Whether or not Tennessee can extend its season when the Volunteers travel to Nashville to face Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon depends on if the Vols accomplish something they've failed to do of late: beat the in-state rival Commodores.
Tennessee (5-6, 2-5 SEC) can claim bowl eligibility during its first year under head coach Jeremy Pruitt with a victory. Despite upset wins over No. 21 Auburn and No. 12 Kentucky on the year, closing out a third-consecutive regular season with a loss to Vanderbilt might not sit well on Rocky Top.
"It's going to be important for our senior class to end with a win against Vanderbilt," Pruitt said.
"I think it's important for everyone associated with our program to raise our level of play. We've had opportunities to do that a couple of times this year and in my opinion have not necessarily played at our best. That's on us as coaches to get everybody in our program to be at their best. It's a chance to possibly have a winning record and anytime you have positive things going on, I think it's going to help you in recruiting."
Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5 SEC) will also be clawing for a spot in the postseason and in search of its coveted sixth win. Derek Mason's Commodores are winners of two of their last three games and are coming off a 36-29 triumph over Ole Miss at home. Vandy last made a bowl appearance in 2016, using a win over Tennessee in the season finale to clinch the postseason berth.
"This is a very important game for everybody in this state," Pruitt said. "They have an experienced team offensively. Quarterback's (Kyle Shurmur) been playing there forever, coach's son, makes very few mistakes."
Pruitt is more concerned with his own quarterback after Jarrett Guarantano left early with an undisclosed head injury in Tennessee's 50-17 loss last week to Missouri. The redshirt sophomore has only 1,768 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year but is making a lasting impression with his accuracy. He hasn't thrown an interception in a school-record 148 attempts and out-ranks the like of Daryl Dickey (63 percent) and Peyton Manning (62.5 percent) as the most accurate passer (63.5 percent) in program history.
Guarantano, who sustained several big hits prior to the injury, is listed as day-to-day, Pruitt said. If the sophomore can't play, the Vols will turn to Keller Chryst, the Stanford-transfer who finished 7-of-19 for 173 yards and a pair of interceptions versus the Tigers.