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AoG 2017 Footbaw Mailbag: Answers

You Had Questions? We probably don’t have answers

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

I want to thank those of you that sent in questions. Below we’ve answered the questions you’ve sent in. We ended up getting quite a few responses, but I took at least one from everyone who wrote in. Thanks again y’all!

How do you think the loss of Zach Cunningham play out not only statistically but in Wins ands Losses?

VandyTigerPhD: The loss of Zach is going to require every single one of the players on defense to step up. All of them. When you have a player like Zach, you’re going to feel it the next year. It’s inevitable with a team like Vanderbilt. Hell, even an LSU would feel it (though not as much). More than anything we’re going to hurt on the extra time it’s going to afford QBs. Without Zach on the pass rush or covering guys, there’s just going to be a gap. It can only really be made up for it ALL our box players step up. Or, another leader steps up big time. Nonetheless, we’re going to see a few more plays succeed than we did last year.

VandyImport: You don’t lose arguably Vanderbilt’s greatest defensive player of all time and not take a hit. That said, as an admitted Oren Burks mark, I suspect the drop-off won’t be as bad as people expect. Defense has been central to the identity of Vanderbilt football in every year of my lifetime when we were adequate, defense is CDM’s calling card, and defense is what lets you cover on these absurd lines made by people who see Vanderbilt, roll their eyes, and set a ridiculous number. With no idea how we finish, I suspect we will be probably -1 expected wins from a team with a healthy senior Zach. If we can sneak mystery grad transfer Pris Farve out onto the field, -0.5.

Tom Stephenson: I think there’s not going to be a ton of impact in terms of wins and losses — but not because I think the defense will be the same without Zach Cunningham. The defense will have some dropoff, obviously, but I think that will be balanced out quite a bit by an improved offense. Vanderbilt won’t need to hold opponents to 17 points or fewer to have a chance to win this year.

If the line is at 2.5, would you take the over or the under for number of injuries (causing someone to miss at least a quarter) from the Alabama game?

VandyTigerPhD: Eh, not too many really. If the game gets out of hand, Saban tends to be quite good about getting his starters off the field and getting his other guys play time. If for whatever reason, we play Bama close (lol) then we could be in interesting trouble. That said, I’ll take the under. Saban would start eating souls if his players were starting to hurt us that much.

VandyImport: Did you know last time we played Alabama we only gave up a single sack? I’m trying to find something to hang my hat on in a 34-0 loss, work with me. Seriously though, in years when Vandy-Bama was the SEC opener for both teams (they were our other permanent cross-division opponent for YEARS), we more often than not would play them close until the 4th quarter, depth would tell and Stallings or Dubose or whoever would give us the Milton Berle and pull out just enough to win. If I had a dollar for every time we covered on Bama in my college years...actually, I do. I don’t expect guys to get hurt. I expect to lose soundly, possibly cover, and have the grudging respect of the same Bama fans that showed up to the Birmingham Bowl to cheer us against Houston in January 2014.

Tom Stephenson: Under. Are you implying that Saban is the type of coach who tells his players to go out and intentionally injure guys? Saban’s not Tom Herman, and Alabama doesn’t need to send half our starters to the locker room to beat us. I doubt you’ll see anything more than the usual injuries in that game.

what's the over/under on end zone ints this year offense and defense

VandyTigerPhD: Did you know VU was #1 in RDZ percentage last season (65.3%)? Maybe you did, but did you also know that we were #5 in RDZ scoring percentage (93.5%) I bet not, I didn’t either until I looked it up on NCAA’s stat sheet and I still think they may be wrong. Really our problem isn’t in the Red Zone, it’s getting there. So I’ll put the O/U on offensive end zone INTs at 1.5. While our defense really hunkers down in the red zone it’s mostly through turnovers on downs or a missed kick or a fumble. We only had 5 INTs last year according to NCAA. So I will also put the defensive end zone INT at 1.5 for the O/U.

VandyImport: IN MY DAY WE DIDN’T HAVE YOUR “NUMBERS” and “STATISTICS” and “QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS” and that kind of thinking is why I flunked all my stats classes. I suspect we may throw a couple of end zone pickles this year just because Kyle has more weapons than a Vandy QB has had since JMatt went north and he’ll be going for it more often. Unless you’re Trey Wilson, though, if you pick it off in the end zone make the ball like REM and FALL ON ME. Touchback is greater than starting at the 4.

