Tennessee Stat Book
While watching tape over the course of the season, Phillip Fulmer can't help but also see some of his opponents' opponents. He's noticed something about Vanderbilt.
"They're a good defensive football team,'' Fulmer said Sunday night.
That's hardly a scoop. For a more detailed report on the next team in Tennessee's path to the SEC East title, here's Steve Spurrier:
"They've got good athletes, they play very hard and they're very aggressive. They know their assignments and don't make hardly any errors in their coverages.
"They stymied us pretty good.''
That's an understatement. In a 17-6 stymie of Spurrier's Gamecocks on Oct. 20 in Columbia, the Commodores notched seven sacks, three interceptions and recovered a fumble.
Florida wasn't especially stymied. The Gators were at full-Tebow speed when they waxed Vandy 49-22 a couple of weeks ago. And yet coach Urban Meyer had this to say about the Commodores' defense:
"Their personnel has been upgraded. It's a much different defensive team than it was two years ago.''
And lest we forget, two years ago it was good enough to win 28-24 in Neyland Stadium.
Yeah, Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett get most of the glory for that one. But check the play-by-play and you'll find Vandy's defense forced two three-and-out Tennessee possessions in the final four minutes to give Cutler a chance at the game-winning drive.
Meanwhile, back in 2007...
"They beat South Carolina and they should have beaten Georgia,'' said Meyer. "This is a very talented team. They have NFL prospects on the defensive side of the ball.''
The Commodores have held eight of 10 opponents below their season average in total offense. Five of the eight came up at least 89 yards short, among them Kentucky, who was fortunate to get out of Nashville with a 27-20 win on Saturday.
More data: Vanderbilt ranks no worse than 35th nationally in the major defensive categories - run, pass, total, scoring. The 'Dores' 27 sacks are second in the SEC, their 15 interceptions tied for third.
"This late in the year, stats do mean something,'' Fulmer said.
One possible meaning is that Erik Ainge and friends aren't going to have an easy time moving the ball or scoring points.
Coach Bobby Johnson is in his sixth season at Vanderbilt. He's known primarily for bringing an option-oriented offense to the SEC's perpetual underdog. But it's time to give him props for a defensive vision as well.
"We've probably increased our speed on defense,'' Johnson said. "That's been the major thing. Speed is the key thing in the SEC.''
Vandy has moved safeties to linebacker, linebackers to defensive end, ends to tackle. It's nothing new under the sun. UT has been doing it for years.
"That's given us the opportunity to match up with some other teams' offense,'' said Johnson. "That's one reason we've got some sacks. We've got some fast ends and fairly fast interior linemen.''
So while you're keeping an eye peeled on Bennett, the showcase receiver, or a couple of local tailbacks, Cassen Jackson-Garrison (Central High) and Jeff Jennings (Jefferson County), check out some guys on the other side of the ball. Guys like Jonathan Goff, Marcus Buggs, D.J. Moore and Broderick Stewart.
Goff, the middle linebacker, is one of the NFL prospects Meyer was talking about. Buggs is a safety moved to linebacker.
Moore, a sophomore corner, has five interceptions. Stewart, an end, has five sacks, seven tackles-for-loss and five quarterback hurries.
The Commodores have improved in most every defensive category since last year. The trend could continue since six of Vandy's top 10 tacklers are sophomores.
"Their personnel, they're in the middle of the pack or the upper half of the SEC,'' said Meyer, "especially at certain positions.''
Tennessee's position is trying to nail down an Eastern Division title. Vanderbilt is the next-to-last step.
It'd be a heckuva note to get stymied now.
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.