A win over UMass would be to Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason what a brief downpour provides to the desert; a temporary respite in an otherwise miserable situation.
The Commodores have started the 2014 season with back-to-back blowout losses and stand at the verge of a third if they can't get their offense to wake up. The 'Dores are currently ranked 125th amongst FBS teams when it comes to scoring. There are only 128 programs in the division.
This team's inability to sustain drives has also worn down a defense that's loaded with young players who don't yet have the instincts to play tired against Division I competition. Vanderbilt is long on talent when their backs are to the endzone but short on experience outside of a proficient pass rush. Players like Tre Bell, Torren McGaster, and Ryan White can run with anyone the SEC throws at them, but they lack the recall to identify plays and react without thinking to stop big gains. Giving these players reasonable recovery time in between defensive stands will go a long way towards holding an opponent under 35 points for the first time this year.
Finding a way to reconcile offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell's offense with the talent at hand will be the biggest test Mason faces in his first year on the sideline. Those two assets have been two ships passing in the night through the first two weeks of the 2014 season. Vanderbilt cycled through three quarterbacks who struggled to find a rhythm against Temple. Last week, they let Stephen Rivers squirm in the pocket like a Major League pitcher who was being left out to dry. More struggles on Saturday would mean a further destabilization at QB for a team that's desperately seeking leadership on offense.
More importantly, losing this game may mean losing the fanbase that had just begun to come back to Dudley Field due to the team's success under James Franklin. Supporters have already begun to dismiss Mason and his staff after an 0-2 start that featured a blowout loss to Temple and a -68 point differential. Losing to Massachusetts, as improved as they may be, will be enough to turn any casual fan away and disheartening enough to convince some die hard fans to take a few weeks off. A Minuteman win could be the difference between fan rage and fan apathy for Derek Mason, and while he can survive the former, he'll be swallowed whole by the latter.
So here we are, waiting for the most important game of the Mason regime - and the opponent staring back at Vanderbilt is UMass. I'm not sure anyone saw that coming.
On to the picks.
There was something I felt during the Ole Miss game that I don't remember ever feeling watching Vanderbilt football - hopelessness. Sure, I can point to all the frustrating 2 win seasons we had in the years leading up to the OBP. Sure, I can even talk about the most disappointing OT game ever (Georgia Tech, 2 plays). However, in all those years of bad football, we were always competitive. We always felt like we could win the game even though we knew that ultimately we wouldn't. There was a saying we had in the stands when I was around - if the game were three quarters we'd be national champions. So while we have had bad football, it doesn't seem like it's been so bad as this.
Or does it?
In case you missed it, The Tennessean did some tracking down of why we're such heavy favorites Saturday. The long of the short of the argument is that the first game was a perfect storm (nyuk nyuk) of problems, such that it was difficult to really garner a good conclusion of the result. The oddsmakers admit that losing to Temple so badly did not inspire them, but there's so many other variables involved in that game that they were willing to toss it as an outlier. Mississippi is a top program, and really may make a good run at the SEC West this year. Even in the Franklin era, we had our share of BAD losses to top schools. So again - we're forgiven.
Then we come to our opponents, who honestly aren't terribly impressive on paper. We're still an SEC school, even if we're not a very good one right now. We should NOT be losing games like we have been. I tend to take a dim view of people over-analyzing sports (e.g. most Sabermetics are total bullshit) but I have to agree with the oddsmakers here. Even with everything we know, Vanderbilt is overall the most talented team. There's really no excuse for losing this.
I think we're going to be seeing a lot more focus on the running game Saturday. It's clear to everyone that the passing game can't get going. Even the announcers knew what to do - let's go with a run first offense and set up the pass that way. For those of you who don't know what that means, it's essentially run a whole lot and then throw a play action and laugh at the totally out of place DBs. Peyton Manning, aside from being Mr. Rocket Laser Arm, made a living doing this kind of offense for many many years.
I think it's really the way to go. Unless McCrary has been some kind of miracle worker this last week, our passing game is likely to show most of the same if we insist on trying to be cute. From there, we can take advantage of the fact that we do have WR talent and crush the biting safeties for a big play.
I said it after Temple, and I'll say it again here. The defense is largely not to blame for these games. We're leaving them out entirely too much. If the offense can get a few good drives to rest our defense, then we will be ok. Regardless of how much you trust our play-calling, we do over match these guys skill wise. This should be a good win, although will likely be a hard fought one.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 9 - UMASS 7. I'm not calling anymore Vanderbilt TDs until they prove to me they can get into the end-zone. UMASS will have the lead at the half.
THE SEC Upset of the Week: Cahalina (+6.5) over JAWGA. Carolina AND a TD? I'll take it! If the Arky game's spread wasn't basically a push, I'd have gone with them though. Definitely mentioning both games in tomorrow's TAILGATE SATURDAY!
I could be wrong, but the general gnashing of teeth, in my opinion, is still a bit premature. The Temple game was certainly a gut punch. Take away half of the turnovers and we could be sitting with an entirely different perspective on things. Most importantly, you can't forecast turnovers because there's so much chaos that leads to them. Mississippi tanned our hides. Had the team beaten Temple, I'm not sure how much the confidence factor would have mattered when it came to the outcome. I'm pretty confident, though, that it definitely played into the margin of defeat.