Tom Stephenson: When the Vanderbilt offense gets down near the goal line, we’re probably going to be seeing a lot of handoffs to Khari Blasingame, which really limits the opportunity to be throwing picks in the end zone because we’re just not going to be throwing much down there at all. So, assuming Johnny McCrary hasn’t returned to Vanderbilt and been named the starter and I just didn’t hear about it, I’ll set the over/under for the offense at 1. As for the defense, as good as it’s been the defensive backfield hasn’t made that many interceptions and I have no idea how many of those were in the end zone, so we’ll set that number at 1 as well.

I wanted to ask about something I've been noticing in Vandy games, but don't have the time or inclination to research. We never get called for targeting. In the only times I've ever seen it happen that I can remember, the penalty is reversed on review. Am I actually right and does Vandy get penalized for targeting less often than other teams? If so, is this a result of good defensive coaching by Mason & co, and does it give us free reign to make fun of other teams who do get penalized more often *coughGeorgiacough*?

VandyTigerPhD: I’m basing a lot of this off memory but it certainly feels right that we get called for it less than other teams. It feels like other teams get called at least once a game. For the most part though, I really can’t remember too many of our DBs or LBs really attacking like that. It seems like we’re generally in the place to make a good tackle or we’re out of position entirely and not going to get a good hit regardless. So I feel like our bragging rights are somewhat limited here.

VandyImport: Did you know that in that 2008 Music City Bowl we didn't commit a single penalty? And that’s probably as big a factor in winning as Bowl MVP Brett Upson? But seriously, I suspect a good defensive coach knows how to teach good defensive form, and with this crew entirely coached up by CDM and company, I think it’s not unreasonable to expect that we will probably commit fewer penalties overall on defense than our opponents. Enough to be statistically valid re: targeting? Ehhh, see above about what course I flunk on the regular.

Tom Stephenson: This sounds right, though I don’t have the statistics to prove it. It’s probably the result of good coaching by Mason, because proper tackling form, and it is always acceptable to make fun of teams for getting called for targeting, and especially when the other team’s coach challenged what he thought was a fumble and wound up getting one of his own players ejected for targeting. Sadly, that coach recently got fired for making phone calls to hookers on a university-issued phone.

Why is it OK for Vanderbilt to maintain high academic standards for football players while entire rest of SEC doesn’t? Graduation Progress Rate is a farce, with many athletes at other schools taking majors like “Recreation Management”?

VandyTigerPhD: We shouldn’t concern ourselves with what other schools are doing with their academics. We’re not them, we don’t need to worry about what’s “ok” and not. We’ve talked time and again about NWU and Stanford. If they can field solid (if not good) teams without compromising too much (we do compromise a little) of academic standards, that is fine. I am glad that Vanderbilt puts academics first, I just (recently) take issue with them putting it “first and only”.

VandyImport: I honestly can’t think of anywhere else that has the kind of delta between their academics and the rest of the conference that we have. That and $7 will get you a cup of coffee in a reusable souvenir mug (and I’ve used the hell out of that mug, it’s great). It is what it is and there are no good solutions for it. The SEC: It Just Means Morons.

Tom Stephenson: Look, man, that’s not just football players at those schools. The premise of this question implies that the University of Tennessee has high academic standards for non-football players, which it doesn’t. I think other SEC schools should just have a major called “Staying Eligible” and drop the charade of creating fake majors. Then again, we usually have more than a few Human and Organizational Development majors and what on earth is that?

What’s the over/under on Butch Jones tenure at UT?

VandyTigerPhD: If the game wasn’t at Knoxville this year, I’d make a joke about the buses leaving without him if we beat him again. In all seriousness though, I think Vols fans are not expecting nearly as much as they did last year. I’ve heard plenty of fans say they think of 8-4 as reasonable. Given their talent and schedule I could see that. If they collapse then yeah Butch may be done, but if Butch hits even 8 wins he’s fine for a while.

VandyImport: The amazing thing is that in 2017, the Vols are still convinced that they play Alabama-grade football, Kentucky-grade basketball and Vanderbilt-grade academics. Shift all that one place and you’ll probably be closer to the truth. You can write Vandy down as an automatic win, or you can say that beating Vandy salvages the season, but you can’t do both. I think if Vol fans were honest with themselves, they would realize that Butch’s performance and their self-image are not compatible. 8 wins and beating your rival will get statues of you on the West End (assuming you don’t promptly smash-and-grab the program to go north) but in the shadow of the Sunsphere and among my relations in Oak Ridge, that used to be a bad season.

