Vanderbilt football kicks off its 2018 Saturday; will it be the final opener of Derek Mason’s Commodore career?
The fifth-year head coach has had a rocky tenure in Nashville, taking a step backward with a 2017 campaign that saw his team sprint out to a 3-0 start before crashing back to earth harder than a Siberia-bound asteroid (we, in retrospect, did not want Bama) and losing seven of their next eight games — all by 13 points or more. Though beating Tennessee helped restore some goodwill, Mason’s inability to field a competent SEC defense last fall has put him firmly on the hot seat this one.
Vandy welcomes a familiar foe back to Nashville in Middle Tennessee, who like regular Tennessee, has found a way to lose to the ‘Dores by double-digits in each of the past two seasons. The Blue Raiders aren’t a Power 5 opponent, but their steady offense, led by what I assume is now a mid-30s Brent Stockstill, should provide a reasonable test for a Vanderbilt defense that has to replace seven starters from last year’s 28-6 victory over MTSU. Will the Commodores be able to withstand the Blue Raiders for a third straight season? Or will Saturday begin the slow death march to an unceremonious November firing on West End?
Christian D’Andrea: For a defensively focused coach, Mason’s 2017 was ...unfortunate. The ‘Dores gave up more than 43 points per game last fall in SEC play. The only team to score fewer than 30 was a checked-out Tennessee team that was too busy trying to figure out a way to hire Greg Schiano to play actual football. And then that defense lost legitimate contributors like Oren Burks, Nifae Lealao, Emmanuel Smith, and Arnold Tarpley.
So, I’m not super bullish on the Vandy D this year. But now’s the time Mason’s guys — the big, under-recruited defensive backs he turned into studs at Stanford — need to step up. JoeJuan Williams will make anyone throwing to his side look stupid and Ladarius Wiley might be the SEC’s most underrated player, but guys like Frank Coppet, Randall Haynie, and Tae Daley need to make the leap for a team whose inconsistent pass rush will require some sticky coverage in the secondary.
Are they there yet? Saturday’s game could give us a glimpse, but it won’t tell the whole story. Last year’s team limited the all-conference standout Stockstill to just 166 yards and an interception, which was good. And then the rest of the season happened, which was very bad. After all 2017’s turnover, I think the MTSU veteran will be closer to his 2016 form — you know, back when he torched VU for 399 yards and three touchdowns — than his underwhelming performance last year.
Kyle Shurmur’s pretty good though. And Ke’Shawn Vaughn/Khari Blasingame should be a pretty strong running platoon.
The pick: Vanderbilt 33, MTSU 23
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Washington (+2) over Auburn.
Andrew VU ‘04:
Regardless of what I think, Lady Fortuna will move her fickle finger, and chaos will ensue. It is the first week of the football season, after all, and we have a history to uphold. In Mason’s first season, he tried to take Temple to Deep Water, but our hets got wet (L 37-7). In his 2nd, The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers came to town and Hilltopped us (L 14-12). In his 3rd, South Cackalacky kicked us in the Game Penises (L 13-10). Last year, in his 4th season, Mason learned two things about week one at Vanderbilt—stop playing on Thursdays and stop playing at home. Lady Fortuna plum forgot about us, and we kicked the ever-loving crap out of the Empty S-U Blue Nathaniel Bedford Forrests (W 28-6).
*Note: If you don’t get the reference, see CDA’s MTSU preview for a history of their tie ins with the Klan.
This year, we play those selfsame Murfreesboro-ians. Do I know what will happen? No. Still, this is a predictions page, and I predict... well... chaos. On paper, this is a game we should win by 10 points or more. We have a senior QB (Shurmur, who may well be better than every other SEC QB save for two at Bama, one at Auburn, and one from a Big XII school I refuse to recognize). We have a bad-ass WR (Lipscomb). We have the worlds best dog lawyer (Blasingame). We have a well rested team with no significant injury concerns. It’s not played on a Saturday. Mason still owns his dancin’ vest. All good things.
However... Empty S-U has their own seasoned QB (as Brent Stockstill has been their starting QB since the Nixon administration). Further, you just know they will have a referee sanctioned 13 players on the field at all times, Earl Bennet will be called for dancing, and Jeff Green will travel. We all know this—let’s not debate.
The pick: Oh, let’s not overthink this. We’re playing Empty S-U. It’s a win. 24-13.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: It’s not an upset when the Chuggers lose to WVU, right? No? Okay, then. CMU goes into Lexington and knocks off the Cayutts. Let’s say 38-34.
While MTSU has become a popular pick, with the Vegas line dropping from Vanderbilt -6.5 at opening to Vanderbilt -3 now, mostly because lol Vandy, there is one significant factor in this game that everybody seems to be missing.
