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2014 MSU Football Opponent Preview: Vanderbilt

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The last home game of the season will bring the fighting oak leaves to town. Given how most in the media think that Vanderbilt will immediately revert back to its old bungling ways without James Franklin, many consider this game a pretty safe bet for an MSU win. But Derek Mason has some talent to work with, and by mid-November may have a scrappy team that's fighting for bowl eligibility. Let's discuss.

Vanderbilt's players anchoring the line. See what I did there?
Vanderbilt's players anchoring the line. See what I did there?
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

So, what’s the deal?

Vanderbilt, at Davis Wade Stadium, November 22, 2014

Was Vandy any good last year?

Yeah, Vandy was pretty solid last year, just as they were the year before. The Commodores won nine games in both 2012 and 2013, and notched victories over every other team in the East in that span save South Carolina. (And those losses were closeSC’s combined margin of victory in ‘12 and ‘13 was fourteen points.) At the same time, Vandy managed to avoid bad losses. Seven of their eight losses came against teams ranked in the top 20 at season’s end, and five of those finished in the final top 10.

But since I only watched a few of the Dores’ games last year, all I knew about them was that Jordan Matthews was a man among boys, and that James Franklin’s gusto for life somehow translated into wins. So I thought it’d be informative to take a brief look at how they did what the did by visiting the mathemagical world of statistics. What I found was not quite what I was expecting.

First, the offense:

Vanderbilt’s 2013 Offense in SEC Games

Offensive category

SEC Rank

Scoring Offense

8th

Rushing Offense

Yards per game

13th

Yards per carry

14th

Passing Offense

Yards per game

9th

Yards per attempt

8th

Total Offense

12th

3rd Down Conversion %

13th

Turnovers

Fumbles lost

2nd

Interceptions thrown

10th

Red Zone TD Scoring %

3rd

Sacks Allowed

13th

Tackles for Loss Allowed

11th

Big Plays

10+ yards

11th

20+ yards

12th

That's not the prettiest of offenses, folks. Terrible pass protection and run blocking, anemic rushing attack, and little-to-no deep threat. Even with one of the best wide receivers in the conference last yearand one of the best Vanderbilt wide receivers of all timethe passing game was in the bottom half of the league. The red zone scoring was impressive, but it kind of had to be, right? I mean, how the hell else could they have scored with an offense so bad at hitting big plays?

So without even looking at the defense's numbers, I can intuit that it must have been fairly solid. And by comparison, it was:

Vanderbilt’s 2013 Defense in SEC Games

Defensive category

SEC Rank

Scoring Defense

9th

Rushing Defense

Yards per game

5th

Yards per carry

4th

Passing Defense

Yards per game

8th

Yards per attempt

2nd

Total Defense

6th

Opponent’s 3rd Down Conversion %

11th

Turnovers

Fumbles forced

3rd

Interceptions

1st

Red Zone TD Scoring % Defense

12th

Sacks per game

5th

Tackles for Loss per game

3rd

Big Plays Allowed

10+ yards

12th

20+ yards

1st


Those aren’t all eye-popping numbers, but still remarkably better than the team’s performance on the other side of the ball. A ball-hawking defense that stuffed the run and regularly made plays behind the line of scrimmage.


So, not totally unlike Mullen’s best teams at State, Vandy seemed to lean on its defense and made just enough plays on offense to (mostly) beat all but the best teams it played.


Is Vandy going to be any good this year?


The conventional wisdom is that the Dores are going to take a big step backwards. Despite the current train wrecks in Knoxville and Gainesville, and the key pieces missing from last year’s East champion Missouri team, the media picked Vandy to finish 6th in the East, ahead of only Kentucky. To add insult to injury, none of the media’s 1st, 2nd, or 3rd All-SEC teams include a player from Vanderbilt.

Given the amount of change this Vandy team will face, these low expectations may be warranted. For example, the team only returns about a dozen starters from last year’s squad. It must replace its entire starting secondary, its quarterback, and both starting wide receivers, including the aforementioned demigod Matthews.


And of course the coaching staff is entirely new, so the the players that do return will have to adjust to entirely new schemesincluding a shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defenseand coaching personalities. Further, while Derek Mason seems like a solid hire, most outside the program thought so highly of Franklin that a dip in performance is almost expected regardless of the number of returning players taking the field.


I get all that, and, yes, it makes sense. But, after looking at the talent Vandy has coming back, and the pedigree of the staff Mason has put together, I’m not sure I’d count on an immediate regression into helplessness, at least not to the extent predicted by most of the media.

While it lost its primary QB from last year, the guys it has competing for the job aren't slouches. The lone returning player with experience is dual-threat sophomore Patton Robinette. His freshmen playing time was limited and yielded some not-so-impressive numbers, but he did deliver this gut-punch to an in-state rival that was fighting desperately for bowl eligibility:

Robinette GIF


What the others in the quarterback competition lack in experience, they more than make up for in talent. There's redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, a 6'4" 230 lb dual-threat guy who picked Vandy over FSU, Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, and Ohio State, among others. And there's LSU-transfer Stephen Rivers, a 6'7" pocket passer who originally signed with LSU over offers from FSU, Stanford, and UCLA, among others (including MSU).

It may also be worth noting that Vanderbilt was facing a similar quarterback situation last year, but experienced no drop off in wins. Carta-Samuels backed up Jordan Rodgers in 2012, attempting all of 25 passes in limited playing time. Upon Rodgers' departure in 2013, Carta-Samuels took over and the offense didn't really miss a beat.

Most of the other players on the offensive side are back outside of the starting wideouts. That includes two of the top three rushers, and four starting offensive linemen.

While the defense lost its entire secondarywhich was undoubtedly one of the stronger units on the team last yearthere are a number of playmakers back on that side of the ball as well. Two defensive ends that combined for 10 sacks and 17 TFLs return, as do a few other defensive linemen, linebackers (including a starting OLB who had 85 tackles last year), and safeties with playing experience. Add to that the potential immediate impact of an incoming blue chip freshman on the D-line, and there are some definite pieces for Mason to work with. (For a more in-depth look at who Vandy has coming back, take a gander at this.)

I think the determining factor may be the players' ability to adjust to the new schemes and their roles within them, especially on defense. I have no idea what first-year-but-well-seasoned offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell has in store for the team (though this guy seems to), but frankly, the offense wasn't that good to begin with, so Dorrell shouldn't be too hard pressed to at least come close to last year's output. The defense, on the other hand, will have to learn Mason's system quickly to pick up where Bob Shoop's unit left off. If they do, and if Mason is able to re-create even a reflection of what he had at Stanford, then I don't see why Vandy couldn't remain competitive with talent-rich-but-floundering programs at UT and UF. (Both of Vandy's games with those two, by the way, will be in Nashville this season.)

What are State's chances?

This game comes at a bad time for State, and at a great time for Vandy. For State, it's the fourth of five consecutive games in November, and is sandwiched between road games in Tuscaloosa and Oxford. Vandy, on the other hand, will be coming off a three week stretch that includes a home game against Old Dominion (who will be enjoying its first year in the FBS is 2014), a home game against Florida, and a bye week, in that order.

Notwithstanding the bad timing, though, I think this year's team will be able to handle a game like this. Unless Vandy's offense miraculously transforms itself into a juggernaut, my expectation is that our defense will win that match-up. And even though our offense last year was in many ways only marginally better than Vandy's, we return more players from a younger team that should for the first time have continuity at the QB position. That should be enough to get us the win, even if it turns into a tougher game than some of us may want it to be.