Football season starts today in Nashville, so let’s kick it off right by taking a look ahead at each game on Vanderbilt’s schedule.
We call this series the Wildly Optimistic Previews because, well, that’s exactly what they are. Past previews — which have been scrubbed from the Vanderbilt Hustler’s website, so sorry for the image links — have had Vanderbilt going 9-3 (2013), 11-1 (2012), and winning the national championship in basketball (2012). This will border on delusional at times, so bear with me as we take the Pollyanna perspective on the Vanderbilt 2014 football season.
Honestly, this column gets easier and easier to write every year as the talent level on West End improves and 2014 is no exception. Every game on the schedule is winnable for Derek Mason’s team, and the best quarterback the Commodores will see is probably Bo Wallace (Dak Prescott is not an acceptable answer, no matter what Saturday Down South tells you).
While there is an expected drop-off with the loss of Jordan Matthews, this figures to be the most talented team Vanderbilt has put on a football field and there’s
only a few no reasons why it wouldn’t be going to a fourth-straight bowl game. With Will Muschamp still the head coach in Gainesville, Georgia and South Carolina breaking in new quarterbacks, Tennessee perennially “a year away” and Missouri completely retooling after last year’s championship run, the SEC East is wide open. The Commodores have as easy an SEC schedule as anybody, with the Western opponents coming exclusively from the Magnolia State, meaning Derek Mason’s promise of an SEC Eastern Division title could come true sooner rather than later.
Let’s take a look at the schedule.
August 28 vs. Temple Owls
Temple quarterback P.J. Walker is really a fun player to watch. As a freshman in 2013 he threw for 20 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions while also being an effective runner. The Owls were unlucky last year, losing all five of their one-possession games — which suggests they were actually better than their 2-10 record would lead you to believe. Ok, that’s about all the nice things there are to say about Temple.
Actually, no it isn’t. Hall and Oates went to Temple, and I freaking love Hall and Oates.
Ok, that’s all the nice things to say about Temple.
I fully expect Vanderbilt to blow the doors off of Temple in this game. We will get a look at all three quarterbacks at one point or another in the game — despite Patton Robinette’s appointment as the starter, this quarterback battle is still going on — and Coach Mason expects to play as many as 40 players.
Verdict: Easy win. 1-0.
September 6 vs. Ole Miss Rebels (LP Field)
This is likely the game that the success of the season swings on. Of course, we said that exact same thing last year and that turned out pretty well despite a loss to the Rebels. Watching Hugh Freeze’s spread offense take on a Derek Mason defense designed specifically to stop spread offenses is going to be wildly entertaining.
Of course, the Rebels are stocked with talent after two phenomenal recruiting classes and return just about every key player — the exception being last year’s villain Jeff Scott — while Vanderbilt has to replace Jordan Matthews, who accounted for 42% of Vanderbilt’s yards in the 39-35 loss.
The key here is going to be quarterback play. Bo Wallace is a talented dual-threat for Ole Miss — if he can get out of his own way. Wallace consistently shot himself in the foot last season with bad turnovers and wound up with just a 18-10 touchdown-interception ratio. Vanderbilt, well, Vanderbilt doesn’t know what it’s getting this year. Many Commodore fans (myself firmly included) want to see Johnny McCrary under center in this game because of his tremendously high ceiling. Patton Robinette is a capable read-option quarterback, but he just doesn’t throw the ball all that well (4 td, 5 int, 52% completion percentage) and takes too many sacks (12% of all dropbacks). With Robinette at quarterback, the offense becomes rather one-dimensional and cannot throw downfield at all. Ole Miss has a very good defense against the run (they’re pretty good against the pass too) and the Commodores will have to find balance in the attack to win this game.
Of course, it’s a balance that Vanderbilt was able to find with Robinette at times last year. He has the ability to produce first downs at a decent rate, and showed some explosiveness with 14 yards per completion. Despite the high sack rate, he was also excellent at getting positive yardage when he left the pocket — gaining at least five yards on 26 of his 59 carries. If the sophomore can avoid turnovers and the ground game is established early, there’s no reason to believe the Commodores can’t put up a buttload (technical term, I know) of points in this matchup again.
Verdict: Leaning towards a loss, but this is probably a close game that comes down to one weird play, just like the last two seasons. Ole Miss got Jeff Scott last year, Vanderbilt takes the toss-up this year. 2-0.
