The guys at Vanderbilt Sports Line were kind enough to answer a few questions about the coming season for their beloved Commies, and they provided some great insight into the collective mind of a fanbase that's typically ignored by the rest of the conference. Be sure to check them out regularly. Now, to the questions.
Bobby O'Shea: I was really hoping to be able to slam all or most of what you said in your Vanderbilt preview. I was quite disappointed when I wasn't able to do so. The one glaring place where I disagree with you is on what Vanderbilt's record will be overall. I have the Commies (a significantly better nickname than "Dores" if you ask us) finishing 8-4, including a win in Nashville over your beloved Tide. I don't know this for sure, but I would bet that over the last 10 years Vanderbilt has covered the spread against Bama no less than 70% of the time. While that has nothing to do with anything, I thought I'd throw that in there.
There was one point you made on Tuesday about Chris Nickson that I didn't agree with, and that was your assessment of his feet "getting him into trouble." While at times I thought he was looking to run first too much, the stats you cited (19 sacks for a loss of 112 yards) had as much to do with Nickson's lack of help on the line and lack of offensive weapons beyond Earl Bennett. I'm also not sure I would call Cassen Jackson-Garrison's pass catching and blocking abilities an "asset."
The fact that between the three of us, that was all we could come up with means either a) you did a great job, or b) we're pretty lazy. I'm willing to bet it's a little bit of both.
2. With all the talent returning and a favorable home schedule, is this a "show me" year for Bobby Johnson? Will he be on the hot seat if Vandy doesn't make a bowl (or, at the very least, get bowl eligible without earning an invitation)?
BO: For me, this is absolutely a "show me year." This is year 6 of Bobby's reign. These are all his players and his system is firmly in place. Top to bottom, this is the most talented Vanderbilt team we've put on the field in some time. Earl Bennett is one of the best players in the country. Chris Nickson has a year under his belt and has steadily improved and developed over the last year and a half. We return the entire O-line and actually have some decent running backs. Jonathan Goff returns and will anchor the defense that played a lot more downs than it should have. If this team, with this schedule, can't find a way to get to a bowl game then I honestly think the question has to be asked as to whether or not Bobby Johnson can take this team any further.
Seamus O'Toole: Yes, this is a show-me year. Six wins and he's solidified the job for several years to come. Anything less and the fans will be calling for his head, although the administration might not have the guts to pull the plug seeing as his big contract extension was supposedly a sign of their confidence in him over the long haul. Six is the number to focus on: his 6th season, he needs 6 wins.
It's worth mentioning that Bobby Johnson might have the toughest coaching job in college football, not in terms of pressure of course, but in terms of finding ways to win and be successful in what is by far the most brutal conference. There's a good argument to be made that Stanford in 2001 doesn't go 9-2 in the SEC; or Northwestern in '95 to the Rose Bowl with an SEC schedule; or (does this need to be said?) Wake Forest conference champs/BCS bowl out of the SEC; etc. At any given point in this season, 8 teams in the conference could be in the Top 25... So while, in my book, this is a make-or-break year for Bobby, I understand the Herculean task he has and the reluctance of the administration to bounce a guy who keeps churning out successful kids - whether they're on Wall Street or in the NFL or in the lab.
Stanimal: I am more on the fence on this one than the guys are. This is a tough call. Bobby J. has done a ton with a program that has been a perennial doormat since the early 1980s. While the recruiting services might say that Vandy's classes have been mediocre at best, he has certainly found a number of players that did not receive a lot of hype that have equaled the prima-donnas in production (Earl Bennett, Jonathan Goff, Chris Nickson,). However, at some point Vandy's football program must turn the corner and get above .500. This year is pivotal in determining whether or not we will gain some consistency in program success, and while I don't think Bobby will get canned for no bowl this year, I'd have to say he will next year (considering most of the skill players will be seniors).
3. What will have to happen for you to consider this season "successful?"
SO: Bowl game. Any bowl. Anywhere.
S: This season is a success if we get to a bowl, any bowl. Anything less is a step back.
BO: I agree with the Seamus and Stan on this one, but I would like to set the bar slightly higher. Given that Vanderbilt hasn't been to a bowl game since 1982, I would have to say that getting to the post-season is the primary goal. With that said, I think this team is better than a 6-6 "toilet-bowl." I would love to see this team play on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day and ultimately, I would consider that a successful season where the team, for once, lived up to its potential.
