Shortly after Vanderbilt’s resounding 19-point beatdown of rival Tennessee on Tuesday, my friend and I began a discussion about whether or not the Commodores should be ranked ahead of the Volunteers in tomorrow’s polls. After some debate and moderate research, we decided that if Vanderbilt beats LSU (they did) and if Tennessee loses to Kentucky (they did), then the rest of Tennessee’s resume has to be convincingly superior to Vanderbilt’s in order for the Volunteers to keep their higher ranking on February 15th. And after careful review of the facts, I’m here to confidently say the following: the rest of Tennessee’s performance is not good enough to warrant being ranked ahead of Vanderbilt tomorrow afternoon, especially given that Vanderbilt has beaten them twice by a total of 28 points this season.
Let’s look at what Tennessee’s performance must clearly surpass. Vanderbilt is currently ranked #22 in the AP Poll and #24 in the Coaches Poll. They went 2-0 this week in improving their record to 19-5 overall (8-2 in the SEC). Their RPI is 16, their strength of schedule (as measured traditionally) is ranked 23rd, and their Pomeroy strength of schedule is 24th. Vanderbilt’s best five wins were against Tennessee twice (by 9 on the road and by 19 at home), against Missouri by 6, at St. Mary’s by 2, and against Florida by 8. Their losses came versus Cincinnati by 9, at Illinois by 11, versus Western Kentucky (woof) by 7, at Kentucky by 13, and at Georgia by 14. For a broader look at Vanderbilt’s schedule, click here.
Ignoring their wins against Tennessee, the net effect produced after examining Vanderbilt’s profile is pretty neutral. Their defeats of Missouri and St. Mary’s are good, solid non-conference wins, and while beating Florida this year isn’t something to write home about, it’s fine as the team’s fifth-best win. Of course, Vanderbilt’s losses against Illinois, Cincinnati and Western Kentucky counterbalance those good wins. Georgia was an in-conference stinker, which virtually every team has, so I’m not getting too worked up about that. And since there’s no shame in losing at Kentucky by 13, the Commodores’ resume ultimately settles at about average. This is what Tennessee’s performance must surpass in order to overcome their two resounding losses to Vanderbilt and justify a superior ranking tomorrow afternoon.
So, let’s see how they stack up. Tennessee is currently ranked #12 in both polls, on the strength of their 18-4 record at the time of solicitation. They’ve since gone 0-2, bringing their record to 18-6 overall (6-4 in the SEC). Their RPI is 20, their strength of schedule (as measured traditionally) is 19th, and their Pomeroy strength of schedule is 36th (due largely to their near-totally unchallenging non-conference slate). Tennessee’s best five wins were, most notably, against Kansas by 8, at Memphis by 7, against Ole Miss by 2, against Florida by 1, and against South Carolina by 26. Their losses were versus Purdue by 1, at Southern California by 22, at Georgia by 15, at Kentucky by 11, and against Vanderbilt twice by 9 and 19. You can click here for a more complete look at Tennessee’s schedule.
The elephant in the room is Tennessee’s shorthanded victory against Kansas, which is justifiably considered the undisputed best team in the country. This win is quite impressive on its own, and significantly more impressive than any one win Vanderbilt has. But given the rest of the Volunteers’ performance, it’s not just the centerpiece of their argument for a better ranking than the Commodores – it might be the only real shot they’ve got. Beating Memphis on the road is Tennessee’s second-best win, and it’s certainly a good one. But at least for this year, Memphis isn’t the name brand it used to be. On that same note, Tennessee’s defeat of Florida by 1 at home isn’t stunning either. They also needed overtime to beat Ole Miss at home by 2. And beating South Carolina by 26 isn’t special, especially because 26 is also roughly the number of shots Devan Downey misses every game. Yeah, I said it. Lastly, Tennessee’s non-Vanderbilt losses are take all kinds. Losing to Purdue by 1 is absolutely acceptable, and perhaps even impressive. Losing to Southern California by 22 is simply terrible, and the Georgia loss qualifies as the understandable and inevitable in-conference stinker. Losing at Kentucky by 11 is fine, because Kentucky is really, really good.
Looking at both teams’ non-head-to-head profiles as objectively as I can, I think they come out about even. Tennessee has the best win (against Kansas), a good-but-not-great road win against Memphis, and a very close loss to an excellent Purdue team. But they were abhorrent against Southern California, and struggled a little more than they should have against Florida, Ole Miss, and DePaul. Vanderbilt has the worst loss (versus Western Kentucky), but a more rigorous non-conference schedule that includes wins at St. Mary’s and against Missouri. Because of these factors, the teams appear to be of similar quality when ignoring their performance against one another.
Finally, and in the interest of total fairness, let’s look at what Vanderbilt and Tennessee have done against common opponents:
- won by 20 against Middle Tennessee (home)
- won by 8 against Auburn (home)
- won by 1 against Alabama (away)
- lost by 14 against Georgia (away)
- won by 8 against Florida (home)
- won by 8 against LSU (home)
- won by 10 against South Carolina (away)
- lost by 13 against Kentucky (away)
- won by 13 against DePaul (home)
- won by 20 against Middle Tennessee (neutral)
- won by 26 against Auburn (home)
- won by 7 against Alabama (away)
- lost by 15 against Georgia (away)
- won by 1 against Florida (home)
- won by 5 against LSU (away)
- won by 26 against South Carolina (home)
- lost by 11 against Kentucky (away)
- won by 4 against DePaul (away)
On the aggregate, Vanderbilt is +41 points against common opponents, while Tennessee is +63. This affords Tennessee a small advantage.
So, to summarize: Vanderbilt has better overall and SEC record than Tennessee, and has beaten the Volunteers twice in a convincing fashion. Their performances against other teams have been equally solid but equally unspectacular; Vanderbilt has fewer questionable performances but no high that can match Tennessee’s win against Kansas (which you could argue, however, is undone by their 22-point loss to Southern California). Tennessee has beaten the teams’ common opponents more handily, which is a clear edge, but not a condemning one.
This brings me to my ultimate point, which is that while Tennessee might have a very small edge over Vanderbilt in one aspect of the analysis, it’s nothing like big enough to overcome the fact that Vanderbilt is 2-0 against Tennessee and by a margin of 28 points. Because of this, Vanderbilt should be ranked higher than Tennessee in tomorrow’s polls. But I’m not confident this will actually happen. What’s more likely is that Tennessee drops to #17 or #18, and Vanderbilt ascends to #21 or #20, and that I will become really irritated. I hope I’m wrong, though.