I’ll put it like this: if in two years the Vols still haven’t broken 8 wins or won the East (and by definition can’t have won more than 2 in a row over Vanderbilt), and Butch is still around, you’ll know Smokey has re-evaluated his place in the world and is OK with it.

Tom Stephenson: I will admit, right here and now, that the prospect of Butch Jones continuing to be employed at the University of Tennessee beyond 2017 scares me a hell of a lot more than Tennessee firing Butch and hiring the hot G5 or Saban coordinator du jour does. We know Butch can recruit (somehow), after all, and at some point it’s entirely possible that he’ll dick-trip his way into winning the East or a 10-win season or beating Alabama (okay, okay.)

To answer the question, I think the over/under is two years. Butch will keep his job after this season as long as they go 7-5 and either beat Bama or at least don’t lose to us again, and I think they’ll accomplish that. Next year is probably going to be the make-or-break year though, because if he’s not winning the East by then (which will be his sixth year in Knoxville), Vol fans will decide they’ve had enough.

When will Vandy next recruit a 5-star athlete or perhaps 5-6 4-stars?

VandyTigerPhD: A five star is very rare in of itself, and I’m not even sure how many we’ve pulled in basketball to be honest. So short of winning a SEC East title, I couldn’t even answer the first part. As to the second, we’d need a similar kind of thing happen really. Rosters are filled with 3* players, a lot more than people realize. Yeah, the best football programs will pull that many 4*s but we need to get some sustained success going at the minimum. We need to be in the discussion for the East or something. As such, not any time soon, unfortunately.

VandyImport: Never. We could get plenty of 4 stars given time and success, but in any given year there are maybe two dozen 5-star players in the entire country. A quarter of them are already committed to Alabama, which means that we have at least a dozen other Great Powers and a dozen more Rising Powers competing for them. Until it’s no big deal for us to win 10 games in a year, you can forget about 5-stars that aren’t Zac Stacy Jr or Jordan Matthews III even having us on the radar.

Tom Stephenson: When God turns Knoxville into a pillar of salt. Even then it might not happen.

I've brought up before that Andy Ludwig doesn't stick around places for very long. If he does leave, obviously CDM doesn't start looking at a spread OC, who is out there that matches Vandy's offensive scheme?

Though, in reference to Ludwig, since he is kind of a head coach for offense, does that make him want to stay in Nashville?

VandyTigerPhD: That matches a pro-style offense? I actually don’t have a great idea really. If we’re being completely honest, pro styles generally don’t work in the NCAA anymore, and those that try don’t really last (Weiss, Wannstedt). There’s a few that do it well, but we can’t get them (Bielema does a no-huddle pro for example) nor really their OCs. Rutgers runs a pro, maybe we can get their OC?

As an aside, I think our best hope in the long run is to run a kind of offense that’s rare and hard to plan for. It can’t be too gimmicky or we’ll be in the same spot we are now - not enough talent for the system. Georgia Tech’s is a good model (as VI talks of below).

VandyImport: I had a close-up view of the Ludwig offense at Cal a few years back. Without fail, everyone is happy to see him arrive, and everyone is happy to see him go. So I don’t know what to think of him in the grand scheme of things, but I suspect this year will tell us a lot more. I wish he’d been here in 2014, I can tell you that.

I don’t think there’s any way a coach could switch us to a spread and have success for at least a year or two. I saw Cal go to the Air Raid and go 1-11 their first year for their trouble. Given our slowly emerging depth at QB (and the fact that Deuce Wallace is supposed to be a dual threat), I suppose a new spread-minded OC would have less of a hiccup going to that sort of offense now than when CDM first arrived, but that kind of Alabama-Stanford heavy-jumbo MANBALL is rapidly becoming what Tennessee had under Neyland’s single wing or Georgia Tech has with their don’t-call-it-a-wishbone: the kind of thing you see so rarely that you don’t know what to do with it. If we get in a position where a thousand pounds of lean Polynesian beef is leading a counter-gap sweep for Ralph Webb’s heir and dime-package DB sets are trying to tackle them? I will have feedings in the chicken parts and need to speak to an adult.

Tom Stephenson: This question is way above my pay grade.

Explain how conditioning philosophy has evolved under Mason and any apparent effects of changes since James Franklin and during his tenure.

VandyTigerPhD: I don’t have insider access to talk about philosophy per se, but it’s pretty clear to me that talent development and endurance is better under Mason than it was under Franklin. A large part of that though is Mason’s philosophy of subbing early and often. If you watch for it, you’ll see we sub a LOT. Probably a result of having so many underclassmen when he first started. This results in getting guys a lot of game time practice which is hard to replicate. The only times I really see us gassed is when the offense puts the defense out after the fourth three and out.

