You probably know that Vanderbilt is undefeated, but did you know the ‘Dores have not trailed once this season? A smothering defense is just the starting point for an experienced team off to its best start in six years. Let’s get to know Vanderbilt with Anchor of Gold/TSK’s Tom Stephenson.
1. The core of Vanderbilt's bowl team returned on offense, including RB Ralph Webb and QB Kyle Shurmer. Yet, it has been the defense that has outperformed, despite its losses: The 'Dores are 14th in S&P defense, but just 76th in offense. Any clue why this offense is underperforming again? Or is this underperforming?
Well, Vanderbilt finished last season 90th in Offensive S&P+ so technically it's improved. There's actually been a lot of retooling on the offensive line with LT Will Holden and C Barrett Gouger graduated; two of last year's starters have moved positions with Justin Skule moving from RT to LT and Bruno Reagan moving from RG to C. What's more, starting fullback Bailey McElwain has missed the first three games of the season, and you combine all of that with defenses going all out to stop the run and... the results haven't been pretty. And that's all leaving aside the fact that Ralph Webb, even when he's found room to run, just hasn't done much at all.
The collapse of the run game has been one of the more shocking developments of this season, which is really a shame, because if you paired last year's run game with the very real improvements that Kyle Shurmur has made, you'd have one of the SEC's best offenses.
2. Vandy has the 122nd ranked Special Teams in the nation, dead last in the SEC. What have been the problems areas? Potential bright spots?
Well, that's a little misleading. Tommy Openshaw is 0-for-2 on field goals, but one of those was from 56; that almost doesn't count. He's also been basically perfect on kickoffs. Punter Sam Loy hasn't been great, but a lot of that was simply a function of him being more interested in keeping the ball the hell away from Kansas State's punt returner than kicking it deep. Vanderbilt doesn't have much of a return game, though. I don't think the special teams are great by any stretch, but 122nd in the nation sounds unreasonably low.
3. The Commodores don't have the name power on defense they've had the last few seasons with Cunningham's departure to the NFL, tell us how Vandy has reloaded on defense and some players to watch.
Derek Mason is still running this defense, and as long as that's the case, Vanderbilt is going to be strong on that side of the ball. If anything, the defense has gotten even more aggressive than it was last year... I think some of that is the freedom of having never trailed in a game and thus never being in a situation where you just absolutely can't let the other team score. Vanderbilt's had a tendency toward bend-don't-break in the past couple of years and that's really not the case this year, with a lot more havoc plays and just a lot more aggressiveness.
As far as names to know, LB Charles Wright already has 5.5 sacks this season and is on pace for a monster year -- which is honestly pretty great for a guy who was a late addition to the 2014 recruiting class (when Mason had to fill out the class in about 17 days -- thanks, James Franklin!) Two senior linebackers -- Emmanuel Smith and Oren Burks -- have helped a lot in stuffing the run game, as well. And don't underestimate the defensive line; you won't hear their names very much, but Nifae Lealao is great at occupying blockers and freeing up those linebackers to make plays.
4. An otherwise-good passing attack can be derailed by lack of players on the outside: Tell us about the receiving corps and who the threat is on this team.
This is actually a really underrated receiving corps. Trent Sherfield is the deep threat, C.J. Duncan is a great guy to have on underneath routes. Kalija Lipscomb is more hit or miss but he's averaging 17.7 yards per catch. And don't forget the tight end, either: Jared Pinkney is 6'4"/255 and too fast for most linebackers to handle. Okay, maybe not Bama's linebackers...
5. Last year at SEC Media Days we noted how much more comfortable Coach Derek Mason seemed. Now, after having taken the 'Dores back to a bowl, he's seems more than a journeyman: he plainly loves the school. How has he been received by the fan base after years of coaching uncertainty and turnover? Is Mason a long-term solution? Has community support followed to put more butts in seats lately?
It seems every week, one of our loyal commenters at AoG fesses up to being completely wrong about Mason in 2014 and 2015. There were lots of completely legitimate criticisms of him back then, but even then he managed to get the team to play hard when they could have mailed it in. I think a lot of people underestimated just how much of a mess James Franklin left behind; to be blunt, while his recruiting classes were rated highly, in hindsight he was mostly recruiting to impress a school like Penn State more than to build a program at Vanderbilt. We'll see if it holds up, but at this moment, it's hard to find a Vanderbilt fan who doesn't like Mason.
I think Mason's probably going to be here a while. Now you'll probably hear his name floated for other jobs this offseason, specifically Arizona and/or Arizona State (since he's from Phoenix), but I don't think he takes either of those jobs. If Stanford opens up in the near future -- well, that's a different matter, but I think Mason wants to be at Vanderbilt for a while.
That said, if there's a potential problem, Vanderbilt's administration just isn't putting in the effort with facilities and support and the like, and it's an open question whether Mason will use the leverage of an 8- or 9-win season (which is entirely possible) to get the administration to move. There's talk that the football team may move off campus to a freaking MLS stadium, which just screams "SEC football team", doesn't it?
6. Vanderbilt (kind of) shocks the world: Tell us the formula for an upset.
Oh, you want me to tell you how you might lose this game? I think three things have to happen for Vanderbilt to have a chance:
-Avoid the early knockout blow
-Play mistake-free football
Vanderbilt is not only 3-0; they've never actually trailed in a game this season. I think the complexion of this game completely changes if Alabama scores on its first two possessions and Vanderbilt goes three-and-out. Kyle Shurmur has looked great so far this season, but we've really yet to see how he handles a situation where the defense is actually expecting him to throw the ball. And we also haven't seen how the defense responds to being punched in the mouth -- if the past is any guide, Vanderbilt may lay off the aggression and revert to bend-don't-break, which is a really dangerous way to play Alabama.
It's also fairly obvious that Vanderbilt isn't going to beat Alabama if they're turning the ball over... but even if they're not, I'm struggling to see how the Commodores will move the ball on Alabama's defense. What could help, though, is if the defense can force some turnovers and give the offense a short field to work with. Or, hell, a defensive touchdown or two.
The thing is, though, that while I can see any one of these three things happening individually, Vanderbilt probably needs all three to happen. And that's just to have a chance.
7. Tell our readers a can't-miss place for food and libations when visiting Nashville's West End.
Sadly, a lot of my old favorite spots -- like Sam's, which was my go-to place to watch away games while at Vanderbilt -- are now gone and replaced by... I don't know, stuff that appeals to hipsters? That said, Pizza Perfect on 21st Avenue across from the Medical Center is a great place to grab a slice and not far from the stadium. Rotier's on Elliston Place is highly recommended for burgers, and while as a current Texan I can't personally recommend you eat Mexican food in Nashville, there is SATCO (full name: San Antonio Taco Co.) on 21st, though it's also a noted undergrad hangout spot.
As far as libations? There's Tin Roof on Demonbreun if you're really in the mood to hang out with undergrads. Otherwise, I've heard Broadway Brewhouse and Tavern on Broadway -- which is really on the other side of campus from the stadium, but I mostly remember West End itself being your standard selection of chain restaurants. There are a few more upscale bars in Hillsboro Village if that's your thing. You can't really go wrong here, though.