Welcome back to Rock M Nation’s annual opponent preview series for the upcoming season. Each week we will break down one opponent from the schedule in chronological order. Given that rosters are ever fluid - and this is done by a hobbyist rather than a pro - there could be some errors in history and current roster makeup. All mistakes are done on purpose and with ill intent because I don’t like you or your team.
Catch up on previous 2023 opponent previews!
I regret to inform you that the Vanderbilt Commodore football team is getting better. And, as a Missouri fan, that should scare the hell out of you.
The greatest Vanderbilt team of all time was James Franklin’s 2012 team that went 8-4, including barely beating an injury-riddled Missouri squad. But, for the most part, Vanderbilt is cursed to either be mediocre or terrible in a conference full of elite and pretty good teams. And - other than the year Gary Pinkel retired or the year Barry Odom got fired - Missouri teams don’t lose to Vanderbilt, regardless of the quality. In fact, it’s the one game per year that Mizzou faithful circle as the ol’ “well, no matter how bad it gets, we’ll probably win this one”.
But this is a game that tends to be close. Among the 51-28s (2013), 45-17s (2017), and 41-0s (2020), there are finishes of 24-14 (2014), 26-17 (2016), 33-28 (2018), 37-28 (2021), and last year’s 17-14. Missouri usually wins but rarely is it a blowout.
And now Clark Lea has brought a semblance of stability and focus to the woe-begotten program of the SEC. After bottoming out as the worst P5 program of all time in 2020, Clark Lea and his staff stripped the house down to the studs and started rebuilding the Commodores the hard way. Remember, as the resident smart-kid school, players that want to come in have to have pretty good grades as well as being a good culture fit and being, ya know, an athlete that fills a need on the team. In fact, since taking over at the conclusion of the 2020 season, Clark Lea’s Commodores have lost 53 players to the portal (21 in ‘21, 19 in ‘22, 13 in ‘23) while only bringing in 13 players from the portal (5 in ‘21, 6 in ‘22, 2 in ‘23). In stark contrast to Colorado, Lea’s staff can’t bring in just anybody and, instead, focus on high school recruiting and development.
Part of this approach was hiring Ben Cuathern as a Chief of Staff - someone who manages all the video, strength training, coaches, and day-to-day minutiae of running a college football program - and Barton Simmons, the former head of high school scouting for 247 who is Vandy’s general manager - a director of personnel role that oversees roster development and plays an integral role in recruiting and scouting.
Those two free up Clark Lea to do what he does best - coach football - and free up his staff to do the same while the business end of college football is handled by others.
It’s an interesting set up and, potentially, a model that others emulate. Especially if Vanderbilt continues to improve at the clip it’s currently at.
Look at what they did last year:
Vandy absolutely dominated three of its first four opponents, outscoring Hawai’i, Northern Illinois, and FCS foe Elon by a combined score of 143-69. Once they got into SEC play it was less fun, going three straight weeks with a 0% win expectancy and managing a 27% against Mizzou. But they did rise up and beat Kentucky while also taking down Florida with a 9% win expectancy. Vanderbilt rarely beats the stuffing out of anyone so don’t downplay their non-con dominating wins. And, yes, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee beat them by a combined 166-3 but...hey man, that happens. They were close with Mizzou, close with South Carolina, and even close with Ole Miss until the end. There absolutely was improvement last year and they have a few pieces on both sides of the ball to build around. We’ll see if this year continues that progression or if we start to see a regression to the mean.
Clark Lea - 3rd Year - 7-17 (2-14)
Clark Lea seems very comfortable working with limitations. At South Dakota State it was being an FCS school in one of the most sparsely populated states in the Union. At Bowling Green it was being an unidentifiable MAC school in a conference with an extreme amount of parity. Syracuse offered the fun “very little regional talent at an underfunded program” adventure. And then Wake Forest was the “smart kid school that takes in less than 9,000 undergrads per year”. Notre Dame had the clout but Brian Kelly showed the limitations of that program - especially re: recruiting - and Lea managed to build excellent defenses there as well.
