Catch up on previous 2022 opponent previews!
It’s that time of year again! The time where I tell you that Vanderbilt stinks in perpetuity and it takes the most crafty recruiter, gifted salesman, and culture guru to drag the smart-kid school of the SEC to 9 wins per year. Unfortunately, that guy now coaches at Penn State and Vandy is hoping that their new guy can replicate his success.
But, for all of the noticeable inequities it has to manage that its conference brethren do not have to deal with, Vanderbilt is a solid job for a college football coach. The expectations are low, the leash is long, and you’ll get paid like an SEC coach even if you can’t perform like an SEC coach. Plus, if one can compile a staff that knows how to recruit around academic standards, dig out some diamonds in the rough, and have competent game-day tactics, one could field a team that can win manageable non-conference games and scratch out 2 wins in the SEC East, for sure. That, of course, is easier said then done.
Here’s Vanderbilt’s SP+ performance since 2005:
Jeez...can you point on the graph where James Franklin took over? Shouldn’t be hard to tell! Derek Mason managed one Franklin-esque year in 2018 and even then the Commodores went 6-7, including a November game in Columbia where they scared the bejesus out of one of the best Missouri teams of the past 22 years, eventually losing 28-33. It’s all been downhill since then and Clark Lea’s rebuild started with the Commodores winning two more games than their dreadful ‘20 campaign and yet still being 1.3 points worse than the (at the time) worst SEC team of all time. No where to go but up, right?
Here’s what Vanderbilt did last year:
In 2020, Vanderbilt’s best post-game win expectancy was a dreadful 18% in a 7-point loss to Mississippi State. Again, winning games is better than losing games but the Commodores managed a 48% win expectancy in their victory against UConn, a 44% win expectancy (somehow?) in the beatdown at the hands of FCS East Tennessee State...and then their third best game was the 13% win expectancy against Missouri in which they scored the second-most points in a game on the year while losing 28-37. So, the overall product got worse but at least they had a few better singular performances than 2020! If you squint you can see the progress!
Clark Lea - 2nd Year - 2-10 (0-8)
Even while playing an FCS foe, soon-to-be-FCS UConn, and terrible Colorado State and Stanford teams, Vanderbilt faced the 27th toughest schedule according to SP+ strength-of-schedule rating and, given that he was in his first year as a new head coach and figuring out what he had and what to do, this Vanderbilt team seemed a little lost. Part of that was a laundry list of injuries on both sides of the ball - including starting quarterback and best running back - but the tactics were bad, the execution was bad, and the talent (be that as it may) just didn’t have a chance. David Raih - hired to be Lea’s offensive coordinator - was demoted before the season began and play calling responsibilities were handed to QB coach Joey Lynch. Subsequently, Raih resigned at the conclusion of the season and has not been hired anywhere else. Jesse Minter’s defense was technically the strength of this team but he was hired by Michigan to be their defensive coordinator for this upcoming season. Being a new coach is hard and finding guys you work well with is surprisingly tough. But, as previously stated, Vandy coaches get a long time to figure stuff out and Lea is a hometown legend and Commodore alum, leading to the assumption that he will have the time to get his staff in order and build.
Joey Lynch - Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks: The former Ball State quarterback had been a coaching fixture at his alma mater for 11 years before diverging briefly to Colorado State and landing on Lea’s staff in ‘21. I’m not sure exactly what a Lynch offense is because he worked for one year under Steve Addazio - who refuses to allow any sort of offensive innovation - and then he called plays last year in a last-second promotion for a rotating cast of quarterbacks. Hopefully we get a better idea this year of what he wants to do as the injury luck improves but, regardless, he’s going to have his hands full in establishing an identity this unit can build around.
Nick Howell - Defensive Coordinator: Nick Howell got his start as a GA on Bronco Mendenhall’s BYU teams while slowing working his way up though positional coaches and then, finally, BYU’s DC from 2013 all the way through Mendenhall’s Virginia years of 2016-2021. Howell is a great hire for Vandy: recruiting around academic (and religious) restrictions? Check. Operating at a budget deficit compared to conference peers? Check. Have an established scheme and get players to the NFL? Check. Now, he’s worked at programs with better culture and identity than Vanderbilt currently boasts but he has a lot of bona fides that could work in Nashville long term. He’s used to running a 3-4 hybrid defense and proudly promotes his ability to get edge rushers to the NFL (Kyle Van Noy, Ziggy Ansah, etc.); this should be a great fit as long as he can find some good pieces to fit his scheme.
Justin Lustig - Special Teams Coordinator/Tight Ends
Norval McKenzie - Running Backs
Alex Bailey - Wide Receivers
A.J. Blazek - Offensive Line
Larry Black - Defensive Line
Jovan Haye - Defensive Ends
Nick Lezynski - Linebackers
Dan Jackson - Defensive Backs
When you hire a guy to install an offense and work with a unit for spring practices, summer sessions, and fall camp...and then demote that guy before the first game is played, yeah, you’re going to have a weird offensive season. But that’s what Lea did when he stripped David Raih of play calling duties and handed the reins over to young Joey Lynch who, yes, had play calling experience but certainly wasn’t running his book. The results were predictably bad and out of whack: the Commodores had better success rates on the ground (36.5%) than through the air (32.7%) but was one of the lowest-rushing frequency teams in the country. They moved at an average pace but relied on a short passing game that frequently needs a little gas in the pace to wear out defense and miss tackles. Specifically, a whopping 22% of their passes were either at or behind the line of scrimmage (81st in the country) and only 11.3% of their passes had 20+ yards in the air (115th). Consequently, they faced almost exclusively zone-coverage from defenses who could easily identify the pass and squash the play with only a yard or two of injury. The Commodores didn’t have the quarterback or skill position talent to do...whatever the heck it was Lynch wanted them to do last year but now they get a full offseason of install to get on the same page. Unless, of course, Lea pulls another rip cord a week before the season starts.
