Thrill of Victory

Titans, Vandy have chances to get to .500

The Titans and Vandy have a chance to get back to .500, the Vols have a chance to perhaps save Derek Dooley’s job, and the Georgia-Florida and Alabama-Mississippi State games will go a long way in determining the Southeastern Conference championship. Here’s a look at each game as the final football weekend in October is upon us.

Luck, Colts invade Nashville
This weekend marks the first chance for Titans fans to see Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck in person, but it won’t be the last: Luck’s track record in the NFL this season has just been so-so (54 percent completions, 6.7 yards per attempt, and as many interceptions as touchdowns) but the rookie is so mentally advanced that the Colts are reportedly trusting him with things they didn’t trust Peyton Manning with at this point in his career. In other words, greatness is probably just over the horizon.

Meanwhile, the Titans will get a young quarterback of their own (Jake Locker) back under center this week. There’s been some grumbling as to whether coach Mike Munchak was doing the right thing – the Titans won two in a row with Matt Hasselbeck under center – but I think he is. Quarterbacks get too much blame for winning and losing at times, and the facts are that Locker has been statistically better in every way. Throw in the fact that he’s the future of the franchise, and it’s pretty much a no-brainer.

So back to the game: can the Titans win? Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t think the Titans are a good team; they’ve allowed more points than any other NFL team and they’re next-to-last in point differential. But Chris Johnson is starting to perform at a high level again, and one can make the case (at this very early stage, anyway) that the Titans have an edge at quarterback for the time being. I had a hunch last week, and I’ve got one this week, two, that Titans fans will be happy once again. Prediction: Titans 27, Colts 24

Winless UMass faces motivated Vandy
After Vandy’s brutal early-season schedule, the Commodores kicked off the “soft underbelly” portion of the slate with a 17-14 win over now 1-6 Auburn last weekend. An 0-7 Massachusetts team is up tomorrow, with a one-win Kentucky squad coming up next weekend. Boys and girls, can you say “bowl eligibility?” VU should be within a game of it eight days from now.

But first things first: the Minutemen present a bit of an obstacle to another postseason date. Wait a minute, who am I kidding: UMass is 0-7 with an average score of 41-12, and have gotten hammered by the likes of 2-5 Indiana (45-6) and 3-5 Western Michigan (52-15). Vandy coach James Franklin is still looking for that elusive Huge Win, but what Franklin’s teams do quite well is kick the tar out of out-manned opponents.

Guess what’s in store for the Minutemen tomorrow? A score along the lines of Vanderbilt 48, UMass 7.

Dooley needs a win against Gamecocks
Okay, so there’s not a lot of sugar-coating we can do with coach Derek Dooley’s record in Knoxville. The Vols have won just one of their last 11 SEC games, and Dooley is just 14-18 overall. That’s understandably not acceptable for a program that, coming into this year, had the second-best winning percentage (64.4 percent) in SEC games, just 4.3 points behind Alabama.

So, because I routinely like to put on the contrarian hat, let’s take a closer look at what’s happened this year. Yes, the Vols have lost four games, but those four teams are against teams that are a combined 27-1. UT won two games handily that it should have won handily (Akron, Georgia State) and beat a 5-2 N.C. State squad that’s 5-2 and has beaten Florida State. So really, what’s dragging Dooley down is the albatross of last year’s 1-7 SEC mark; you take that away and perhaps the seat wouldn’t be getting so hot.

On the other hand, Dooley’s hand-picked defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri runs a defense that couldn’t stop a Pop Warner team and his quarterback, Tyler Bray, is exhibiting a lot of the same immature behavior (Bray failed to show up at last week’s press conference after Alabama hammered the Vols) that he showed both during the off-season and also during UT’s embarrassing, season-ending loss to Kentucky last year.

Now, here’s the glass-half-full view: if UT can beat Carolina tomorrow, it probably turns its season around because the five remaining games are winnable. Should Dooley finish the season 8-4, nobody will be complaining at that point. And after Carolina has struggled offensively for two straight weeks… well, who knows?

Here’s the bad news, though: the Gamecocks are better-coached (remember Steve Spurrier?), have better leadership at quarterback, and claim that running back Marcus Lattimore is as healthy as he’s been in a while. UT’s defense hasn’t come close to stopping anyone, while Carolina’s (yes, it gave up 44 points last week, but that was a fluke as Florida was held under 200 yards) is elite. Throw in the fact that Carolina plays at home, and it’s not looking good for the Vols again this week. Prediction: South Carolina 41, Tennessee 17

Elsewhere in the SEC:
Mississippi State at Alabama: How often do you see two undefeated SEC teams meet late in October, with one being a 23-point favorite over the other? That’s how good Alabama has looked, as well as how poor MSU’s opponents have been. I like ‘Bama to win because its defense is the best in the country and its quarterback, A.J. McCarron, makes no mistakes against a defense that lives off them. But I think it’ll be closer than Vegas thinks. Prediction: Alabama 31, MSU 17

Georgia vs. Florida (Jacksonville): The league’s most underachieving team (Georgia got killed at South Carolina, then barely beat Kentucky last time out) battles what might be the league’s luckiest, or least the best at taking advantage of breaks (the Gators rank 11th in the SEC in total offense, yet are 6-0 in the league). The Gators might say you make your own breaks, which is precisely what they did in beating Carolina last week by a 44-11 despite a paltry 185 yards of offense. In games like this, the team that plays smarter usually wins, which is why the Gators will clinch the East on Saturday. Prediction: Florida 27, Georgia 23

Arkansas vs. Ole Miss (Little Rock): The Razorbacks have actually looked more like a Top 25 team the last week; it’s too bad they started 1-4 and have four brutal games remaining. Meanwhile, Ole Miss has a brutal schedule remaining and faces an almost must-win itself to get bowl-eligible. In a bit of an upset, I’ll take the Rebels, because I believe their recent defensive improvement is more legitimate than Arkansas’. Prediction: Ole Miss 31, Arkansas 27

Texas A&M at Auburn: I’ll have to give it to the Tigers for not folding like many thought they would coming into Vandy last weekend. Still, it’s obvious that Auburn has no offense… but guess who does? Prediction: Texas A&M 41, Auburn 13

Kentucky at Missouri: This is the SEC’s version of the Toilet Bowl, featuring two of the only four winless teams in the league. Kentucky showed surprising fight last weekend, but I think that was due more to Georgia being disinterested. Meanwhile, Missouri does have serious quarterback issues with James Franklin out, but it does have a competent running back in Kendial Lawrence and a pretty good run defense, while the Wildcats have… hmmm… grit and determination? Prediction: Missouri 27, Kentucky 13