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1. Anchor down
Yesterday, I called Mississippi State a hard job that seems to be getting harder for Dan Mullen. Well, Vanderbilt is the hard job of the SEC. At least, it was before the smart kids (Stanford, Northwestern, Vandy, Duke, hell, even Rice) all started to figure out the game of football. As the spread offense takes hold, and as speed becomes more and more of a prized commodity in college football, some schools are figuring out that you can also win games with strength, brains and toughness. And recruits have noticed.
It is jarring to see Vanderbilt winning both games and big-time recruits. And while there might be some smoke and mirrors involved with the former (we'll get to that), the latter could ensure that luck might only be needed for a little while. After rising to 7-6 and 54th in the F/+ rankings in 2008, Vandy crumbled back to the ground in the final year of the Bobby Johnson era and the interim Robbie Caldwell year. Despite the (relatively) recent bowl win, the program Franklin inherited was seemingly as barren of talent and hope as any Vandy squad in recent memory, at least going back to when Johnson had taken over for Woody Widenhofer in 2002.
No matter. Franklin's charisma, tenacity, and ability to make some inspired assistant hires have turned Vanderbilt around dramatically.
Now, make no mistake: There has still been some luck involved; at least, there was last year. Vanderbilt surged to 39th in 2011, but a 1-5 one-possession record kept the Commodores down. In 2012, they sank to just 50th, with a defense that improved slightly and an offense that regressed considerably (especially over the first half of the season), but a 3-1 one-possession record made all the difference. Vanderbilt went 9-4, whipped N.C. State in the Music City Bowl, inked another interesting class of recruits, and enters 2013 with a level of optimism unseen in Nashville since, I don't know, the Red Sanders era in the 1940s?
Now, the margin for error for Vandy is still minimal. It always will be. Great recruiting from Franklin and company still has the Commodores in the bottom half of the league in that regard (ninth in two-year recruiting rank). And their No. 50 F/+ ranking was in the bottom half, as well (eighth). If the close-game breaks go against them, it is going to be difficult to engineer a record better than about 6-6.
But this is a program that won just eight games from 2001-'04 and had only once won more than nine games in a two-year span in this century. To improve to the middle of the pack in the nation's toughest conference, with the threat of making more noise with a couple of lucky breaks, is staggering. College football's newest, smartest underdog strategy is working, and it's making schools like Vanderbilt far less of an underdog.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 50|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|30-Aug||South Carolina||13-17||L||22.8 - 21.4||W|
|8-Sep||at Northwestern||13-23||L||21.8 - 23.1||L|
|15-Sep||Presbyterian||58-0||W||38.7 - 7.5||W|
|22-Sep||at Georgia||3-48||L||27.3 - 33.1||L|
|6-Oct||at Missouri||19-15||W||17.6 - 26.0||L|
|13-Oct||Florida||17-31||L||35.1 - 39.3||L|
|20-Oct||Auburn||17-13||W||23.4 - 18.9||W|
|27-Oct||Massachusetts||49-7||W||34.8 - 26.0||W|
|3-Nov||at Kentucky||40-0||W||29.1 - 15.7||W|
|10-Nov||at Ole Miss||27-26||W||27.9 - 22.8||W|
|17-Nov||Tennessee||41-18||W||29.4 - 11.6||W|
|24-Nov||at Wake Forest||55-21||W||37.4 - 24.5||W|
|31-Dec||vs. N.C. State||38-24||W||18.0 - 33.7||L|
|Points Per Game||30.0||55||18.7||15|
|Adj. Points Per Game||27.9||66||23.3||24|
2. Six is a trend
For the season as a whole, the Vanderbilt offense definitely regressed in 2012, from 43rd to 69th in Off. F/+, from 79th to 89th in Standard Downs S&P+, and, most notably, from 10th to 93rd in Rushing S&P+. The line struggled, running back Zac Stacy found fewer opportunities, and the Commodores had to lean heavily on big plays from receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd to survive. They also didn't actually survive that well -- they were just 2-4 following a 31-17 loss to Florida. But following a narrow win over lowly Auburn, fortunes began to turn on both sides of the ball.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): Vandy 25.6, Opponent 25.1 (minus-0.5)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 6 games): Vandy 30.5, Opponent 19.9 (plus-10.6)
The pass defense went from good to great, and the run game improved to at least some semblance of competency and consistency. Instead of simply surviving, Vandy thrived, vanquishing UMass by 42 points, Kentucky by 40 points, Tennessee by 23, and Wake Forest by 34. The Commodores also took down Ole Miss on the road and overcame a sluggish offensive performance (225 total yards) in the bowl with five takeaways (in some cases, they were more like N.C. State giveaways) and an easy win.