The man has a plan when he is outgunned, in my point. And early returns seems to indicate he could craft something interesting in Nashville that can unseat the tier of power among the middle class SEC programs. Two years is too early to solidify impressions but he’s improved recruiting, nailed some pelts to the wall, and has attitudes trending upwards. Only one guy has been able to successfully do that in this millennium and now he’s the head coach at Penn State.
Joey Lynch - Offensive Coordinator: Last year I was asking “What is a Joey Lynch offense?” and this year...I’m asking the same thing. Why? Because he played with a freshman quarterback for a good chunk of the season and ran an offense that was very “protect the quarterback” in its scheme; specifically, running the ball a ton and throwing easy, quick passes behind the line of scrimmage. I can’t imagine that’s the philosophy he wants to utilize going forward so this will hopefully be the year where we figure out what he likes and who he wants to run it.
Nick Howell - Defensive Coordinator: I still maintain Nick Howell was a great hire for Vandy given his similar penchant for working with limitations like his current boss does. His defense last year, however, was a bit of a mess. His ability to scheme and develop will be on full display as only 56% of last year’s production returns, so let’s hope - for his sake - that he has some extra long leash to work with.
Justin Lustig - Special Teams Coordinator
Jayden Everett - Running Backs
Alex Bailey - Wide Receivers
A.J. Blazek - Offensive Line
Jovan Haye - Defensive Ends
Larry Black - Defensive Line
Nick Lezynski - Linebackers
Dan Jackson - Defensive Backs
I mentioned it briefly above but Vanderbilt’s offense is definitely still a work in progress. Last year they wanted to run as much as possible: 62% on standard downs (34th in the country) and 38% on passing downs (41st in the country). In addition, 29% of their passes were at or behind the line of scrimmage (36th) and only 13% of their passes went 20+ yards downfield in the air (88th). They moved at a glacial pace (112th), allowed way too many pressures on the quarterback (101st) and ranked 110th in blown block percentage. So how the heck did they end up ranking 50th in offensive SP+? Will, simply put, the converted touchdowns when they got into the red zone (69%) or in goal-to-go situations (87%), thrived in power running scenarios (39th), and went off for explosive plays in passing down situations better than most (30th). It was a very reductive defense - one that started with the experienced Mike Wright and then slowly moved to blue chip freshman A.J. Swann - that will probably evolve to be more complex and risk-taking this year. Or, at least, it should; that sort of offense paired with a struggling defense is no way to win games in the SEC.
Quarterback - A.J. Swann - Sophomore
I’m still not sure why the coaches moved from Mike Wright to A.J. Swann. Wright was the quarterback in the lopsided wins over Hawai’i and Elon but after a 45-25 loss to Wake Forest Swann was inserted as the quarterback and Wright was relegated to the bench. The Commodores then went 1-5 over the next six games with Swann before Wright was named starter for an injured Swann against Kentucky...that, of course, the Commodores won. Wright and Swann have eerily similar passing statistics, sure, but Swann is an immovable statue while Wright actually had some playmaking ability on designed runs and scrambles. Alas, Wright is now a Mississippi State Bulldog and Swann is the favorite to earn the title of QB1.
Perhaps his youth and status as the “guy we actually recruited” with the current staff is the reason they’re going with the blue chipper from Cherokee High School. But unless the restrictor plate is removed and Swann is allowed to throw deep and move, I don’t get why he’s getting the nod now to be the entrenched incumbent.
Running Back - Patrick Smith - Junior
Ray Davis transferred to Kentucky and Mike Wright transferred to Mississippi State and with them goes 303 of last year’s 438 rushing attempts and 1,559 of last year’s 1,945 yards, Patrick Smith - he of the 56 carries and 151 yards in 2022 - is your leading returning rusher for Vanderbilt, a team that - as noted - wanted to run the ball a ton. As previously stated, Vanderbilt doesn’t utilize the transfer portal much to import talent so they must develop internally. Former 3-star recruits Dylan Betts-Bauley and Chase Gillespie could see extended auditions, as could incoming high 3-star recruit Sedrick Alexander.