4. What would you say is the average Vandy fan's expectations from the Commodores in any given year? Is it enough for most fans for the football team to be the scariest damn non-bowl team in the conference, or is there a legitimate hope/desire to see the team consistently winning significant games and making bowl appearances?
S: Average is a sticky word, so I'm going to base my response on those who actually care about the success of the team, which isn't necessarily all of the student body. Therefore, the "average" Vandy fan wants to get to a bowl game badly. They aren't satisfied with the current level of success, but they also understand that it's a building phase of the program. Nobody expected to come out and win 4 games last year and play teams as close as we did. But in order for us to take the next step, we gotta win a bowl, and that is the expectation of almost any one who cares about the program advancing. I think success is contagious and if we start getting a little bit, you'll see a lot more fans pouring in.
BO: I take a slightly different view than Stanimal, in that, unfortunately, I don't think the average Vanderbilt fan expects much out of this team. If they are looking for anything, it's to get a few wins, maybe shock a big-boy and get to watch their team on TV; all the better if they can rub it in the face of a friend of their's who roots for a traditional power. With that said, I have always been disappointed with how accepting of losing Vanderbilt fans are. I think if the students expect more than being a "scary non-bowl team," then you have a better chance of putting that kind of team on the field. If you are complacent, or simply don't care (as is the case with many Vanderbilt students and alums), then what you get is what you've gotten historically--which is not much at all. Not to go off on a tangent here, but I really think Vanderbilt athletics, including football, is about to turn the corner. Fans are starting to expect more, they've started to care, and they've started to get excited. It's not a big deal for a Bama fan, because you all are always on the cover of the regional college football previews. Vanderbilt never makes it. But this year, Vanderbilt fans ponied up and pre-ordered over 1,000 copies of the Athlon guide in March or April. That to me is proof positive that there are fans out there who care and that they are starting to do their part.
Now, trying to tie this back to your original question, I think there SHOULD BE hope and a desire to build a winning program. With 4 non-conference games a year, Vanderbilt should put themselves in a position to win 3 of those 4 every year, and then try and get the others through the SEC. Is this easy? Hell no, but it's not impossible. If Kentucky or Ole Miss can do it, there is no reason why Vanderbilt can't. Momentum builds upon itself and for Vanderbilt to be successful they are going to have to get some signature wins and play in a bowl game. If they can do that, they will get better recruits, which will enable them to win even more games. But getting that first shoe to drop is key and hopefully, it will drop this season.
SO: Clearly Bobby and I have talked a lot about this.
Average fan expects us to lose. Not just the games against powerhouses, but the MTSU's and Kentucky's of the world as well. They all know we're good enough to be a winning team but I think most (perhaps due to some historical sense of being cursed?) think that 2005 (with Jay Cutler at the helm, we started 4-0 and then lost to MTSU on our way to dropping 6 straight before beating UT) is a representative sampling of the agony of being a Vandy fan. Some of the die-hards buy into this too because, like someone who's been hurt in relationships too many times, they are afraid to get too close to any team or expect too much since they assume heartbreak is waiting on the other side. Success in other major sports seems to be helping to curb this as fans get more excited and rally behind the Dores.
In short, the answer to this question may be different after this season if we're successful because the "average Vandy fan" will come from a wider and more energetic fan base, liberated as they are from the painful memories of the past. Here's to hoping anyway...
5. Vandy has had plenty of success in basketball and baseball recently. Does that help to boost desire for success on the football field, or does it send football to the backburner for most fans?
BO: In my view, football is always king. With that said, I think the recent successes of both the baseball and basketball teams help football. It lifts the athletic profile of the school and explodes the theory of Vanderbilt as a school where no one cares and where it's impossible to win. Is winning in the SEC in football harder than winning in either of the other two sports? Sure. But Vanderbilt's recent successes would certainly seem to help the football program because it again, going back to the idea of the fans needing to care on some level, shows fans that Vanderbilt doesn't have to be an SEC doormat.
S: Our basketball and baseball teams' success has been a breath of fresh air coming from a school that has struggled in the athletic department. But the fact remains that we are in SEC country, and down here, football is king. The success of those two teams has been phenomenal, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone I would think that would say football is on the back-burner.