For the season as a whole, Vanderbilt was rather average. But the Commodores were much better over the last half of the season, and that's an encouraging sign. As I've said many times through the years, we drastically overrate the importance of bowl performances -- we really should just ignore the results entirely; they have almost no bearing whatsoever on the next season's results -- but sustained late-season momentum is a real, meaningful thing.
|Q1 Rk||87||1st Down Rk||58|
|Q2 Rk||78||2nd Down Rk||53|
|Q3 Rk||23||3rd Down Rk||101|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Austyn Carta-Samuels||6'1, 220||Sr.||*** (5.6)||14||25||208||56.0%||1||0||0||0.0%||8.3|
|Josh Grady||6'0, 188||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Patton Robinette||6'4, 204||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Johnathan McCrary||6'4, 200||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
3. Remember this guy?
In 2009, true freshman Austyn Carta-Samuels came out of nowhere to lead Wyoming to a surprising 7-6 season and New Mexico Bowl win. He threw for 1,953 yards, 10 touchdowns and five picks, and he showed occasional prowess on the ground, rushing for 71 yards against Fresno State in the bowl. In terms of the overall college football landscape, he kind of vanished into the wind after that. His sophomore season was disappointing (he threw more picks, and Wyoming stopped winning close games), he transferred to Vandy and sat out in 2011, and he backed up Jordan Rodgers in 2012.
Now, four years after his mid-major debut, there's a chance he becomes the starting quarterback for an SEC squad. He will have to continue holding off Patton Robinette to keep the job into the fall, but it's his at the moment.
Whoever wins the job will have to fill Jordan Rodgers' shoes after a year that saw Rogers struggle with efficiency and sacks but make up for it with just enough pretty deep balls to Matthews and Boyd. Both Carta-Samuels and Robinette are more athletic and better runners than Rodgers; it will be interesting to see how Vandy offensive coordinator John Donovan utilizes that.
Austyn Carta-Samuels. Don McPeak, US Presswire.
|Wesley Tate||RB||6'1, 215||Sr.||*** (5.5)||107||376||3.5||3.3||8||-12.3|
|Brian Kimbrow||RB||5'8, 180||So.||**** (5.8)||66||413||6.3||9.4||3||+8.8|
|Josh Grady||QB||6'0, 188||So.||*** (5.7)||7||33||4.7||3.0||0||-0.1|
|Austyn Carta-Samuels||QB||6'1, 220||Sr.||*** (5.6)||5||27||5.4||3.4||0||+0.4|
|Jerron Seymour||RB||5'7, 190||So.||*** (5.5)|
4. Zac Stacy was a hell of a running back
Vandy offensive line coach Herb Hand is an SB Nation favorite, a fun Twitter presence, and evidently a thorn in some Tennessee fans' sides. But after a surge in 2011, Hand had to replace three starters up front (including three-year starting tackle Kyle Fischer), and while still working mostly with Bobby Johnson's leftovers, he was unable to avoid regression in 2012. Vandy's sack numbers improved a bit, from 79th in Adj. Sack Rate to 67th, but the run blocking cratered. As you see below, the Commodores couldn't create many opportunities for Zac Stacy (104th in Opportunity Rate) and couldn't keep opposing linemen out of the Vandy backfield on run plays (112th in Stuff Rate). They were solid in short-yardage situations, which paid off at key times, but the line as a whole was pretty disappointing last fall.