Wide Receiver - Will Sheppard - Senior
Yes, Will Sheppard is back for what feels like his 7th year in Nashville. As a college football fan that makes me happy; as a Missouri fan that does not make me happy.
Sheppard was the first, second, and third looks for both quarterbacks last year, earning 120 targets but with a miserable 50% catch rate. Jayden McGowan, Ray Davis, and Quincy Skinner - the next most targeted receivers last year - combined for only seven more targets than what Sheppard had. As previously mentioned Davis is gone but McGowan and Skinner are both back. Tight end Ben Bresnehan was the only tight end with more than 13 targets last year but he’s out of eligibility. There are weapons in the passing game and a quarterback who is no longer a freshman; if the pass is to be utilized more frequently this year they certainly have some pieces to do it.
First, the good news: Vanderbilt’s defense did get better! The bad news: it was still very bad! It did stuff Missouri and Kentucky offenses into a locker, mind you - and one of those offenses had a 1st round NFL draft pick! - but, on the whole, the Commodore defense was good at stopping the run and annihilating short-yardage situations...and that’s it. To add insult to injury, only 56% of last year’s defensive production returns, coming at 80th in defensive returning production. Unless last year’s backups can make a huge leap it could be another rough defensive year in Nashville.
Defensive Line - Christian James - Graduate
Vandy’s 3-man defensive line alignment means that said linemen are less about making plays and more about holding blocks and controlling the movement of the play, but even with that caveat Christian James managed 27 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss last year, and 3 of those TFLs were sacks, leading the team in that category. He will be joined by Nate Clifton and Darren Agu as the returning vets, with hopes that Stanford transfer edge rusher Aeneas DiCosmo can provide enough havoc production to match last year’s nearly 6% effort.
Linebacker - Ethan Barr - Senior
Anfernee Orji was Vanderbilt’s half linebacker, half safety do-everything defender last year and now he’s on the New Orleans Saints roster. That leaves behind his battery mate, Ethan Barr, and rotational piece Kane Patterson as the only linebackers with more than 30 snaps to their name last year. The Vanderbilt linebackers were asked to make a tackle and nothing else, as they weren’t havoc-prone or involved in any way other than playing the middle of the field. That should be easy to replace but Orji was a unique player whose absence will have to be filled by several players from differing levels of the defense.
Defensive Back - De’Rickey Wright - Senior
Vanderbilt returns four of their top six defensive backs, led by the havoc master De’Rickey Wright, who managed six passes broken up and three interceptions last year. They also managed to portal in Grand Valley State transfer Nyzier Fourqurean to the defensive secondary for instant depth improvement. The secondary was the heart and soul of the defense last year in regards to making plays against the run...though they could shore up their pass defense a little more.
So what does it all mean?
I know I’ve said it many times before but, to me, this is the perfect Missouri schedule:
- Open with an FCS opponent at home
- Low-tier G5 at home
- Revenge game opportunity against a tough, rebuilding, regional P5 rival at home
- Tricky G5 team at a neutral site
- Projected-easiest conference opponent on the road
That doesn’t mean that Missouri will win all of these games, mind you - especially since Vanderbilt is on the road. I’m just saying that it is a ideal ramp-up scenario in difficulty where there are plenty of weeks and game experience to be had before the Tigers get into the teeth of yet another brutal SEC slate.
Vanderbilt is improving and I’d assume that they will exceed the quality of an average college football team this year. This game is usually pretty close, regardless of the quality of either team, and Eli Drinkwitz has a problem with winning true road games.
But the Commodores have no proven running backs, a second-year quarterback who was allergic to running last year, and a defense that is returning a few starters, but mostly backups and two transfers. Without Eli Drinkwitz calling the most vanilla game plan in the world, Mizzou should be able to out-athlete Vandy and come away with a victory. I’m not sure how much longer I can say that, but I believe it's true for this year anyway.
And if the stars align and we see our Tigers winning this game as well, it could set up a potentially epic showdown in Columbia the following week against an LSU team with national championship trophies in their eyes.
But you have to beat Vanderbilt first.