Last week went...poorly.
There were few glimpses of sunlight as storm clouds rained sewage all over Vanderbilt’s trip to Atlanta in week three. A typically stout defense got undressed in a manner befitting a high school team, not an SEC program coached by a defensive wizard. The Commodore offense moved the ball with purpose...for exactly one drive, then embarked on a 54-minute scoring drought.
It was one of the worst losses in the Derek Mason era, and that’s not a distinction to be thrown around lightly.
After a week of reflection, Saturday’s game in Bowling Green, KY will give the Commodores their chance for redemption. Vanderbilt will travel to face a Western Kentucky team that doesn’t just have the mental advantage of a 2015 season opening win and the luxury of playing at home, but also the boost of being an eight point betting favorite.
The Hilltoppers are favored for good reason. They’re 14-3 since 2015 and their only losses have come against Alabama, LSU, and, uh, Indiana. WKU is averaging 38.5 points per game this season against teams not ranked No. 1 in the nation. They’re throwing for 345 yards per game, and quarterback Mike White will put a ton of pressure on the Vandy secondary.
Plus side: They’re 0-1 against SEC teams this season.
So will Vanderbilt rebound to keep its conference’s streak alive against the Hilltoppers? Or was last week’s terrible performance no aberration?
Christian D’Andrea: Vanderbilt’s defense isn’t the shitshow that spread across Atlanta like a Civil War fire last week. While there were a few solid individual performances, the Commodores were gashed for 511 yards and 38 points before Georgia Tech eased off the gas in the fourth quarter.
But the Yellow Jackets were a special case. Western Kentucky is more predictable, and this is a Vandy team that held an even better version of the Hilltoppers to their lowest point total of 2015 behind a less talented version of the Commodores’ 2016 defense. WKU will change up its playbook -- head coach Jeff Brohm is a rising star who will be properly prepared for Vandy — but Vanderbilt will have the better players in almost every offensive-defensive matchup this weekend.
That leaves one gaping, giant question: can the offense do enough to keep its defenders rested and win a key road game?
Kyle Shurmur took an important step forward last week, completing more than 65 percent of his passes against a Power 5 opponent. He checked down to find open receivers rather than force the ball, which was a major problem in games one and two this season. While his deep ball hasn’t connected yet, he’s getting more accurate and making better decisions when he throws downfield.
Unfortunately, those improvements only led to seven points last week, which would be unacceptable even if the Vandy defense had mastered the triple option and shut out the bees.
Shurmur will have to be better, but the Hilltoppers will give him several opportunities to shine. After facing the nation’s No. 4 and No. 38 passing defenses (in terms of yardage allowed) the past two weeks, he’ll see a WKU secondary that’s given up 292 aerial yards per game this year — a mark good for 116th in the nation. The combination of Western Kentucky’s weakness and Ralph Webb’s strength should open up passing lanes for the sophomore QB; if he can’t step up now, he won’t get a better chance against a FBS opponent this fall.
The pessimist in me wants to say this will be another disaster, but Shurmur’s growing confidence is giving me faith in the road team. The Vandy defense rebounds and their young passer throws for 200 yards and a touchdown to even the Commodores’ record at 2-2.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 17, Western Kentucky 13
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: That pick above? The one where Vandy beats a Conference-USA team by four points? That represents a 12-point improvement over the spread for Derek Mason’s team.
Tom Stephenson: Oh, I want to pick Vanderbilt to win... I really do.
While there have been a few positive signs from the offense this year, namely the development of Kyle Shurmur at quarterback, the defense seems like it’s regressed from last year — and it isn’t just the Georgia Tech game. Middle Tennessee averaged 5.8 yards per play, and they’d have probably scored more than 24 points if not for repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot. Yes, Vanderbilt held South Carolina to 13 points, but that’s only 2.7 points below the Game Penises’ season average, so you could just as accurately argue that South Carolina held themselves to 13 points, because Will Muschamp.
(And meanwhile, as I’m writing this, Georgia Tech has zero points and 80 yards of total offense through three quarters. That’s the same Georgia Tech team that murdered our defense last week.)
I just can’t talk myself into this team right now. Western Kentucky’s a better team than South Carolina, and they’re probably better than Georgia Tech, too. I’d like to think we’ll win, but I can’t see it.
The Pick: Western Kentucky 35, Vanderbilt 21.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: While I’m tempted to pick Florida to make it 12 in a row over THEM, I’m skittish with Florida down to their second-string quarterback. Instead, I’ll go with BERT (+6) over Texas A&M, because you just know something completely nuts is going to happen in that one and it’s probably going to end with Arkansas winning a game they probably shouldn’t.
VandyTigerPhD: I wasn’t optimistic about this game before the season, I’m certainly not optimistic about it now. After actually beating MTSU by the margin we should be, Vanderbilt went right ahead and got stomped by Georgia Tech. Once again our defense looked lost at the start of the game, but never managed to really rally. Shurmur is making some good progress (thought not as much as I’d like), but our pass/run ratio is all sorts of off. 50/50? You gotta be kidding me. We should not be throwing that much when we have two RBs who can control the game.
Western Kentucky is a very solid football team, but I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people acting like we just lost to a 1-AA school by the end of this game.
I forsee an ugly game, and ultimately one we’re going to lose.
The Pick: Western Kentucky 24 - Vanderbilt 10
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: It’s been pointed out that calling a team to cover the spread isn’t exactly picking an upset. I can see the logic behind that argument, so I’ll pull the trigger and call Florida to beat THEM.