Quarterback - Ken Seals - Junior
The high-three star Texan arrived on campus during the pandemic season of 2020 and quickly became the starting quarterback for the year. The ‘20 campaign was much better than the ‘21 campaign but a few things stayed true: he takes a ton of sacks and throws too many interceptions while not being much of a threat on the ground. Blue-chipper Mike Wright managed a better ANY/A than Seals while also providing a decent running threat but also had worse passing accuracy and took sacks at a higher clip. It will be interesting to see if 4-star freshman A.J. Swann manages to grab the starting role among middling two-year performance from the position or if Seals overcomes his injury difficulties and finally makes “the leap” in production.
Running Back - Rocko Griffin - Junior
Vanderbilt didn’t run the ball much but, when they did, Rocko Griffin was the go to guy. 517 yards on 145 carries isn’t the most impressive but he lead the team in both stats, while also adding a team high 4 rushing touchdowns. Underclassman Patrick Smith was the more explosive option but only got 82 carries on the year. Neither back did much through the passing game which would be a development that is much needed for the overall health of the offense. 3-star freshmen Maurice Edwards and Chase Gillespie should also get at least a few carries per game as their athleticism could be a positive injection to an underutilized running game.
Wide Receiver - Will Sheppard - Junior
Joey Lynch leaned on the short passing game way more than he should have and now the Commodores lose three of their top five receivers. Sheppard was targeted 82 times with a 52% catch rate and 7.0 yards per target. For reference, a 52% catch rate is good for a receiver who averages somewhere in the 10-12 yards per target; for someone who average 7 that’s pretty bad. However, his yards per target was the highest on the team so there is a wide-open opportunity for new blood to transfuse. However, Vandy signed three low-3 star prospects and didn’t bring in any transfers so it’ll be interesting if there’s improvement via development or just more of the same from last year.
What can you say about the 115th-ranked defense? I think I’ll list out the stats that didn’t rank 100th or worse:
- Rushing Success Rate - 98th
- Power success rate - 27th
- Run Stuff Rate - 73rd
- Passing Explosiveness - 74th
- Passing Downs Explosiveness - 93rd
- Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 64th
That’s it! Literally every other statistical category ranked 100th or worse. The best thing you can say about this defense is that the return 67% of their production! Hopefully that means they can finish better than the 100-range.
Defensive Line - Nate Clifton - Senior
Vandy rotated five defensive linemen that saw more than 300 snaps on the year and Clifton lead the pack with 499 snaps, 36 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 4 run stuffs, and 2 passes broken up. The Commodores were not a very havoc-inducing defense and the line - both by design and talent - didn’t contribute much to havoc. In fact, they only had 3.5 sacks on the year...but, then again, Vandy only managed 9 sacks in the ‘21 season. As long as the line absorbs blocks and the linebackers actually make plays then the lack of havoc from the front three shouldn’t be a big deal.
Linebacker - Anfernee Orji - Senior
Orji was Vandy’s Iron Man on defense, finishing with a team high 748 snaps on the field. He also pitched in a team-high 89 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 15 run stuffs, 1 pass broken up, and 1 forced fumble. Orji was almost all of the production in every statistical category and new DC Nick Howell should certainly be thankful that Orji returns for one last go.
Defensive Back - Jaylen Mahoney - Senior
As bad as the Vanderbilt secondary was they were actually incredibly havoc-y, breaking up 28 passes and nabbing 8 interceptions. Jaylen Mahoney was responsible for 4 of those broken up passes and 2 of the interceptions but the Commodores do lose 4 of their top 6 defensive backs. Having Mahoney back certainly helps as does the addition of blue-chipper Daniel Martin and high-3 stars Quantaves Gaskins and Jadais Richard.
So what does it all mean?
This is the third game of the year that Missouri will/should be heavily favored and is the first game after a Bye Week for the Tigers and at home. It’s about as perfect a setup as you can get for a guaranteed win and, while there are no such things as guaranteed wins for our favorite football program - especially in conference - but this one is about as close as you can get.
Vanderbilt will just be coming off a detonation at the hands of Georgia and will be on the road for the second-straight week. Even with a massive amount of improvement on both sides of the ball they will still be much worse than the Tigers and, if Eli Drinkwitz really wants fans to buy into the “New Zou” mantra, he should not lose to Vanderbilt in any capacity.
Clark Lea will have the chance to build his alma mater into the type of program he wants and, maybe, that’s something that can scratch out a threat to middle-tier programs in the SEC. But that probably won’t be this year and Mizzou should be able to handle them without much issue. Missouri’s schedule has four games in each of the favored/toss-up/underdog category and going 4-0 in the favored category - including this game - is the easiest way to get to bowl eligibility.