I'm not going to lie: the only thing I've read about UMass or this game is that the four-way QB competition is wide open and that the 'Dores are a seventeen-point favorite in the eyes of Vegas. Backs are against the wall. This is the point of no return.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 31 - UMASS 13. VU COVERS. But which QB hero answers the call?
The SEC Upset of the Week: Arkansas (+2.5) over Texas Tech. The Razorbacks have been waiting seventeen-effing years to avenge their 38-21 drubbing in their final Southwest Conference matchup with the Red Raiders, and in an ugly contest between Bret Bielema (BB) and Kliff Kingsbury (KK), I think we know who's going to win. Arkansas takes the 2014 Alliterative Coaches Bowl outright.
Andrew VU '04:
I hope I'm wrong, but my teeth are generally gnashing, KingJamesIV. I'll agree with VandyTigerPhD that the feeling I'm getting is hopelessness. Hell, I wrote about that in an article last week, and played you all some Townes Van Zandt. If we lose to UMass, the villagers will be lighting their torches and sharpening their pitchforks.
Start sharpening, Hillsboro. Let me ask a few questions: 1) Do we know what our offense is going to look like? Like at all? I can't say with any confidence I know who our starting QB will be, whether he'll get an early hook or be left in far too long, or even if we will make any scheme shifts. We all seem to be clamoring for Ralph Webb to get the ball more, and to switch to a run-first offense (possibly a power-O or wildcat from time to time). Obviously, I agree with everyone on that. But... 2) Does OC Karl Dorrell? I can't say we've seen any evidence that he will adapt his play calling strategy and/or offensive scheme to fit the talent in front of him. I'm hoping he will, but I'm betting we see more of the same. 3) Just who will that starting QB be? I honestly can't say. Neither can you. We assume Rivers is going to be benched after his performance against Ole Miss, but in favor of whom? Not only can't I give you a direct answer, but with freshman Wade Freebeck on the depth chart this week, can we for certain say CDM and OCKD won't burn his redshirt just to see what another guy can do?
In short, this is far too much uncertainty for me, and with UMass putting up some serious points against Colorado last week, though they're similarly 0-2 heading into this weekend's matchup, they can at least claim a moral victory.
Don't discount the possibility that we see the first ever battle of 6'7" QBs in Rivers v. Frohnapfel. Advantage Frohnapfel.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 9 - UMASS 10. This is the darkest timeline. Silver lining? Parlagi's "Nashville Wethetters" protest gets to live on for another week.
THE SEC Upset of the Week: South Cackalacky Game Penises (+6.5) over UGA. UGA wins, but Spurrier's boys give them all they've got. Take the Penises and the points.
Christian D'Andrea: Vanderbilt's offense will need to drop into gear in order to win this game, but they'll only have to take a few baby steps if the defense can rise to its potential.
Vandy got flashes of talent from its defensive front last week against Ole Miss, and linemen like Vince Taylor andCaleb Azubike have to be salivating at UMass's combination of under-experienced offensive line and immobile quarterback. If Taylor, Azubike, Adam Butler, and Kyle Woestmann can keep pressure on Blake Frohnapfel and keep him from finding targets downfield then the 'Dores will cut down an offense that's riding high after last week's 38-point performance.
It's tougher to determine how this team beats UMass on the offensive side of the ball. My theory involves a lot of Ralph Webb, but the team will be cautious not to burn him out early in the season - see his 33 carries so far. A grinding, effective run game would do wonders as far as making things easier for whomever is throwing passes for the 'Dores. Forcing UMass to load up the box would mean simple schemes to pass against, and that's the kind of confidence-building environment this team's quarterbacks need. The Minutemen have a few bright spots in the secondary - particularly Randall Jette - and leaving their defensive backs on an island will lead to the team's first offensive touchdown of the season.
UMass is a better team in 2014 than they were in 2012 or 2013, but they still shouldn't beat a Commodore team that's loaded with four-star recruits, regardless of their experience level. Vandy's offensive line made some key improvements last week against Mississippi, and that should pay off on Saturday. Mason's team should be able to make enough strides on offense to get the ball downfield, even if that just means a series of runs with an occasional deep ball each quarter. It won't be pretty, but it will be enough to win.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 17, UMass 13. The Vanderbilt defense will bow up in time to get some key stops in their own territory and prevent the Minutemen from getting any big touchdowns. Meanwhile, the offense will take a few baby steps towards respectability while Mason gets his first win as a Commodore. Yay?
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Tennessee (+20.5) over OKLAHOMA. Hell, I haven't been right yet this year. Why start now?
VandyImport: I have shaved the goatee in an attempt to break us out of the darkest timeline. But I am still wary of this game. After all, they took Colorado to the rack last week, and they have scored actual offensive touchdowns whereas we have not. I know Vegas is making us a two-TD-plus favorite, but that smacks too much of the "they're SEC" argument that didn't hold water when the Vols were writing down a W because "we're Tennessee and they're Vandy." See how that worked out.
If we get smarter about running the damned ball - which should theoretically be doable just because of the size difference and potential depth - then maybe we get over on these guys and start the ball rolling. Don't forget, we opened 0-2 in 2012 and needed Presbyterian to jumpstart us (although those were much closer losses with a much more experienced team. Have we really played 25 freshmen this season so far!?) so it's entirely possible that a little confidence building could go a long way.
THE PICK: Commodores 21, Minutemen 10. Don't give up the ship.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Southern Miss (+47) over Alabama. I don't think the Tide will leave the starters in long enough to cover seven freaking touchdowns.