SEC Tournament Second-Round Preview: No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 8 Vanderbilt

Photo Credit: University of Tennessee Athletics
Photo Credit: Jason Cantrell, Cadence Captures

Even though injuries prevented Tidwell from improving on his impressive freshman campaign, he was able to find himself late despite some early struggles. In his most recent outing in Tennessee’s regular season finale against Mississippi St., Tidwell went three hitless innings, striking out five Bulldogs to secure a series win. The performance was enough for Vitello to use him as the tournament opener.

Tidwell brings something to the tournament that no other Tennessee starter does: SEC Tournament experience. Tidwell pitched in an elimination game against Alabama in 2021 where he went six scoreless innings, allowed only two hits and struck out five in the win. While it may only be one game, the tournament experience is a valuable asset for the Vols, who are facing and experienced Vanderbilt team.

While Tidwell has plenty experience starting from his freshman year, he hasn’t gone more than 4.2 innings in a game in 2022. While that may mean he is rested for a long postseason run, it does raise concerns for Tennessee. A complete run in the SEC Tournament has a max of five games, which means teams will need to preserve their bullpen arms as much as possible. If Tidwell can only go his season max of 4.2 innings, the Vols would need to dip into their bullpen pretty early.

However, with what was seen from Tidwell against Mississippi St., it seems Vitello has faith in his young arm to give Tennessee a good start in the tournament.

Vanderbilt Starter

For Vanderbilt, the probable starter for Thursday’s matchup according to Vanderbilt’s game notes would be freshman Devin Futrell, a 6-5, 195-pound left-hander. Futrell has put together a solid freshman season, posting an 8-2 record and a 3.27 ERA with 59 strikeouts and 10 walks in 55 innings pitched. The freshman southpaw didn’t throw against the Vols when Tennessee traveled to Nashville in 2022, meaning Tennessee will not be seeing a repeat arm from their series sweep. However, it is the same for Vanderbilt who didn’t face Tidwell due to his injury.

Futrell was Vanderbilt’s main midweek starter, with his best start coming in a complete game, one-run effort against Lipscomb. The freshman also face a highly-ranked Louisville team where he went six inning and only allowed one run in a loss.

Futrell did have some SEC experience, where he made two starts for the Commodores against Arkansas and LSU. Against the Razorbacks, Futrell went five innings, allowing five hits and four runs, including three home runs in Vanderbilt’s win. However, he struggled against LSU, only going 1.1 innings and giving up five hits and five runs before being pulled from a blowout loss.

While Futrell has had a decent season as Vanderbilt’s midweek starter, he has struggled against SEC teams. Not to mention, the freshman has only gone six or more innings three times in 12 appearances in 2022. It seems as if Vanderbilt is in the same situation as the Vols with Blade Tidwell.

Vanderbilt already used their young ace in Carter Holton for 105 pitches in their tournament opener against Ole Miss on Tuesday, so the Vols won’t see him at any point. Holton, however, was able to go six innings, which helped the Commodores to limit their bullpen use right off the bat. They only used two arms, both of which threw under 30 pitches, meaning both Vanderbilt and Tennessee should have their main bullpen guys available on Thursday.

Matchup Thoughts

Tennessee is coming off an impressive series sweep of Mississippi St., a series that had no effect on the Vols’ postseason. Tennessee is continuing to play with the same killer mindset they have had all of 2022. Not to mention, several of the Vols’ starters were on the team in 2021 when Tennessee’s SEC Tournament run was ended by Arkansas in the championship game. Vitello and the Vols are looking to avenge their runner-up run by winning the entire tournament.

While winning the tournament is not a need for Tennessee for an appearance in the NCAA tournament, this Vols’ team has a mindset of winning each and every game they can, regardless of if it is “needed” or not.

On the Vanderbilt side of things, the Commodores are looking to take revenge on the Vols after being swept at home in the regular season. Not to mention that Vanderbilt is coming off a below average season, the Commodores come into Wednesday’s matchup with a “nothing to lose” attitude, especially with the double elimination giving them an extra life.

I see this being a scrappy kind of game from both side of the field. Both teams have a chip on their shoulder in one way or the other,. Vanderbilt will be fighting for both their reputation and their postseason hopes while Tennessee will be fighting for its respect from a team that has dominated them in the past.

Photo Credit: University of Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee Keys to the Game

1. Get a Good start from Blade Tidwell

While he only had eight walks on the year, Tidwell seemed to struggle with control issues a ton in 2022. Often times he worked his pitch count up in a short amount of innings and coming off an injury he was forced from the games. Would like to see Tidwell get ahead early in counts and go at least five innings for the Vols.

2. Stop the leadoff man

The Vols are going to see Vanderbilt do a lot of things to create scoring opportunities, especially with Enrique Bradfield Jr. in the leadoff spot who was 42-42 in stolen bases to lead the SEC in the regular season. And with Tennessee’s biggest weakness being Evan Russell’s arm behind the plate, be prepared to see Bradfield be used a lot on the base paths. Tennessee needs to do everything they can to keep him off the bases and find ways to get him out if he does reach.

3 Bottom of the Lineup

Tennessee has seen the top of its order guys like Jordan Beck and Trey Lipscomb constantly put up good number all season. However, its the bottom part of the lineup that has caused the most trouble for the Vols. If Tennessee’s 7-8-9 guys can get on base and turn the lineup to the top of the order, the Vols should have no problem scoring runs and winning the game.

How to Watch/Listen

Tennessee and Vanderbilt will be on the SEC Network 30 minutes after Texas A&M and Florida finish their game, weather permitting. Fans can listen to the game on the Vol Network with John Wilkerson.