VandyImport: I haven’t seen enough of the Mason games in person to speak to conditioning. I know for sure that the publicity around Dwight Galt was greater than whoever handles our S&C efforts now, and I don’t see nearly as many pictures of early morning locker rooms that resemble The Walking Dead on Instagram. If we are going full-throttle in the fourth quarter in games this year, I suspect that will speak well of our depth and conditioning equally, and since every aspect of the program seems to be gradually improving year-over-year I assume that goes for conditioning as well. I know I’d like to have those guys train me up and improve my heal—(VandyImport, 45, found dead on the practice field 20 minutes into morning workouts)

Tom Stephenson: I can only assume that Mason’s conditioning philosophy is to drop the entire team off in East Nashville and tell them they’re on their own getting back to campus, then driving off. Come on, man, I’m the basketball guy, what the hell do I know about the football team’s conditioning program.

If we beat Tennessee this year, that would be 4 wins in 6 years. Do you think they would worry about us at all in 2018? If we beat Mississippi this year, that would be 7 wins in 11 years. Do you think they would worry about us at all in 2018?

VandyTigerPhD: For what it’s worth, I think that even in the Franklin years we had a similiar scenario to what we have now. That is, Vols fans will always talk themselves into overlooking us and Rebs will always talk themselves into thinking we’re going to beat them. Rebs aren’t nearly as paranoid about it though as Carolina fans.

VandyImport: No one worries about us. Ever. Every team on our schedule has looked at their schedule and written down a W against Vanderbilt in ink. Even when we’d beaten Ole Miss something like six of the last eight, they still came in assuming we’d destroy them simply because we were Vandy and they weren’t. We could beat Tennessee for as many years straight as Alabama has and they would still assume a win every year, because in college football (and especially the SEC) all that matters in the mind is how good you were in the 70s.

Tom Stephenson: When a recruit picks Vanderbilt over Tennessee, he always held a non-commitable offer from the Vols or he wasn’t a priority for them. As long as Tennessee is recruiting better than Vanderbilt, any success for the Commodores is temporary and will be reversed as soon as the Vols fire their idiot coach and/or Vandy’s coach goes elsewhere. So, no, Tennessee fans will not fear Vanderbilt in 2018 because if Vanderbilt makes it four wins in six years, Butch is almost certainly gone and their new coach surely won’t squander all that talent and lose to Vandy again.

As for Ole Miss, honestly, they’re way more worried about the NCAA than they are about us.

What sort of year would quiet the Mason critics? What sort of year would cause them to claim they always knew he would turn things around?

VandyTigerPhD: 7 or 8 wins would silence them. 10 would bring them to denounce their former doubt. I only see 7+ happening in optimistic scenarios.

VandyImport: Concur. 7 wins would be uninterrupted improvement and there’s not much you can say about that in a world where we’ve broken the 6 win mark in the regular season twice in the last 34 years. Thing is, I think we could show legitimate improvement across the board and still finish 5-7, and that would bring out the rumblings. I think that disastrous first game and first season put CDM in a permanent corner that’s going to be hard to win his way out of for a while yet. It’s not fair, but this is the SEC. Fair is where you go to see the pigs.

Tom Stephenson: Bill Connelly likes to say that once you’ve lost the fans, you can never really get them back, and unfortunately some fans gave up on Mason after his first game at Vanderbilt. So for some people in that group, they’re never truly going to get on board. That said, I think a 7-5 type year will cause them to shut up about it for a while.

What do you recommend that I watch for during a game that I might not be right now?

VandyTigerPhD: Blocking. I harp on this a lot but a tremendous amount of people don’t watch the line (not really). They have a sense of it but generally people watch the QB and maybe the WRs. Few will actually pay close attention to what the blockers are doing on a play by play basis. You’re not going to be making judgements like “wow that drive step was fantastic” but you will notice things you’ve probably not before. Like seeing defenders intentionally let free off the line to make the run work (e.g. a trap play).

VandyImport: What he said. Line play is where the game is won and it’s an area that has routinely been the difference between the rest of the league and us. If the trenches are solid, if the other team can’t just dictate the line of scrimmage, it makes all the difference in the universe. It’s about time for some of my Pacific Coast guys to make that happen and it’s going to be fun to watch.

Tom Stephenson: I don’t want to make it three of the same answer, so I would say to watch the routes that the receivers are running, especially the guys who aren’t getting the ball. The beauty of the passing game is how the different route assignments work in tandem to pick apart the defense.

