd Fitch expects Vanderbilt will have enough players for their final home game of the season.
The Tennessee Volunteers might want to play Saturday even more than Vanderbilt with each team viewing matchup as its best and likely last chance to end ugly skids before this very unusual season ends.
The Commodores (0-8) have lost eight straight and are trying to avoid the first winless season in school history. Tennessee (2-7) already has tied the longest skid in its vaunted history with six straight losses at a program with only eight seasons with seven or more losses.
“Our opportunities are running out,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “I think both sides will be aggressive and try to do everything that they can to play at the best of their ability.”
Vanderbilt has been through a lot the past two weeks. Coach Derek Mason was fired the day after a 41-0 loss at Missouri, and Fitch was a day away from coaching his first game as interim last week when the Southeastern Conference postponed the Commodores’ game at then-No. 11 Georgia.
In the Commodores’ long history, they’ve always managed to win at least once to avoid going winless. Next up? A rescheduled season finale on Dec. 19 against Georgia. The Vols are set to host No. 5 Texas A&M that same day.
These in-state rivals have played 113 times, including every year since 1945. A pandemic isn’t going to stop them this year — they hope.
“Every game has different meaning, and this game means a little bit more,” Fitch said. “It certainly doesn’t hurt us that this is who we play this week. And I think it adds a little bit of the motivation for the players that are out there.”
Vanderbilt may have even fewer scholarship players available than last week looking at its two-deep roster. Drew Birchmeier has switched back to defense after playing on the offensive line this season. Nate Clifton is the only defensive end, and outside linebacker Andre Mintze has no backup either.
Tennessee kicker Brent Cimaglia announced his decision Monday to opt out of the rest of this season to focus on health issues. The Vols will use punter Paxton Brooks to replace Cimaglia.
Vanderbilt will be without its top defensive lineman. Dayo Odeyingbo, who has 5 1/2 sacks and eight tackles for loss, announced his decision to opt out and start preparing for the NFL draft on Tuesday.
Pruitt started freshman Harrison Bailey in last week’s 31-19 loss to No. 6 Florida and also played sophomore J.T. Shrout. The quarterbacks have split the majority of the work in practice, and Pruitt hasn’t hinted who will start Saturday.
Vanderbilt has stuck with freshman Ken Seals all season as its starter, even with Mike Wright getting some snaps at time. Seals already has a school freshman record 1,689 yards passing and is the only true freshman in the country to throw for at least 300 yards three times this season.
ERIC GRAY Tennessee hasn’t won back-to-back wins in this rivalry since 2014-15 with Vanderbilt winning five of the past eight and three of the last four. Sophomore running back Eric Gray of Memphis was a big reason Tennessee won 28-10 last season, running for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
Gray hasn’t eased up this season. He has four 100-yard rushing games this season and has 698 yards rushing this season. He ranks fourth in the SEC with 87.2 yards per game.
Yes, Vanderbilt’s SEC champion goalkeeper remains on the roster and is the second kicker on the two-deep chart for this game behind Pierson Cooke and ahead of Wes Farley. She made history in the loss at Missouri as the first female to play in a Power 5 conference football game.
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