Tennessee, Vanderbilt staggering into their annual matchup
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By STEVE MEGARGEE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) This isn't the way Tennessee and Vanderbilt planned to finish the regular season.
Both teams are winless in Southeastern Conference play heading into their rivalry game Saturday at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee (4-7, 0-7 SEC) has lost six of its last seven games and fired coach Butch Jones last week. Vanderbilt (4-7, 0-7) has dropped seven of its last eight.
"It's surprising and it's obvious unfortunate that the season had to go this way," Tennessee tight end Ethan Wolf said. "Expectations were high. We had a lot of returning experience, a lot of talent on this team and we just failed to get it done."
Not even state bragging rights will be up for grabs Saturday. No. 17 Memphis already has secured its status as the Volunteer State's best team this season while getting big production from quarterback Riley Ferguson, who began his college career at Tennessee.
While Memphis will play either No. 13 Central Florida or No. 22 South Florida in the Dec. 2 American Athletic Conference championship game with a probable New Year's Six bowl bid at stake, postseason hopes have faded for Tennessee's two SEC programs.
Vanderbilt still has at least a little at stake in that regard.
If a lack of bowl-eligible schools causes some 5-7 teams to earn bids, Vanderbilt would be near the front of the list by virtue of its strong Academic Progress Rate score. Tennessee doesn't rank as high in the APR standings and wouldn't be nearly as likely to reach a bowl game with a 5-7 mark.
Tennessee is trying to avoid some dubious distinctions.
The Vols are seeking to prevent their first eight-loss season in school history. They also are at risk of going winless in SEC competition for the first time since the league formed in 1933. For comparison's sake, Vanderbilt has gone winless in SEC play 19 times since 1960.
Even though both teams already are assured of losing seasons and most Tennessee fans have shifted their attention to the coaching search, Vols interim coach Brady Hoke doesn't expect motivation to be a problem.
"For some of the guys, it will be the last organized football game that they're going to play and the last game they're going to play at the college level," Hoke said.
Neither team expected to be in this predicament.
Tennessee went 9-4 each of the last two seasons and won three of its first four games this year. The Vols have scored just 12.7 points per game in SEC competition and have endured so many injuries that their offensive line at the end of a 30-10 loss to No. 17 LSU last week included two true freshmen, two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore walk-on.
Vanderbilt won its first three games this year but never recovered after a 59-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama.
The Commodores have lost their first seven SEC games by an average margin of 26.3 points. Tennessee's seven SEC losses were decided by an average of 21 points.
"There is no excuse for why we are losing games," Vanderbilt wide receiver C.J. Duncan said Saturday after a 45-17 loss to Missouri . "We just have to find a way to win."
Vanderbilt still has incentive to continue making this annual series into more of a rivalry.
The Commodores have won three of their last five meetings with Tennessee after going 1-28 against the Vols from 1983-2011.
Tennessee already lost to Kentucky this season for just the second time in the last 33 years. Tennessee hasn't lost to both Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the same season since 1964.
Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur threw for 416 yards last year in a 45-34 victory over Tennessee that likely cost the Vols a Sugar Bowl berth.
"That loss last year to (Vanderbilt), that one hurt," Tennessee linebacker Colton Jumper said after the LSU game. "We're definitely going to have motivation for them."
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Updated November 20, 2017