This week is the calm before the storm for Vanderbilt and Tennessee’s football teams.
Both teams are in final preparation stages before kick-starting their seasons. They get a jump-start on other SEC teams. With the excitement generated by the SEC Network, they want to play their best, if for no other reason than pride.
Coach Derek Mason’s Commodores start their season Thursday night, Aug. 28 against Temple. It will be Mason’s head coaching debut. There will be nothing more memorable for Mason than coaching his first SEC game, which is against Ole Miss at LP Field Sept. 6.
Temple isn’t expected to offer Vanderbilt’s team much resistance, but you can bet Ole Miss will.
The Commodores return 13 starters from last year’s 9-win bowl team that routed Houston, 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Seven starters return on offense, while five defensive starters return. Kicking and punting specialist Michael Palardy will be sorely missed.
When it comes to coaching personalities, Mason and former Vandy coach James Franklin could not be more different. Franklin was lightning in a bottle, selling the program to the media, fans, high school recruits and anyone else he thought could help the program grow.
Mason is more down to earth. He doesn’t blow his own horn. A defensive-minded coach, Mason is just as tough and demanding as Franklin. During games, Franklin ran up and down the sidelines as if his coaching pants were on fire. The offensive play calling Franklin was drawn to TV cameras like a moth to a flame. Mason doesn’t seek media attention.
Mason will benefit from Franklin’s formula for getting bowl eligible. Franklin scheduled four teams from the lower part of the football food chain. This year’s non-conference schedule of Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion should produce another opportunity for the Commodores to win two conference games to reach the six-win mark for bowl eligibility.
But the Commodores lost SEC games to Ole Miss, South Carolina, Missouri and Texas A&M. They managed to beat a weaker Georgia team, an injury decimated Florida, and rebuilding teams Kentucky and Tennessee.
Georgia, Florida and Tennessee are projected to finish higher than Vanderbilt. Six conference wins will be more difficult this time around.
Tennessee opens Saturday, Aug. 31 against a dangerous Utah State team in Neyland Stadium.
A win against Utah State could propel the Vols to a respectable season. If the Vols can turn last year’s 5-7 record into a 6-6 or 7-5 season, it would keep Butch Jones’ rebuilding project on an uptick.
Jones claims his is the only team on the FCS level having to replace its entire offensive and defensive lines.
The have recruited solid skill position players on both sides of the ball, but many of them are still in diapers. There is no way to accurately predict how highly recruited first year players such as Beech’s Jalen Hurd, Station Camp’s Josh Malone and Independence’s Vic Wharton will play under fire.
Senior Justin Worley will start at quarterback. He threw for 1,239 yards last season with 10 TDs and 8 interceptions. He will be backed up by sophomore Joshua Dobbs, who was brilliant at times, but inconsistent.
Marlin Lane is the top returning running back and Hurd will push him from the start.
They have only 10 starters returning, five on each side of the ball.
Look for the Vols to have growing pains this season. Their season depends on how quick the kids mature.
Contact Wilson Post sports columnist Joe Biddle at email@example.com.