September 13 vs. Massachusetts Minutemen
UMass is very possibly the worst team in the FBS. A new coach and a new quarterback will do wonders for the team in Amherst, but this is just a bad football team. The Minutemen wouldn’t have had a winning record in FCS last season and we can’t expect for them to be that much better this year, especially early in the season.
Verdict: Blowout win. 3-0.
September 20 vs. South Carolina Gamecocks
There was a time, not too long ago, when Vanderbilt had a two-game winning streak against the Gamecocks. South Carolina was ranked in each matchup, as the No. 24 team in the country in 2008 and all the way up at No. 6 in 2007, and those wins — along with the Music City Bowl team in 2008 — foreshadowed the success that Vanderbilt would have after the departure of Bobby Johnson.
That time seems to have passed, as Steve Spurrier’s team has topped the Commodores in each of the last four meetings between the division rivals. The last two iterations have been close, well-fought games with Vanderbilt falling short each time. It’ll be tough to break that streak this year as the Gamecocks are arguably the team to beat in the SEC East.
South Carolina lost four of its five best players from last season — Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Bruce Ellington (this also helps the Vanderbilt basketball team) — but return basically everyone else, including running back Mike Davis. The Gamecocks also bring back quarterback Dylan Thompson, who got 89 pass attempts last season in filling in for an injured Shaw.
Thompson is likely the key cog in whether South Carolina can win the East this year. That’s a somewhat frightening thing to say about someone whose numbers were pretty similar to Patton Robinette last year. Thompson completed 52 of 89 passes (58%) for 783 yards with 4 touchdowns and 3 interceptions while taking 3 sacks. Robinette completed 46 of 88 passes (52%) for 642 yards with 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, but took 12 sacks. Thompson played a lot last year, but those aren’t exactly encouraging numbers.
Mike Davis is a dark-horse Heisman contender, but if Thompson can’t find a rhythm the Vanderbilt defense can focus on him and stop up the Gamecock offense. Last year the Carolina offense was able to create lanes by utilizing the super-efficient Shaw-to-Ellington connection on intermediate routes that stretched into longer gains — Ellington averaged 15.5 yards per catch — and Thompson must be able to recreate that success to give Davis space this season. If he can’t, then the Gamecocks will struggle to put points on the board.
Verdict: A hot start gives Vanderbilt an overwhelmingly favorable home crowd that the defense uses to its advantage. A low scoring affair is decided by a turnover (or a bad pass-interference call) and Vanderbilt steals a win. 4-0.
September 27 at Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has done a good job of bringing talent to Lexington, with a top-20 recruiting class in his first year. That talent didn’t make much of a difference on the field last season, as the Wildcats still finished 2-10. It’s year 2 now, though, and the Wildcats are more settled at quarterback and OH MY GOD LOOK AT FRESHMAN MATT ELAM.
That’s a big dude.
Verdict: A closer win than Vanderbilt fans would like, but a win nonetheless. 5-0.
October 4 at Georgia Bulldogs
This is the toughest game on Vanderbilt’s schedule. A road date with a conference power that boasts a true Heisman contender in Todd Gurley does not bode well for the Commodores. There are a lot of ways to draw up a defensive scheme to combat particular offenses. That’s Derek Mason’s specialty, after all, in stopping high-powered scoring attacks. There are not a lot of ways to tackle a runner like Gurley, however, and that opens lanes for the other stars Georgia boasts at the skill positions. Georgia will score points in this game, and it will be up to Patton Robinette (or Johnny McCrary or whomever is the starting quarterback at this point) to keep pace. That probably won’t happen. The last time Vanderbilt played in Athens was one of the worst games I’ve ever seen in person. Aaron Murray and the No. 5 Bulldogs got out to a fast start en route to a 48-3 blowout that marks the only time I have ever left a Vanderbilt game in the third quarter because of the score. Please, please don’t let this game end up like that one.
Verdict: Almost certainly a loss. This isn’t the UGA team of last season that was missing half its starters, and the targeting rule won’t bail the Commodores out this year. 5-1.
October 11 vs. Charleston Southern Buccaneers
It’s really important to get this bye week before the actual bye week before the Missouri game. That’s an important turning point for the season
Verdict: Blowout win. 6-1 and bowl eligible for the fourth straight season.