SO: See my answer to the previous question. Yes, it definitely helps boost desire for football success and (I think) increases the chances that we'll be successful.
6. What do you see as the biggest area of concern for the Vandy offense in the coming season?
SO: The running game. While we were a respectable 4th in the SEC in rushing last year, we're just too inconsistent and cough the ball up too much. Running the ball is way too important in the SEC for Vandy to be as inconsistent as we are. The loss of Steven Bright at fullback is going to hurt big time, and Jennings is the projected starter at tailback coming out of spring but is a big question mark because of his ACL injury. Expect to see a lot of option and a lot of passing, and (if he can hang on to the ball) Chris Nickson will be the biggest threat on the ground.
Although it's not a specific "area" of concern, staying healthy might be the most important element of Vandy's season. With so little depth at crucial positions, injuries would be the death knell of this team.
BO: The running game. Vanderbilt's inability to hand the ball off and get positive yards has killed this team. EN is one of the most dynamic players in the SEC, if not the country, but if there is no threat that Vanderbilt can move the chains on the ground, then he becomes a hell of a lot easier to defend. Nickson is great at scrambling, but if he is the only one that can make something happen with his feet he is going to a) get his brains beat in, and b) the offense will have a difficult time winning any TOP battles, which often decide games in the SEC. For Vanderbilt to be successful, they need to limit how much time their D is on the field. Despite having the most talent in some time at Vanderbilt, this is still not a deep team (especially by SEC standards). Where we lose games is when our second unit plays too many downs. A running attack that can actually grind the ball down field is a great way to cut down on that.
S: I love Earl Bennett, but we really need another reliable receiver. George Smith looked great in the spring game and has the build and athletic ability to be successful, but the spring game isn't the real thing and he really needs to step into that support role. Every team would like to have a little more depth across their O-line as well, but you can't beat five starters. The main concern as Bobby and Seamus point out is at running back. Having Jeff Jennings back is a great addition, but there is no reason that Chris Nickson should be leading the team in rushing. CJG and Jennings need to show that they can also carry the load.
7. And for the defense?
S: Without question our secondary is the biggest concern. Vandy has always been known for producing excellent linebackers and our front seven should be tough. While D.J. Moore is developing well in the secondary, our other three players have a lot to prove. We really need someone to step up at FS as we have a tendency to get beat deep often (refer to Kentucky game last year).
BO: The Secondary.
SO: Surprise, surprise...the secondary. No one jumps out at you as a great talent, and all are capable of giving up the big play at any given point in a game. I'd like to see more of Darlron Spead, who we used in the nickel package last season, and if Myron Lewis isn't getting it done as the base corner, mix it up and bring in freshman Jamie Graham (potential two-sport athlete and supposedly disgusting anywhere on the field).
Note also that the outlook for special teams is at best questionable and realistically dismal. Hahnfeldt was a dreadful 8 of 17 on field goals last season and there's been talk that he may also take over punting duties this season if Brett Upson isn't up to par. Cringe...
8. Finally, and purely for fun, if you could take one starter at a skill position from the current Commodores depth chart and exchange him for a former starter from any era of Vandy football, who would you swap and why?
SO: On Offense: Allama Matthews, All-American tight end who led the SEC in receiving in 1982 and holds Vandy's single-season TD reception record (14). Junior Brad Allen is the projected starter at tight end having never caught a pass in college - he scares me.
On Defense: I want Leonard Coleman, All-American corner in 1983 with 8 picks. DJ Moore has trouble with bigger receivers and Myron Lewis should probably be a safety.
S:. I'd probably say Corey Chavous, perhaps our most notable alumnus at free safety. That in my mind is our real week spot. Having Chavous back there as captain of our secondary would go a long way in solidifying that group.
BO: I'm sure your readership is going to be shocked that no one's mentioned Jay Cutler. I'm not mentioning him because there are other holes on this team that I would rather fill than at QB. With that said, not being the football expert that these other two are, I would have to say the Real World's M.J. Garrett. I think his tales of hot-tub romances and "finding out what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real" would be just what this team's locker room needs to stay loose.
Be sure to check these guys out for any and all Vandy news. Look for more from them once football season starts, as we'll try to get them to join us for a rountable about the Tide's trip to Nashville.