Note: It will be unclear where this country will be in the next four weeks let alone the next four months, but we here at Rock M are going to keep chugging along as normal until proven otherwise. Last week we started the 2020 opponent preview series; regardless of when the season starts, most of the stuff in these previews should stay true.
Catch up on previous 2020 opponent previews!
Vanderbilt has to be one of the toughest Power 5 jobs out there.
Yes, you’re in the SEC with the SEC money. But that’s about all the perks there are. Being the token smart-kid school in the most talent-rich football environment in the sport means that you tend to not get the caliber of athlete that your conference mates are getting since the admission standards are quite a bit higher. The alumni base also tends to not be as rabid about sports as the bases of, say, an Alabama or Tennessee. The doctors and lawyers of Vanderbilt tend to not donate as much to the various athletics programs, which leaves Vanderbilt at a spending deficit compared to everyone else.
Now, most of this is projection, sure, since private schools don’t have to disclose any sort of financial statements. But based off of the types of coaches, the caliber of athletes coming out of high school, the SP+ performance, and the historical overall record Vandy possesses, the Commodores will seemingly always be behind the rest of the SEC when it comes to football.
But all it takes is one good hire! James Franklin (the football coach, not our beloved quarterback) came to Nashville in 2011 and took them from 2-10 in 2010 to 6-7 in 2011 and then pulled off two straight 9-4 seasons. He improved recruiting, yes, but also was a much better tactician and motivator than anyone gave him credit for (even to this day). He, of course, left for greener pastures (and more money) at Penn State after 2013, but he showed that, with the right hire, even Vanderbilt can find success in the SEC.
And then came Derek Mason. A man who has, currently, been a coach for 27 years and only been a coach of 11 teams that finished with a winning record. In fact, he’s never finished a season at Vanderbilt with a winning record. Zero seasons with 7+ wins in the six years he’s been the head coach of the Commodores.
In fairness to Coach Mason, he has steadily improved the quality of the team since a fall from 54th in SP+ 2013 to 84th in 2014. Since then, the ‘Dores have ranked 84th (‘15), 71st (‘16), 70th (‘17), and 39th (‘18), before slipping all the way down to 106th last year. So maybe patience is warranted, especially given the difficult circumstances that Vandy finds itself in every year.
It would be in Mason’s best interests, however, to improve the quality, if not the record, this year. There’s a new athletic director in charge, and we all know how ADs like to bring in their own people to run their programs. It won’t be easy for Mason, however, given the ridiculous amount of turnover on the roster that he’s going through, in addition to a brand new coordinator staff.
But hey, at least he beat Missouri last year :(
Here’s what Vanderbilt did in 2019:
The Commodores were predictably trounced by the three Top 10 teams on their schedule. They were boat-raced by a pre-everyone-is-injured Purdue, walloped by a terrible UNLV team, and collapsed down the stretch before a worthless shutout of FCS East Tennessee State (70th in the FCS). Their only other wins were against a transitioning Northern Illinois team and then the Freaky Friday-ing of Missouri where they sucked the souls out of the Tigers and never gave them back.
Head Coach: Derek Mason - 6th Year - 27-47 (10-38)
A 36% winning percentage over six years tends to get you fired at any other job in the sport of football. However, Vanderbilt is in a unique spot in an impossible conference so patience is certainly warranted. And because Mason has improved the quality of the team every year (except last year) I can certainly understand letting him continue to develop the program. But, as previously stated, even an uninterested football program like Vanderbilt would not allow a coach in his seventh year to not at least get 5 wins, even in a transition year.
- Todd Fitch - Offensive Coordinator: Fitch was the OC at Louisiana Tech for the past four years. The Bulldogs’ offense ranked 16th, 79th, 111th, and then 84th last year, so it definitely regressed under his watch. Even with the athletic J’Mar Smith at quarterback, the offense was never efficient, instead relying on explosiveness. It’ll be interesting to see what he can do with brand new faces all over the Vanderbilt offense, but he’ll definitely have his work cut out for him.
- Ted Roof - Defensive Coordinator: fun fact! Roof was Eli Drinkwitz’s defensive coordinator at Appalachian State last year! Roof has been around college football since 1987, but is still only 56! He’s had some solid defenses (Georgia Tech) and some fairly poor ones (NC State) but has the ability to implement a deadly 3-4 when he has at least competent talent (which, I s’pose, can be said about any DC...)
- Devin Fitzsimmons - Special Teams Coordinator
- Tim Horton - Running Backs
- Tony Ball - Wide Receivers
- Pete Rossomando - Offensive Line
- Jovan Haye - Defensive Line
- Kenechi Udeze - Linebackers
- Marc Mattioli - Defensive Backs
Vanderbilt’s offense ranked 104th in SP+ last year. That might be enough review, but for preview’s sake, let’s dive a little deeper.
Mason brought in Ball State transfer Riley Neal to buffer the quarterback position; Neal proceeded to barely put up 1,500 yards and only 9 passing touchdowns with 5 interceptions. He was injured for a several games leading to Deuce Wallace and Mo Hasan splitting time at QB. You all remember Mr. Hasan, right? Who won his first and only start against....you know...
Even with the dynamic Ke’Shawn Vaughn at running back and Kalija Lipscomb at wide receiver, the Commodores couldn’t eclipse 2,000 yards through the air or 1,500 yards on the ground. And both of those guys are gone! There are super young guys stepping up from the backup roles from last year, from a team that they couldn’t start on that didn’t rank better than 100th in any offensive metric. Youth is fickle and unreliable and they are now learning a new system during a pandemic. Fun times.
