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5 thoughts about Vanderbilt, Missouri’s 10th opponent

This could be a game between two five-win teams desperate for a sixth victory.

Vanderbilt v Florida Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

What I’m calling stage three of the Mizzou schedule — Stage 1: the likely 2-2 start, Stage 2: two rugged road games, Stage 3: four straight winnable games, Stage 4: two rugged closing games — ends with a visit from Vanderbilt.

There’s a good chance that we know Mizzou’s fate by this point; if stage three has gone well, then the Tigers will perhaps already be bowl eligible by the time the Commodores come to town. And if things have gone poorly, then bowl hopes will either be dead or very nearly dead. But there’s a decent chance that Missouri comes in at 5-4, with bowl hopes definitively riding on this result.

Here are some Mizzou-relevant tidbits from my 2016 SBN Vandy preview.

1. In the same boat

A defense that had shown promise in 2014 became legitimately strong, and that paved the way to low-scoring wins over MTSU (17-13), Missouri (10-3), and Kentucky (21-17). But the offense only "improved" from 118th to 117th in Off. S&P+ and now must replace last year's leading passer and two three-year starting linemen. The passing game featured occasional efficiency and almost no big plays; the run game featured neither, even with the well-regarded Ralph Webb taking on nearly 25 carries per game. There's no clear weapon to build a good offense around, and the new starting quarterback completed 43 percent of his passes last year. [...]

Vanderbilt is likely going to boast a conservative, frustrating offense and a dynamic, dominant defense. Again. The dynamics don't seem to have changed much here

I ranked Mizzou just ahead of Vandy in my SEC power rankings, primarily because Mizzou’s been good at offense more recently. That’s about the only separator at the moment. Both teams should have strong defenses once again, but whoever clicks offensively will have the advantage.

2. It’s all on Shurmur

The offense, however, replaced Johnny McCrary with Kyle Shurmur at QB and tanked miserably. Mason was effusive in his praise of Shurmur after the loss to Tennessee -- a game in which he went 15-for-34 and produced a 119.0 passer rating -- and McCrary saw the writing on the wall and transferred. The Commodores couldn't control the ball as well, and certainly couldn't run as well, without McCrary, and a stressed defense began suffering lapses.

Vandy was clearly a lesser team with Shurmur in charge down the stretch, but Mason and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig clearly saw something in him. We'll see if their intuition pays off. [...]

McCrary was more productive with both his arm and his feet, but Shurmur likely gained an advantage on him by simply not making mistakes: His interception rate was 2.9 percent (still a smidge higher than you'd like) to McCrary's 4.5 percent.

If Shurmur can simply offer promise and hold onto the job, that will offer a level of stability the offense hasn't seen in a while. That would be a nice place to start.

Four-star freshman quarterback struggles to get up to speed with iffy receiving corps against SEC defenses. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. I got scolded by Vandy fans for being a lot lower on Shumur than I am on Drew Lock. I like what I’ve seen from Lock’s arm more than Shurmur’s, but it’s fair criticism to whatever degree -- neither QB had any chance of succeeding last year, and either or both should expect to improve a decent amount.

That said, I still think Vandy fans were far too low on McCrary. McCrary’s mobility was the best thing Ralph Webb had going for him. In Shurmur's first four games with major action, Webb averaged 3.5 yards per carry. He erupted for 149 yards in 21 carries in the season finale against Tennessee, but 50 of that came on a single run, and 34 came on five carries deep into garbage time. Fans hated McCrary’s penchant for particularly untimely mistakes, but that’s not a particularly predictive thing.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

3. Webb needs help

Vanderbilt leaned as hard as it could on the run in 2015 but couldn't actually do it very well. McCrary and slot receiver Darrius Sims were the only runners to produce even a modicum of efficiency running the ball, and they weren't running backs.

Ralph Webb proved himself a durable option, but his 23 carries per game didn't really go anywhere. He would basically run for five yards in two carries, then Vandy would attempt a short throw or another Webb run on third-and-5. This was neither imaginative nor successful.

Webb garnered decent praise for his yardage totals, but a lot of guys could have gained 1,152 yards if given 277 carries. He is an efficient weapon as a third-down receiver, but Ludwig could probably stand to vary things a bit on first down.

Shurmur and an experienced set of receivers really need to click in 2016, but the play-calling also needs to get a little bit less predictable. Those things kind of go hand-in-hand -- you’re more likely to call more pass plays if you think they’ll actually work -- but one of my concerns with head coach Derek Mason is that he checks a lot of boxes on the Muschamp List, i.e. coaches who have overly-conservative offenses by design. That makes more sense for Vandy than it does for a school like Muschamp’s Florida, with a built-in talent advantage. But conservatism can tamp down upside. And that could be a concern if or when Vandy has offensive upside.

4. Take advantage of whatever scoring opportunities you get

Because you aren’t going to get many.

The Commodores, loaded mostly with sophomores and juniors, improved from 76th to 20th in Def. S&P+ in 2015. They combined bend-don't-break peripherals and tremendous redzone defense with sticky, aggressive coverage on the perimeter. The result was an impressive mish-mash of big-play prevention and high havoc rates,, at least until the offense went from bad to hopeless.

The thing about sophomores and juniors is that most of them return the next year. Vandy returns five of its top six linemen, seven of nine linebackers, and six of eight defensive backs. Aside from Bowden, they were relatively lucky in terms of injuries (almost no regular missed more than a game or two), but they played a pretty big rotation regardless.

The key pieces are probably linebacker Zach Cunningham, safety/nickel Oren Burks, and corner Torren McGaster. Cunningham is both your requisite ILB tackling machine and a play-maker. He led the team in both tackles and sacks, which is rare (even if leading a team with 4.5 sacks says something iffy about your pass rush). Burks, meanwhile, offers extreme flexibility in where and how Vanderbilt chooses to attack, and McGaster is one of the SEC's best cornerbacks. The line could stand to make a few more plays, but with this trio on the field, VU has almost no choice but to play pretty well defensively.

I called Vandy’s defense a bend-don’t-break with attitude -- a label Mizzou fans can relate to, as it basically describes the old Dave Steckel defenses as well. The run defense was only decent, but the pass defense was fantastic. Things should only get better with another year of experience.

Kentucky v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

5. This game is vital for both teams

The Commodores are projected 69th in S&P+, better than only Kentucky in the SEC. With that projection, they are looking at two likely wins, four likely losses, two tossups (South Carolina, at Kentucky), and four longshots.

Based on S&P+ win probabilities, this is the sixth most likely win on Vandy's schedule. The Commodores' home-road schedule split is going to make it really difficult for them to reach a bowl -- the teams they're more likely to beat (Georgia Tech, WKU, Kentucky, Auburn, Missouri) play host to them, while a lot of their home games (Florida, Ole Miss, Tennessee) might be out of reach. Regardless, there's a chance that both teams are at five wins heading into this game, desperate for a sixth before a rugged finish to the schedule. That could make this matchup as intense as it is defense-heavy.

S&P+ projection: Mizzou by 6.8 (win probability: 65%).