In 2013, that should begin to turn around. Another three-year starting tackle, Ryan Seymour, is gone, but six players with starting experience return; plus, we'll begin to get a look at a very highly-touted group of redshirt freshmen that includes four-star tackle Andrew Jelks. Whereas Vandy's 2012 starters on the line were mostly two- and low three-star recruits, the staters in 2014, 2015, and beyond could be high-three- and four-star guys.
The line's struggles did, however, illustrate just how good back Zac Stacy was. With minimal opportunity, the 5'9, 210-pound bowling ball was still able to average over five and a half yards per carry and post a lovely highlight yardage average of 6.5 yards per highlight opportunity. Brian Kimbrow, then a four-star true freshman, also showed some serious explosiveness potential.
Stacy is gone, but Kimbrow and Wesley Tate could team up to form a nice inside-outside combo. Tate's ceiling is pretty limited, but he's a big body who could certainly be used to soften up defenses. Kimbrow is the potential star, however. If he is able to take on a big load of carries, Vanderbilt's offensive ceiling gets awfully high despite the loss of Stacy and Rodgers.
|Jordan Matthews||WR||6'3, 205||Sr.||*** (5.5)||139||94||1323||67.6%||9.5||42.1%||51.8%||9.8||179.2|
|Chris Boyd||WR||6'4, 205||Jr.||*** (5.5)||82||50||774||61.0%||9.4||24.8%||54.9%||9.4||104.9|
|Jonathan Krause||WR||5'11, 182||Sr.||*** (5.5)||22||9||69||40.9%||3.1||6.7%||27.3%||2.8||9.3|
|Kris Kentera||TE||6'4, 230||So.||** (5.4)||18||10||98||55.6%||5.4||5.5%||77.8%||6.4||13.3|
|Wesley Tate||RB||6'1, 215||Sr.||*** (5.5)||16||12||116||75.0%||7.3||4.8%||43.8%||8.2||15.7|
|Steven Scheu||TE||6'5, 255||So.||*** (5.5)||12||8||45||66.7%||3.8||3.6%||50.0%||3.6||6.1|
|Josh Grady||WR||6'0, 188||So.||*** (5.7)||11||6||77||54.5%||7.0||3.3%||72.7%||5.8||10.4|
|Trent Pruitt||WR||5'9, 170||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Tip McKenzie||WR||5'8, 175||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Brandon Vandenburg||TE||6'6, 260||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jordan Cunningham||WR||6'3, 175||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Mitchell Parsons||TE||6'5, 230||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Mack Weaver||TE||6'6, 235||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Carlos Burse||WR||6'2, 194||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|DeAndre Woods||WR||6'3, 205||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Latevius Rayford||WR||6'0, 173||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
5. Go long and post up
Vanderbilt's passing game was the opposite of efficient. But that's mostly because the supporting cast was, to put it kindly, below average. The top two guys, however, did their job as well as you could hope. Jordan Matthews turned into one of the conference's best No. 1 receivers, improving his catch rate from 49 to 68 percent and taking on an enormous load. His 42.1 percent target rate was easily the highest in the country, more than two percent more than the second most frequently targeted player in the country (USC's Marqise Lee at 39.6 percent) and more than five percent more than the third (NMSU's Austin Franklin at 36.6 percent). He was targeted nearly 11 times per game in an offense that didn't throw very frequently.
Opponents knew Jordan Rodgers was going to look to Matthews, especially on passing downs, and they couldn't stop it. And if they focused too much attention on Matthews, Chris Boyd would post up deep. Boyd averaged 15.5 yards per catch in 2012 but still improved his catch rate from 56 to 61 percent. It is quite difficult for a passing game with only two reliable receivers to succeed, and Vandy's passing game was indeed spotty at times, but don't blame Matthews and Boyd for that. They did everything they could.
