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A look at the strengths and weaknesses of Vanderbilt's depth chart in advance of Saturday's Mizzou-Vandy game. The Commodores don't have the weapons to punish Mizzou's occasionally iffy secondary, but the defense makes enough plays to give the Mizzou offense fits.
On Saturday, Mizzou will attempt to move to 4-2, and win its first ever SEC conference game, against The Other James Franklin's Vanderbilt Commodores. Franklin made waves last year in taking Vandy bowling in his first year in charge, but the 'Dores have struggled a bit this year.
Like Duke, Vanderbilt was, at one point, really, really good at football. The problem is that point was about 90-100 years ago. It was downhill from there, and it stayed downhill for a while. Put it this way: that Vandy team that went 6-7 last year? It might have been their best team in 30 years. That doesn't change the optimism for the future, but it does put into perspective that, in the SEC, someone has to lose. And historically, it's usually been Vanderbilt.
That said, it's now hip for the smart-kid schools to get their football act together. Jim Harbaugh laid out the blueprint at Stanford -- basically: bring in as many tough, smart kids as possible and teach them to be even tougher -- and in his first season as Vandy head coach, James Franklin followed that script rather well. I'm not sure what the Commodores' ceiling is with Franklin in charge, but it's higher than it once was, that's for sure. […]
Vandy was by no means great in 2011, but they were salty. They won the games they were supposed to win (6-1 versus teams with a losing record) and showed some serious competitiveness in tight losses to Georgia, Arkansas and Florida, but they finished 0-6 versus teams with winning records. They will try to change that in 2012.
James Franklin has pretty quickly raised the bar in Nashville, and with his recruiting successes, bigger things might be expected of the Commodores in the future. But after a surge, it is typically best to aim for consolidation of gains the next season. Bowl eligibility would equal major success for Vandy in 2012, especially considering the 'Dores have never actually been to bowls in back-to-back seasons. […]
It's amazing how much can change in one season. James Franklin changed the culture and mentality of Vanderbilt football, he is winning recruiting battles, and he won six games with a pretty inexperienced team a year ago. Honestly, nothing between about four and nine wins would surprise me in 2012, in part because the schedule is favorable and in part because, among other things, Franklin wiped the slate clean last fall. I officially have no idea what to expect from, or where to set the bar for Vandy football moving forward. That, in and of itself, is an amazing vote of confidence for a man by whose hire I was quite underwhelmed a couple of winters ago. Vanderbilt has quickly gone from the Homecoming opponent of choice for much of the SEC East to, at worst, a really tough out. We will see how quickly the young, talented recruits can earn playing time, but in the meantime Vanderbilt is going to simply go about life playing tough, smart football, ready to take advantage of any weaknesses you show along the way.
The 2012 season has been rather frustrating so far for Franklin and company. They let South Carolina off the ropes in their season-opener, injury Connor Shaw but failing to put together enough offense in a 17-13 loss. They dropped an equally frustrating 23-13 decision to Northwestern the next week, and after lighting up Presbyterian, they got lit up by Georgia.
The transitive property -- Vandy almost beat a team that crushed Missouri but got immediately romped by a team Missouri led late in the third quarter -- just spins us in circles here, so instead, let's see what we can learn from a trip into Vandy's depth chart (pdf).
Jordan Rodgers (6'1, 212, Sr.) (649 passing yards, 54% completion, 2 TD, 1 INT)
Austyn Carta-Samuels (6'0, 222, Jr.) (208 passing yards, 64% completion, 1 TD, 0 INT)
Patton Robinette (6'4, 204, Fr.)
Vandy has been dealing with a bit of a quarterback controversy this season. Jordan Rodgers (Aaron's brother) has not been particularly impressive and was briefly benched in favor of Wyoming transfer, and one-time Dave Christensen signee, Austyn-Carta Samuels, who looked perfectly fine against Presbyterian. Rodgers showed solid potential at times last year, but he probably needs more help from his receiving corps than he has received to date. In ranking him among the four FBS quarterbacks Mizzou has faced so far, he is far below Georgia's Aaron Murray and South Carolina's Connor Shaw, at least a step below Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, and is fighting it out for fourth place with UCF's Blake Bortles.
TB: Zac Stacy (5'9, 210, Sr.) (46 carries, 341 yards, 1 TD; 3 targets, 2 catch, 52 yards)
Brian Kimbrow (5'8, 180, Fr.) (20 carries, 156 yards, 1 TD; 3 targets, 1 catch, 2 yards)
Wesley Tate (6'1, 215, Jr.) (25 carries, 47 yards, 2 TD; 3 targets, 2 catches, 22 yards)
Warren Norman (5'10, 202, Jr.) (10 carries, 33 yards, 1 TD; 1 target, 1 catch, 9 yards)
Vanderbilt wants to play as physically as possible, and Zac Stacy is the perfect back for such an approach. He is a bowling ball running back, not unlike former Mizzou back Jimmy Jackson in stature, and he does well behind a couple of big fullbacks. His numbers have been skewed by a ridiculously good performance against Presbyterian (he had eight touches for 174 yards in that game and has gained 219 yards in 42 touches in the other three), but he is a solid back. The running back unit as a whole is pretty deep. Warren Norman is a former starter, and Brian Kimbrow was perhaps the star recruit from Vandy's 2012 recruiting class. There is potential here, and lord knows Vandy will run the ball as much as it can; build a lead against Vandy and force them to pass, and they are in trouble. But the longer the 'Dores can keep a game close, the longer they can attempt to wear you out on the ground.
