Thrill of Victory

Winnable games for Titans, Vandy, headline third Saturday in October

The Titans go to Buffalo, Vandy stays home, and the Vols play perhaps their biggest rivalry game of the season this weekend — here’s more on each game, as well as a look at all the other Southeastern Conference action.

Titans face a shootout in Buffalo
As awful as the Titans have looked this season, here’s a positive note: even some good teams could have gone 2-4 – which is exactly what Tennessee has done – against one of the league’s toughest schedules so far. Of course, those four losses have set a new standard for ugly: even with two wins, the Titans’ average outcome has been a 15-point loss, which is the worst in the NFL so far, and Pro-Football-Reference.com’s power ratings have the Titans tied with the Chiefs for the NFL’s worst team, even behind five other 1-win teams.But that’s the past.

While those ratings may be indicative that the Titans are, indeed, a lousy team, they’ve just a 3-point underdog at Buffalo this weekend. As bad as the Titans defense is (34 points and 422 yards per game), the Bills might be even worse. They’ve given up 32 points and 430 yards a contest against a schedule not exactly filled with offensive juggernauts.

The Titans should particularly have an opportunity to get the ball to WR Kenny Britt against perhaps the league’s worst starting CB in Aaron Williams, who’s given up five touchdown passes already this season. The Bills also give up an incredible 5.8 yards per rush, so even struggling Chris Johnson could have a big game Sunday.

Defensively, don’t expect Tennessee to stop one of the league’s best rushing tandems in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. The Bills’ Ryan Fitzpatrick should also move the ball against one of the league’s worst pass defenses. Still — and just call it a hunch — I like the Titans to win a shootout kind of like they did against the Lions a few weeks back. Prediction: Titans 37, Bills 34

Vandy favored over struggling Auburn
I liked a lot of what the Commodores did against Florida last week, even though VU lost 31-17. Wipe out a needless holding penalty against WR Jordan Matthews that cost RB Zac Stacy a 57-yard touchdown, and the Commodores pull a TD closer and also out-gain an outstanding Florida team. That was just one of a number of mistakes that help cost VU a shot at a huge upset.

I’m not a big fan of playing the “if” and “but” game because it can lead you almost anywhere you want it to take you, but in this case, the Commodores truly were quite competitive against what is now the No. 2 team in the BCS rankings. What was most encouraging was Vandy’s offensive output after halftime: 258 yards, and the first fourth-quarter points against the Gators all season.

Meanwhile, the wheels are falling off at Auburn. The Tigers’ entire roster is composed of nothing but Top 10 recruiting classes, but Auburn doesn’t have a quarterback and Brian Van Gorder’s defense hasn’t allowed fewer than 351 yards in a game this season. I talked to one dialed-in member of the Alabama media this week who think the Tigers have thrown in the towel on the season. Anything short of a major bowl is disappointing at Auburn, and even a minor bowl’s not going to happen this year.

Meanwhile, the Commodores’ schedule gets easier by leaps and bounds from here, and while coach James Franklin forbids himself and his players to talk about anything other than the coming matchup, you’d better believe the team knows that if it just plays up to its potential the last six games, it’ll go bowling again. When in doubt, take the team with the greater motivation. Prediction: Vanderbilt 27, Auburn 14

Third Saturday in October gives Vols a chance to change program trajectory
The nightmare I said was possible for Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is potentially coming to fruition: Tennessee’s brutal early schedule has resulted in a team that’s spiraling downward, and plenty of fans calling for Dooley’s head. However, if UT can beat Alabama, the cloud hanging over the program would lift immediately.

Here’s the best-case scenario of how that could happen: QB Tyler Bray plays the best game of his career, the Vols keep getting superstar WR/return man Cordarrelle Patterson the ball (and he keeps finding the end zone), and UT’s defense bends (as it has done all season) but finally gets the stops inside the red zone, and forces a couple of turnovers to boot.

The chances of that happening, however, are quite slim. First, Alabama almost never makes mistakes. Second, the Vols haven’t stopped anybody all season defensively. Third, UT may be without Rajion Neal, its leading rusher. Finally, as I documented earlier in the week, Bray puts up the bulk of his gaudy stats against weaker opponents, and Alabama has an outstanding corner in Dee Milliner who can help neutralize the Vols’ passing attack. Look for Alabama to establish a slower tempo on the ground against a UT defense that won’t be able to stop its power running game, and for a score something along the lines of this: Alabama 41, Tennessee 17

Other Southeastern Conference games:
LSU at Texas A&M: If you love contrasting styles, you’ll love this game; nobody’s stopped A&M freshman QB Johnny Manziel – who in half a season, already owns the two best games of total offense in the conference’s history – but on the other hand, Manziel has been playing against pitiful defenses most weeks, and LSU’s defensive line might be the most talented one in America. Meanwhile, the Aggies’ defense is thin (only 17 guys played last week) and gave up 57 points and over 600 yards to Louisiana Tech last week. LSU got its mojo back after beating South Carolina last week, and look for the Tigers to inch back closer to the top this week. Prediction: LSU 30, A&M 24

South Carolina at Florida: The Gators aren’t all-that exciting, but just keep winning behind QB Jeff Driskel, who makes all the right plays at all the right times. Florida has also been riddled with injuries along its front lines, but is getting healthier. Meanwhile, South Carolina will be without its best DT, Kelcy Quarles, and has several more players along its defensive front playing hurt. To boot, RB Marcus Lattimore might not play, either. Carolina got exposed a bit at LSU last week, and The Swamp is an awfully- tough place for a bounce-back game. Prediction: Florida 24, South Carolina 17

Georgia at Kentucky: Poor Kentucky; between youth and injuries and a roster that wasn’t that talented to begin with, its season is just flat-out miserable: 38 points scored in four SEC games against 152 points given up. And guess what? A talented Georgia team that’s angry about being embarrassed against South Carolina two weeks ago shows up in Lexington next. Prediction: Georgia 52, Kentucky 10

Middle Tennessee State at Mississippi State: Hey, how about the Blue Raiders! Since I virtually buried them after losing the season’s first game against McNeese State, Middle has rallied to go 4-1 and rout Georgia Tech on the road. But RB Benny Cunningham was a big part of what made the MTSU offense go, and now he’s out with injury. You really don’t want to put the ball in the air against MSU’s ball-hawking secondary – the Bulldogs are first in the country with a plus-14 turnover margin – but that’s what the Blue Raiders will have to do, and that probably won’t turn out well Prediction: Mississippi State 38, MTSU 24