Here are the sizes of MTSU’s offensive linemen: 6’3”/338 (LT Carlos Johnson); 6’3”/298 (LG Robert Behanan); 6’3”/281 (C Josh Fannin); 6’6”/320 (RG Chandler Brewer); and 6’2”/267 (RT Amir Luckett.) Vanderbilt’s defense really struggled from the Alabama game on as the defensive line got pushed around by anybody and everybody in the SEC — but this is not an SEC offensive line. MTSU’s defensive line is similarly undersized. I’m not about to completely write off the Blue Raiders’ chances, but even in the disaster of last year this was not a team that Vanderbilt struggled with. It’s hard to see how this undersized front seven creates problems for a Vanderbilt team with an experienced offensive line, and it’s equally difficult to see how Vanderbilt’s front seven has much trouble against an undersized offensive line.
While Vanderbilt being terrible seems to be a common opinion in the preseason, if you told me to pick between “Vanderbilt wins a blowout” and “MTSU wins,” I’m picking Vanderbilt to win in a blowout.
The pick: Vanderbilt 31, MTSU 14
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: There’s been this weird narrative that has developed that LSU is not very good; however, that defense is stacked, and this seems like the kind of dumb loss that Mark Richt has become famous for. I will pick LSU (+3) to beat Miami by a score of like 6 to 5.
VU ‘04 covered all of the reasons for being positive (except this game IS played on a Saturday???). Tom pointed out the trench warfare issues MTSU faces. Brent Stockstill is a very real threat. Ty Lee was the leading pass catcher for the Blue Raiders, but he was held in check against the Commodores last season even with a healthy Richie James to drag coverages. JoeJuan Williams will probably be tasked with shutting down Lee, and he is a very good CB.
For all of their struggles against SEC offenses, the Vanderbilt defense dominated their non-conference foes. A lot of new faces will be stepping into bigger roles, but I would be very surprised if the Odeyingbo brothers and Charles Wright do not have a party in MTSU’s backfield. MTSU’s only hope is likely to be a flurry of slants and quick screens. Mason and Tarver should be ready for it and have a gameplan in place to shut it down. Meanwhile, the new-look offense with its same leader should actually keep their foot on the gas while breaking in new WRs and RBs. The score last year was generous because Ludwig went into the 4-minute offense halfway through the 2nd quarter.
The pick: 34-10
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Ole Miss (+2.5) @ Texas Tech. Since this is the only upset I picked for an SEC game, the choice was obvious. Matt Luke may be the 2nd coming of Ed Orgeron, but Kliff Kingsbury is a homelessman’s version of Lane Kiffin circa 2009. The option to defend will be denied. Ole Miss will just score a bit more. RebelBearSharks win 42-35.
Once again this week I’m tasked with trying to add something after everyone else has covered pretty much the meat of the discussion. Yeah, Middle has given us issues in the past. Yes, except for last year, they’ve always at least felt close. Yes, Vanderbilt has a lot of question marks all over.
In the end, however, Vanderbilt is still better at depth, size, and talent. In the end, this is what will win you ball games. As DotP pointed out, as much as we struggled against the SEC last year, we destroyed non-KSU OOPs. And frankly, we played well against that “explosive” offense too.
I’m looking at a game that starts out slow. Vanderbilt is going to try out some new plays at stupid moments. We know nothing about our kicking situation, but knowing Vandy, we’ll screw one of those up too. But in the end, I’m looking at a team that’s going to win. By how much is going to depend mostly on how much that Defense can step it up.
The pick: I have to go with the conventional wisdom of VU04 here. Don’t overthink it. Two score game sounds right. VU wins 31 - 17.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: I raise my eyebrow at CDA taking Washington here, but took the points in the pick’em. Normally that’s understandable, but it’s such a small spread! I also enjoy the VU04 pick of CSU beating UK, but I’m not so bold as to take it. Until LSU proves it can throw the ball, I cannot agree with Tom on that LSU-Miami game (though I do agree it’s going to be a 9-7 ish game). This leaves me with the only upset, one DotP clearly cannot take. CDA is correct, Washington(+2.5) over Aubbie.
‘Does win by 14+ points. The reasoning has been pretty well covered: better talent, depth, and probably coaching. I see versatility in this offense. Against MTSU, I predict a more spread offense with winning first at the point of attack on the ground. Despite a lackluster defense last year, I don’t think the Raiders have much to challenge Vanderbilt’s defense this year.
It’s true, Mason needs to show better results via competency of defense against inferior and similarly talented foes. There needs to be a better scheme against the teams that are poor match ups for us. That’s not here, though.
I think it plays out with a scripted opening drive resulting in a touchdown for the ‘Dores. The Raiders will try something similar but be overmatched. Vandy will get a field goal on the next possession. Somewhere in the first half Schurmur will throw a pick and everyone will freak out. By the end of the third quarter, MTSU will be worn down from a more up temp pace from both offenses.
Our collective PTSD will kick in and try to find something negative, but it’ll be a solid opener and our hopes will begin to rise.
The pick: 34-17, Fighting Masons.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Does Alabama not covering 24.5 count? While at Bama, Saban has only failed to cover an opener. If not, Washington over the Barn.