Chris Boyd (6'4, 205, So.) (27 targets, 15 catches, 285 yards)
John Cole (5'10, 180, Sr.)
Here's where Vandy begins to run into trouble. There are 10 players listed above. Five have caught a pass. Two have caught more than five passes. Jordan Matthews is a stellar receiver -- he's good for at least one big gain per game, and his battle with E.J. Gaines could be really fun to watch -- but he needs a lot more help than he has gotten. Sophomore Chris Boyd is solid in an all-or-nothing role (Kip Edwards' occasional problems with the deep ball are problematic here, since he will most likely be matched up with Boyd), but the other eight players on the list above have combined for 15 targets, nine catches, and 85 yards.
Matthews and Boyd are bigger, reasonably physical receivers with solid speed. Gaines and Edwards have tended to match up pretty well with bigger targets in the past (Edwards has never looked better than when he was covering Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller in 2010-11), so hopefully that's a good thing, but the best news is that on first glance it doesn't appear Vandy is capable of truly punishing Mizzou for one of its bigger weaknesses: defensive back depth.
C: Spencer Pulley (6'4, 290, So.) (2 career starts)
Joe Townsend (6'3, 305, So.) (2 career starts)
Well, the left side of the line is certainly experienced. Wesley Johnson and Ryan Seymour have combined for 55 career starts -- they are each on their third year of starting duty -- but the rest of the line has been shuffled around a bit. Vandy has started two centers so far this year, and both Josh Jelesky and Andrew Bridges were only part-time starters last year. And the second-string might be even more inexperienced than Missouri's. This should be a pretty good matchup for the Missouri defensive line; I said the same thing last week, and after spending most of the first half fearing I was terribly wrong, I ended up more-or-less correct.
I'll say this much: Vandy keeps its defensive line fresh. The Commodores rotate in a lot of fresh bodies, especially at tackle, where five players have made between 3.0 and 5.5 tackles in four games. There is enough speed at end (especially in Walker May and 2012's other star recruit, Caleb Azubike) to take advantage of Missouri's offensive line if things do not improve at the tackle position with Elvis Fisher's return. Meanwhile, Vandy's defensive tackles are a lot more active in the Vandy defense than many you will see. Three different tackles have made at least 1.5 tackles for loss, and Jared Morse is incredibly active. This is not the best line Mizzou has faced this season, but it is active enough to give Mizzou fits.
That said, if the line isn't making plays, it is getting pushed around. It seems a bit all-or-nothing. Vandy ranks just 51st in Rushing S&P+ and 94th in unadjusted Success Rate. That isn't good. Aggression has a downside, and you occasionally see it from Vandy's line.
MLB: Chase Garnham (6'3, 234, Jr.) (23.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 1 QBH)
Kellen Williams (6'1, 220, RSFr.) (3.0 tackles, 1 PBU)
Vandy averages almost eight tackles for loss per game (a bit scary considering Mizzou has been happy to move backwards from time to time), and they have done so with an extremely active front seven. (Again, that's not always good) While the defensive tackles make more plays than a lot of the nation's DTs, the line still occupies enough blockers to free up the linebackers. Karl Butler is on pace for 15 tackles for loss, Archibald Barnes appears solid in pass coverage, and Chase Garnham is your prototypical tackling machine. Good unit.
The secondary is probably the steadiest part of Vandy's defense. Opponents have struggled to move the ball through the air or on passing downs this year, which is an alarming recipe for Missouri fans. Mizzou will test this unit's depth and big-play prevention ability, but it is pretty apparent that if Mizzou is falling into passing downs (particularly against an aggressive front four), the drive is probably likely to end soon.
P: Richard Kent (6'2, 202, Sr.) (20 punts, 45.2 average, 7 FC, 7 I20, 6 50+)
Ryan Fowler (5'10, 175, Sr.)
H: Richard Kent (6'2, 202, Sr.)
Jordan Rodgers (6'1, 212, Sr.)
KO: Carey Spear (5'10, 190, Jr.) (19 kickoffs, 60.8 average, 12 touchbacks)
Ryan Fowler (5'10, 175, Sr.) (2 kickoffs, 65.0 average)
KR: Brian Kimbrow (5'8, 180, Fr.) (10 KR, 24.1 average, long: 43)
Andre Hal (6'0, 184, Jr.) (6 KR, 23.3 average, long: 52)
PR: Jordan Matthews (6'3, 205, Jr.) (4 PR, 9.0 average, long: 16)
John Cole (5'10, 180, Sr.)
Vandy has a solid special teams unit overall. The return game and place-kicking are solid, and the 'Dores are 27th in Net Punting. Almost half of Richard Kent's punts have been fair-caught (bad for Mizzou), but Vandy does rank just 80th in Opponents' Punt Returns. There should be a lot of punting in this game, but if Kent gives Marcus Murphy a returnable punt, that is a very good thing for Mizzou.
It is probably fair to assume that this will be a relatively low-scoring game, as frustrating as that may be for Mizzou fans. I see Mizzou making just enough big plays to win this one by 10-14 points, and I don't see Vandy being able to move the ball incredibly well on the Mizzou defense (especially without depth in the receiving corps), but a low-scoring, punt-to-punt game is absolutely one Vandy can win if Mizzou isn't careful. There is a reason Mizzou is favored, but Vanderbilt should be able to give itself a chance.