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Vanderbilt Commodores Preview

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Please don’t lose to Vanderbilt.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Is the 2021 Vanderbilt Commodores football team THE worst P5 football team in the history of the sport? That would be “no”...at least not yet. Last year’s Vanderbilt team was much, much worse than the 2021 version, and even that team wasn’t the worst of all time since 2020 kansas was a shade worse. 2020 kansas was 18.4 points worse than the average 2020 college football team; 2020 Vanderbilt was 18.1 points worse, and the ‘21 iteration of the Commodores is, currently, 11.9 points worse than the average 2021 college football team. So...hooray progress!

They are terrible, though. Ranking 114th out of 130 teams in SP+ tells that story pretty easily, as does the company around them:

112. Southern Mississippi (1-6)

113. Florida International (1-6)

114. Vanderbilt (2-6)

115. New Mexico (3-5)

116. Navy (1-6)

117. Charlotte (4-3)

118. Old Dominion (1-6)

119. kansas (1-6)

120. Texas State (2-5)

Once again, kansas takes the crown as the worst P5 team in the country (so far) but, again, when you’re this low in the SP+ rankings there’s just not a lot of hope on winning games in the immediate term.

In the long term, however, Head Coach Clark Lea is trying to steer his alma mater out of a skid by getting creative. He hired a former Rivals/247 scout to run his personnel department, giving Barton Simmons the title of “General Manager”. He’s trying to embrace the appeal that the Nashville music scene brings while trumpeting Vanderbilt’s unique identifier as the smart-kid school of the football-crazed SEC. Even with educational limitations, Vanderbilt has, on occasion, out-recruited Missouri and Kentucky so it’s certainly possible to field a decent roster there. It’s just the current roster does not have the ability to compete and it’s going to be a long build for the ‘Dores.

Oh, and Missouri can definitely lose to this team. Just...be aware.

Here’s what Vanderbilt has done so far:

2021 Vanderbilt Schedule

Their best performance, to date, was against the second-worst team in the country, UConn, in a 30-28 nail biter. Their second-best performance was in a blow-out loss to a Top 10 FCS team. Every other game has been a total detonation followed up with a rotating cast of backups laying haymakers against an overmatched Vanderbilt squad.

And here’s an update on Missouri’s season so far:

2021 Missouri Schedule

Good lord the rest of this season is going to be unwatchable. And, as you can see, with a 76% win expectancy this is the last “sure-thing” win on the schedule with the South Carolina game coming in at a 59% win expectancy. Again, don’t look at any of those other numbers. Bad. It’s bad. So bad.

Let’s take a look at the matchups and figure out how Vanderbilt can make this an uncomfortably close game.

When Missouri Has the Ball

Missouri’s Offense vs. Vanderbilt’s Defense

Yes, I know Case Cook is done for the year. But we don’t have an updated depth chart so I’m not sure if it will be Luke Griffin, Connor Wood, or, hell, E.J. Ndoma-Ogar maybe? We’ll find out on Saturday.

Vanderbilt has some solid athleticism on the defensive side but the actual best players are in the front seven when stopping the run...and even that isn’t super great. The pass defense is a total liability and this should function as a game where Connor Bazelak can FINALLY show some ability to connect on some bombs.

Or not, and Bazelak continues to give the fanbase just enough production that you can’t complain but not enough flash to make you feel good. C’est la vie!

Passing Efficiency

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 North Texas at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the amount of headaches we have about Bazelak’s performance and all the accolades we lay at Tyler Badie’s feet, the Mizzou offense ranks 79th in running the ball and 35th when passing the ball. It makes sense: Eli Drinkwitz has culled his play-calling into a pass-first/pass-second offense and unleashes Badie if the down and distance is manageable, hoping that Badie can bust an explosive play on an efficiency down. When it works, it works (see: Central Michigan, North Texas) but it all relies on getting a solid completion on the early downs. Vanderbilt’s pass defense sucks, full stop: 103rd in success rate, 93rd in efficiency, 96th in completion rate. Missouri needs to aim for a 65% completion rate and at least a 48% success rate through the air.

Convert on 3rd-Down

Tennessee v Missouri Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Remember the last time Missouri travelled to Nashville and played Vanderbilt on the road? No, wait, where are you going? I have a point! I promise!

There were tons of things you can point to as to how a ranked Tiger squad gacked away what should have been the easiest win of the year but the biggest one was this: 3-15 on 3rd downs. 3 for 15! 20%!