October 25 at Missouri Tigers
Will the Tigers be able to replace the production of James Franklin, Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, the Notious DGB and Henry Josey? Almost certainly not, but quarterback Maty Mauk was a huge part of the Tigers’ SEC East title last year and is one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, even as a sophomore.
Of course, Mauk won’t have any of his three leading receivers from last season — DGB, Marcus Lucas or L’Damian Washington — and his best returning threat out wide is someone named Bud Sasser. We’ll find out this year if Mauk truly is a star, or if his 16 yards per completion last season was a mirage brought on by having three uber-talented wideouts. I’m as a big a Maty Mauk fan as there is, but he will struggle this year. The strength of the Mizzou offense when he played was big plays, and without the quality and size of last season’s receivers that success will be tough to duplicate.
That’s not to mention the defense, which must replace a devastating pass rush that totaled 41 sacks in 2013 — good for fourth-best in the country. Kony Ealy and Michael Sam put up two of the better defensive seasons we’ve seen in the SEC recently, and the Tigers also lose two starting linebackers and three of the four most productive members of the secondary. While offense is Gary Pinkel’s strength, the improved play of the defense rightfully takes a lot of credit for last season’s stunning run to Atlanta. Without the star power on either side of the ball this season, Mizzou likely regresses to 8-4ish while still threatening the powers of the SEC East.
Verdict: Two years ago Zac Stacy carried the Commodores to a win in Columbia. Look for Jerron Seymour (or Ralph Webb) to do the same in 2014. 7-1.
November 1 vs. Old Dominion Monarchs
Seeing as we’ve already passed 2,000 words on this mental exercise, let’s not waste any more time and just skip this game.
Verdict: Blowout win. 8-1.
November 8 vs. Florida Gators
Oh boy. Is Florida going to be any good this year? I don’t have any idea, and neither do you. The Gators have all the talent in the world, but a head coach that even UF fans openly despise.
That’s Spencer Hall, the best college football writer in the world, who actually followed through on tweeting sections of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian during the second half of the UF-Vanderbilt game. That’s what Will Muschamp football does to people. Given that, Muschamp may have been fired already by this point in the season.
Regardless, the Gators will have an excellent defense and a mediocre-to-unwatchable offense. Jeff Driskell, the bane of Vanderbilt’s existence, returns this season but whereas the read option has been a major weakness for the Commodores under Bob Shoop, it figures to be a strength under Derek Mason.
Florida will struggle to put up points no matter the opponent, so it will come down to the Commodores offense. I trust whoever the quarterback is at this point to be able to give us 14 points, which is all that we need against this tire fire of a Florida offense.
Verdict: An ugly win, hopefully by way of an absolutely abysmal excessive celebration penalty. That’s right, I still haven’t forgotten 2005. 9-1.
November 22 at Mississippi State Bulldogs
Somehow, Mississippi State has become a popular dark horse pick to win the SEC West, with Dak Prescott becoming a sleeper Heisman candidate and I just don’t get it. The Bulldogs went 7-6 last year (including the bowl game). Their wins came against Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green, Kentucky, Arkansas and Ole Miss before a blowout victory over Rice in the Liberty Bowl. Think about that. Besides a rivalry win that was quite literally fumbled to them by Bo Wallace, the Bulldogs’ best win was against… Rice? So while it’s great that the team returns 18 starters, are we sure that those are 18 good starters? And Prescott, I really don’t get the hype about Prescott.
Even his season stats that include games against lesser competition don’t stand out. 10 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 58% completion percentage and 6.8 yards per attempt are average numbers (at best). Dak can run well, but until he proves that he can successfully pass against above-average defenses there is absolutely no reason to bring him up for award consideration.
The State defense is very good, especially against the run, and only lost three starters while returning the rest of the two-deep. You can grind it out against the Bulldogs — they ranked 73rd in the country in stops behind the line of scrimmage — but they don’t give up big plays. Don’t buy the hype about the offense, but believe that this defense will be one of the best units in the country.
Verdict: The Bulldogs are worn down after seeing Alabama, and looking ahead to Ole Miss the week after. Even though the game is in Starkville the Vanderbilt running game takes control early and lets the defense for Prescott into risky throws. Vanderbilt wins by 10. 10-1.
November 29 vs. Tennessee Volunteers
The Commodores won a blowout in 2012, and survived an ugly game in 2013. They’ve now won two in a row against the Volunteers for the first time since 1926. Win one more and…
Verdict: Winning streak. 11-1.