Quarterback - Jeremy Moussa - Senior
I have no idea who is going to be quarterback for the Commodores in 2020 and Mason and Fitch probably don’t either! Hawai’i transfer (by way of JUCO) Jeremy Moussa is the most seasoned in the quarterback room, but he was at San Bernardino Valley Community College last year. Danny Clark was a high 3-star recruit that signed with Kentucky out of high school before hitting the JUCO route over the past two years. Jack Bowen is a junior who has been in Nashville for the past two years but has seen no action as a walk-on, while Ken Seals is a 3-star freshman brand new to campus. Any of these guys could start, but none of them have any experience with the Commodore skill position players or the offensive playbook. Fitch better hope that at least one of them can grasp the new playbook quickly or else it could be a long season for the ‘Dores offense.
Running Back - Keyon Brooks - Sophomore
Brooks was the second-leading rusher last year...with 56 carries and only 252 yards to his name. He was able to get past the line more than 42% of the time and averaged over 4 yards per carry once he did, but he was only getting the necessary yardage per down 32% of the time. That’s...not ideal. Ja’Veon Marlow is another freshman back who could see some time but only had 10 carries last year. Really, the running backs are similar to the quarterbacks: there are guys with experience but not enough to bank on.
Wide Receiver - Cam Johnson - Sophomore
Of Vanderbilt’s top four receivers from last year, only one returns. Granted, that one was their best receiver so that’s good for them! Johnson was a mere freshman but garnered 49 targets with a 61% catch rate, best of the receiving corps. He also managed a 43% success rate, best on the team, and 3 touchdowns. However, he only managed 316 yards. Vandy’s passing offense was fairly anemic and now is starting all over again. If juniors James Bostic and C.J. Bolar can improve on their dismal success rates from last year they can provide some deeper threats in the passing game. Tight end Ben Bresnehan didn’t offer much in the passing game due to a 36% catch rate but would be a nice complement for a young receiving corps.
The good news is that Vanderbilt’s defense was the strength of last year’s team. The bad news is that they ranked 99th in SP+. The defense was excellent at stuffing the run and shutting down 3rd-and-long, but teams were still consistently moving the ball on 1st and 2nd down. Mason had served as his own defensive coordinator for the first four years but acquiesced to bringing on someone else to do the work in that realm. Jason Tarver filled that role for the first two years but is now back in the NFL. Mason brought on veteran DC Ted Roof to work his 3-4 magic on a Commodore defense that has been young and thin for the past few years. That youth is now experienced and should probably be better than they were last year.
Defensive Line - Dayo Odeyingbo - Senior
Odeyingbo is Vanderbilt’s most disruptive performer on the line but that only accounts for 12 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. A 3-4 defensive line is designed to occupy blockers rather than make disruptive plays but even 3-4 defensive ends can notch more than 2 sacks in a season. If Odeyingbo makes a leap and gets, say, 5 sacks and even 18 tackles for loss that would be a huge improvement and a key asset to help the linebacking corps continue to wreck shop.
Linebacker - Dimitri Moore - Junior
Moore was the leading tackler for the Vandy defense last year, making 73.5 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, and 12 run stuffs. That’s not exactly a replica of Commodore legend Zach Cunningham, but Moore was excellent at flowing to the ball and making a play. It wasn’t always behind the line, mind you, but if someone was getting to the ball carrier, you could bet #7 would be one of them.
Andre Mintze at the outside linebacker spot is another key piece, logging 7.5 tackles, for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 12.5 run stuffs. The linebackers made most of the disruption for the defense and return almost the entire depth chart. You can expect Roof to want to utilize their havoc abilities better than what they produced last year.
Defensive Back - Tae Daley - Senior
Vandy had some surprisingly active safeties last year. Is that because opponents were throwing all over them and the safeties were the only ones who could make the tackle? Possibly. Daley and the freshman duo of Dashaun Jerkins and Brendon Harris ranked #2, 3, and 4 in team tackles while all three combined for a mere 1.5 tackles for loss on the season, so they clearly weren’t playing close to the line. They also only combined for 6 passes broken up so the, “I’m the only one who can make the play” might be the most logical reason they racked up their tackle totals.
Still, they were there to make that play in the first place, and Jerkins and Harris are now both sophomores. Corners Allan George and B.J. Anderson are also now juniors so the secondary as a whole is a lot more experienced than last year. That could give Roof an opportunity to trust the secondary more and send more safety blitzes or hide his looks better. Age isn’t a guaranteed equation for being better, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on when the Tigers deploy a new quarterback and young receiving corps.
So what does it mean?
Vanderbilt was an absolutely terrible team last year and beat Missouri. Losing to a peer in conference is always on the table.
But Vanderbilt should be a team that the Tigers trip over a few times per decade, not twice in five years. The Commodore defense should be strong, but their offense has zero continuity and comes to Columbia in the second week of the year to face a Missouri team that should be fielding an excellent defense of its own. This will likely be a “man-in-the-mirror” game where each side has the same strengths and weaknesses.
This might be lazy analysis, but to me, whichever offense has their stuff together the best should win the game. Each defense should have a stranglehold for most of the game, but whoever can tilt the field and build a cushion should be able to hold on for the victory.
Pinkel lost to Vanderbilt in 2012 (Franklin) and 2015 (Mason). Odom lost to Vanderbilt last year. If Drinkwitz wants to show how far the program has come and prove that he’s different from those that came before him, it would do a lot of good and provide a lot of proof of concept to beat the pants of the Commodores in this matchup.