Missouri faces a disproportionately high amount of 3rd-and-long situations (56%, 116th in the country!!!) but is excellent at converting them (34.5%, 15th in the country). That’s true for 3rd-and-medium as well (74% conversion rate, 3rd in the country). The best way to avoid an upset when you’re favored but not that great is to play ball control and keep the opposing offense far away from your biggest weakness. Hopefully Missouri can maintain at least a 55% 3rd-down conversion rate.

Finish your dang drives

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 North Texas at Missouri Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Same as it always is. Another way to lose to a massive underdog is to either a.) not create a ton of scoring opportunities, b.) not score many points when you do have an opportunity, or c.) both. Mizzou is pretty good at maximizing their scoring opportunities (4.73 PPO, 32nd) while Vanderbilt...well, their defense is 113th in points per scoring opportunity. Keep the strength a strength and their weakness a weakness: at least 6 scoring opps, 5 points per opp.

When Vanderbilt Has the Ball

Missouri’s Defense vs. Vanderbilt’s Offense

Ken Seals started all 10 games at quarterback last year for the Commodores and every game in the 2021 season as well...except for last year. The sophomore Texan has struggled mightily this year, with his completion rating falling to 55%, his average yards per attempt at a paltry 3.7, and already throwing 7 interceptions with a 4% sack rate. Blue-chip youngster Mike Wright took over last week and didn’t do much better so it’ll be interesting to see who gets the start this week.

But you know what’s going to happen, regardless of quarterback, right?

Mitigate the Success of the Running Game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 North Texas at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heading into this game Vanderbilt ranks 122nd in rushing success rate, 120th in rushing efficiency, and 126th in rushing explosiveness. Lead running back Rocko Griffin has 296 yards on 89 carries and averages 1.1 yards before contact and 2.4 after contact.

And none of that matters. Because no rushing stat matters when you play the 2021 Missouri Tiger defense.

Griffin is going to have a career day. Just...come to terms with that fact. He’ll probably double his season yardage and the Commodores are going to look like the ‘95 Nebraska Cornhuskers. That’s just how this season is going to go.

The hope is that, given a week of rest and film study, the front seven can at least keep them inefficient and force them to chain together a bunch of plays and try to pass. I’ll even say that a 45% rushing success rate is a good sign!

No Fly Zone

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Central Michigan at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While we’re all coming to peace with our respective gods that the Commodores are going to run, run, run, and run some more to tremendous effect on Saturday, it is worth pointing out that they prefer to pass the ball, regardless of situation. Again, part of that is that they suck and are constantly playing from behind, but even so, the Commodores run 54% of the time on standard downs (93rd) and only 31% on passing downs (86th). Now, that will probably change given the massive weakness the Tigers have - plus the fact that this could be a close game well into the 4th quarter - but the point is that if they do pass Missouri’s secondary needs to shut that s*** down. Allie Green and Akayleb Evans need to be swatting away passes and jumping pass lanes to nab an interception and break serve on what should be a back-and-forth offensive onslaught. Keeping Vanderbilt’s passing success rate under 42% and getting at least one interception would be a good day.

Conclusion

Every team knows Missouri’s weakness and every team is equipped to take advantage of it. However, Missouri also knows Missouri’s weakness and also knows what teams are going to do to take advantage of it. Eli Drinkwitz has had two weeks to figure out a way to keep his offense on the field and I guarantee the defense has been cooking up some ways to try and compensate for a video-game-on-easy-mode level of bright, flashing weakness that opponents can see. Vanderbilt’s offense is fairly close to North Texas’ offense in terms of quality and tendencies and Missouri was able to put a stranglehold on the Mean Green for at least a half of football. Assuming the Tigers can do that again and not let off the gas you can talk yourself into Mizzou taking control early and sitting on a lead for 30 minutes.

You can also see a situation where a Vanderbilt team - desperate for a win in the Battle of Not-Last-Place-In-The-East - takes advantage of their best opportunity at a conference win and plays way above their season averages. That could easily create a ripple effect of frustration with Missouri’s offense, caught in a “here we go again” moment as the defense has no answer to the Commodores spamming inside-zone over and over and the Tiger offense pushes one (or two) times too much and does something dumb.

Neither of those scenarios is far-fetched, unfortunately, and it’s hard to figure out just how these teams come out of the gate on Saturday afternoon. Missouri has the benefit of a week off - meaning two weeks of recruiting planning - while Vanderbilt gets the Tigers at home with the added emotional value of a bonified, real-life, totally attainable SEC win in the 2021 season. Whoever wants it more certainly won’t be the deciding factor in this game but, as I see it, this will be a close, uncomfortable, heart-attack inducing 60 minutes on Saturday as each side tries to not earn the title of 2021’s basement-dweller.

Good luck, Drink. We’re all counting on you.