We’re Vanderbilt fans here, and so far the read on our 2019 football team is one of cautious optimism. We know that we can’t take anything for granted, but we see reasons to feel good about our team’s chances to at least make a bowl game in 2019, if not win seven games or so. That’s the prediction I’ve made this week, and I’m sticking with it.
But, in the comments to yesterday’s mailbag, We Ready made the following comment:
I agree that, in a lot of ways, I expect the season that is spoken of in this and other recent posts. 6+ wins.
However, the prescription is there for the Great Het Wetting II, and I can easily see this season being a catastrophe that gets Mason fired. This is the not what we want, of course, but the last thing we should be doing is talking about how good we are going to be before the season starts. That often doesn’t work in the NFL, and this is Vanderbilt with Mason as the coach. We need to be careful with this optimism in my opinion. Confidence is important, but false confidence is about the worst thing for us. I would prefer “the boats are burning!” type of fear.
This is certainly a valid point, because if you go around the interwebs, picking Vanderbilt to finish 7th in the SEC East and win something like 4 or 5 games all season is a basically universal opinion. And if anybody’s deviating from that opinion, it’s because they’re predicting a complete collapse to 3-9 or even 2-10.
In fairness, some of those opinions are being given by people who can’t name anybody who plays for Vanderbilt other than Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb, and Jared Pinkney, and in a few cases that may actually be giving them too much credit. But some of these opinions are being given by people who know the SEC East very well, and have informed opinions. (Now, I’ll grant that there are almost no people with informed opinions who predict a complete collapse — but there are people who have an informed opinion and think Vanderbilt will go 4-8 or 5-7.) In fact, you won’t find too many people outside of Anchor of Gold who think 7-5 is even possible, much less something you’d actually predict.
At least some of the difference is because we probably know way more about Vanderbilt’s roster than your average national college football writer, or even a lot of people who cover another team in the SEC East. But some of it is just because we’re homers. So, this post is an exploration of why the haters might be right. Your regularly-scheduled diet sunshine pumping and unicorns will resume on Monday. Today, the question is why I might be wrong.
The offensive line gets hurt
While going through the position previews, my prevailing thought on the offensive line was that Vanderbilt’s first string is probably fine, but things tail off rather rapidly once you get into the second string. Vanderbilt can definitely field five offensive linemen who have starting experience, or at the very least have shown enough that we feel we can plug them in without tragic results.
But once you get past about six or seven guys, you start to see guys who are “projectable” but haven’t seen much, if any, time on the field — or, worse, guys who still need to spend some time in the weight room. This is the one danger spot on the offense: Vanderbilt has good playmakers at the skill positions, and should be able to find at least competent quarterback play (and if all else fails, give Ke’Shawn Vaughn the damn ball), but the offensive line has a ton of unknowns.
Nobody steps up in the back eight
Weirdly, the defensive line is the area of the defense where I have the fewest questions. Three players have starting experience, and there are enough newcomers who already have SEC size that you think they can be plugged into the rotation. That gets even better if transfers Malik Langham and Derek Green are eligible.
Behind that are where the questions start. The linebacking corps loses Jordan Griffin and Josh Smith. Gone, too, are both of last year’s starting cornerbacks (Joejuan Williams and Donovan Sheffield) and starting safety LaDarius Wiley.
On paper, at least, the secondary isn’t a huge concern: they’ve recruited reasonably well, and Tae Daley and Frank Coppet are experienced. The linebackers, though, are mostly freshmen and sophomores. There’s potential here, but it’s possible that this group just isn’t ready in 2019.
The offense can’t outscore the defense
There are some very weird parallels to the 2005 team, right down to having an NFL prospect quarterback who grew up in Indiana. The 2005 team featured Jay Cutler throwing passes to Earl Bennett, and the result was the best offense of Bobby Johnson’s tenure, averaging 27.2 ppg and scoring 28 points or more on seven different occasions. That was actually the best offense Vanderbilt had fielded since 1948, when Red Sanders’ last Commodore team went 8-2-1 and finished 12th in the AP poll.
The problem was that the defense wasn’t close to the standard set by some of Bobby Johnson’s later teams. Johnson eventually got the defense to the point that a team that rotated Mackenzi Adams and Chris Nickson at quarterback, with Jared Hawkins as its leading rusher and Sean Walker its leading receiver, could make a bowl game. But the 2005 defense wasn’t enough to propel Cutler and Bennett. After a fluke loss to MTSU, the defense allowed 34 or more points in five straight games, all Commodore losses.
It is easy to see how this could happen in 2019. It’s not difficult to imagine Vanderbilt having a high-powered offense that loses a bunch of shootouts because the defense can’t stop anyone. Now, if you’re predicting Vanderbilt as a team that’s getting blown out in every SEC game, that’s probably not happening... but losing a string of games by scores of 35-28? Yeah, that can happen.
The rest of the SEC East really is better
The last part of this is the part we’re least sure about, because there really does exist the possibility that the rest of the East is worth the hype. I’m not talking about Georgia or even Florida (who I think is overrated a bit, but probably still a team that should beat Vanderbilt in Gainesville.) I’m talking about Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Kentucky loses its star players on both offense and defense, but what if Mark Stoops really has recruited well enough to fill those holes? Missouri strikes me as a team that a lot of writers irrationally love (as a side note, when sportswriter love is constantly bringing up how soft a team’s schedule is, maybe stop and ask if they’re actually that good or if you’re just overrating them because “they could be 8-0 when they go to Georgia”), but maybe they’re actually right. Tennessee returns 16 starters and maybe the recruiting rankings were actually not overrating them simply because they’re Tennessee’s recruits.
When I talk myself into Vanderbilt, I’m largely talking myself into being just good enough to beat some of those teams — but what if those teams are just good enough to beat Vanderbilt instead? Regardless of how rational I get, I can’t see a 2014-style disaster. But seeing a 2005-type team that is good enough to keep games close but can’t actually win them.