Why doesn’t the new MLS team just share the existing Vanderbilt stadium? It seems odd to me that we are discussing building a 30k-35k seat stadium three miles from where an existing 35k seat stadium already sits. Plus, there is already all the infrastructure in place to support the soccer games: Parking, vendor relationships, tailgating areas, etc.

Now, I understand that the Vandy stadium needs to be renovated, but common sense tells us you could spend half of what it would cost to build a new stadium and make the existing stadium very nice – and set it up for shared use.

I’ve been around long enough to know the answer to this question is money – there’s obviously not as much money to be made in renovating Vandy’s stadium as there is a building a new one – and perhaps the new stadium is what MLS wants to give in order to award Nashville the franchise.

But, the fact that this isn’t being considered or discussed seems odd to me. It just seems like a good solution that 1) Gets Vandys stadium renovated with cost sharing with the MLS, 2) Keeps football on campus and 3) Provides an in-city venue for the soccer team which logically would boost attendance vs. the fair grounds.

I only ask because, when speaking to a Vice Chancellor at the Summer Send Off in July about this topic, he slipped (I think) and told me that is was just hard to justify having the stadium inhabit 6 acres of land in a growing city, when the stadium only gets used 6-10 times per year. That comment and Vanderbilt’s posture has led me to believe that this is an opportunistic land grab to take the stadium land back.

VandyTigerPhD: I know we’ve talked a lot about the stadium lately, but this was by far the most fleshed out question so I wanted to be sure I included it. I think it’s a combination of apathy and money. They want the land, they see the MLS as a cheap way out of making a new stadium, they also think that CFB will be dead in 15-20 years anyway. Also as I’ve commented, I feel like they see themselves as ‘above’ sports in general. Especially with regard to football.

VandyImport: I suspect that VCDW sees the writing on the wall that something will change in college football and is trying to hold the cards as long as he can waiting for someone else to make the call. Ultimately it comes down to this: what kind of college football program do we want to be, are we willing to be, and what kind of resources can we put behind it? And we’re handicapped by the fact that we’re in the SEC, a conference where we are competitive or better in every sport we play in...except one, and that one is the only thing the SEC cares about. But abandon the SEC and you’ve kneecapped the basketball teams, the baseball team, the defending conference champs in women’t tennis and men’s golf, and so on.

College football should be played on campus. Full stop. But Cal committed to that and paid the cost to stay on the fault line and now the entire athletic program is in jeopardy. Stanford doubled down on staying on campus in their own stadium and in 2016, with multiple Rose Bowls under their belt, didn’t sell out one single home game in a stadium of only 50,000. Tulane built themselves a brand new stadium on campus, only 30K seats, so they would be at home instead of the cavernous Superdome, and that stadium cost them $75 million dollars.

And yet? Tiny little Birmingham-Southern College abandoned the Big South and Division I sports in 2006 because it was too expensive, and the first thing they did on converting to division III? Added football, for the first time since 1939, and built an on-campus stadium. The most expensive sport a school can add, and they added it where there was none before.

I don’t think Vanderbilt will ever abandon college football unless the sport itself goes away. I also don’t think that Vanderbilt will spend the kind of money and resources required to keep pace with the top 25 teams in the country. Nor am I persuaded they should, but it begs the question: better to serve in heaven than reign in hell? If the choice is averaging 5-7 and maybe an APR bowl bid every year for the next two decades - hell, from 1983 to 2004 we never broke 5 wins and never bear Tennessee, we bloody well aren’t beneath 5-7 and an APR bid.

I think the real question is what constitutes the kind of football program we want to have, and can it be done. Once we settle on that, the question of where we play becomes a lot easier to deal with. And if I’m not settled on that, I can’t imagine CNZ and VCDW are either.

Tom Stephenson: My personal theory is that Zeppos isn’t actively working to move the team off campus. He just doesn’t see the need to renovate or rebuild the stadium, or at least doesn’t think it’s worth the price tag — and to be fair, this is a perfectly valid opinion. Whereas Williams, desperate to get a modern stadium, is willing to move off campus to make that happen.

The land grab stuff seems a little too tinfoil-hat for my tastes. I’m not saying that if the team did move off campus, Vanderbilt wouldn’t sell the land, but I doubt they have the specific intent. But the real issue on my end is that some people in positions of power view having a “modern” stadium (whatever that means) as more important than staying on campus. And if you take away the campus atmosphere, it’s basically NFL Lite — and who’s going to do that when you can just go to a Titans game?