And if they can get some help from a loaded freshman class that features two four-star recruits (receiver Jordan Cunningham -- because this team doesn't have enough Jordans -- and tight end Mitchell Parsons) and four high-three-stars, the winner of the QB derby could have a pretty easy job.
|Wesley Johnson||RT||6'5, 285||Sr.||*** (5.7)||38 career starts|
|Ryan Seymour||LT||35 career starts|
|Josh Jelesky||RG||16 career starts|
|Andrew Bridges||LT||6'6, 275||Jr.||*** (5.5)||14 career starts|
|Joe Townsend||C||6'4, 305||Jr.||** (5.3)||9 career starts|
|Jake Bernstein||LG||6'4, 295||So.||*** (5.5)||6 career starts|
|Chase White||OG||6'5, 290||Jr.||** (5.3)||4 career starts|
|Spencer Pulley||RG||6'4, 290||Jr.||*** (5.5)||4 career starts|
|Andrew Jelks||LT||6'6, 275||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Will Holden||LG||6'6, 290||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Kevin McCoy||LG||6'5, 285||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Barrett Gouger||RG||6'4, 285||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Blake Fromang||RT||6'7, 285||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Sean Dowling||OL||6'6, 265||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Q1 Rk||30||1st Down Rk||34|
|Q2 Rk||70||2nd Down Rk||39|
|Q3 Rk||5||3rd Down Rk||36|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Walker May||DE||6'5, 250||Sr.||** (5.2)||N/A||33.0||4.5%||10.5||3||0||2||0||0|
|Caleb Azubike||DE||6'4, 255||So.||**** (5.8)||N/A||18.0||2.5%||4.5||4||0||0||0||1|
|Kyle Woestmann||DE||6'3, 255||Jr.||*** (5.7)||N/A||18.0||2.5%||8||6||0||0||2||0|
|Barron Dixon||DT||6'4, 302||Jr.||*** (5.6)||N/A||14.0||1.9%||0.5||1||0||1||0||1|
|Vince Taylor||DT||6'2, 312||Jr.||*** (5.7)||N/A||9.5||1.3%||1.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jimmy Stewart||DE||6'4, 240||So.||** (5.4)||N/A||6.5||0.9%||3||2||0||0||0||0|
|Darien Bryant||DE||6'4, 225||So.||*** (5.6)||N/A||1.5||0.2%||1||1||0||1||0||0|
|Adam Butler||DT||6'4, 290||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Stephen Weatherly||DE||6'5, 235||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Ladarius Banks||DT||6'2, 290||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Torey Agee||DT||6'4, 265||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Jonathan Wynn||DE||6'4, 217||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
6. Warning signs up front
Vanderbilt's defense was reliant on a strong pass defense (and great redzone execution) for success. The Commodores ranked 24th in Passing S&P+, led by steady safeties, aggressive corners, and a linebacking corps that was solid in pass coverage. The front four, however, was lacking -- Vandy ranked just 70th in Rushing S&P+ and 64th in Adj. Line Yards.
It was boom-or-bust up front for the 'Dores. Four linemen made at least 8.0 tackles for loss (seven made at least 3.0), and Vandy ranked sixth in Stuff Rate (negative plays in the backfield), which is fantastic; but if VU wasn't making plays, it was allowing them. Opposing rushers found plenty of room to run, and it has to be a concern, then, that three of the top four tackles in the rotation are now gone. Rob Lohr and Jared Morse made enough plays to compensate for the ones they gave up, but now the tackles rotation is bound to feature a mix of last year's second- and third-stringers and some redshirt freshmen. The pass rush could improve as four-star sophomore Caleb Azubike comes into his own, so there's a chance Vanderbilt's strengths (pass defense) get stronger in 2013 while its weaknesses get weaker.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Chase Garnham||MLB||6'3, 234||Sr.||** (5.4)||N/A||63.5||8.7%||12.5||7||0||0||1||0|
|Karl Butler||OLB||6'1, 215||Sr.||*** (5.6)||N/A||42.5||5.8%||11.5||2||0||5||1||1|
|Darreon Herring||OLB||6'2, 220||So.||*** (5.7)||N/A||26.0||3.6%||1||0||1||1||2||0|
|Jake Sealand||MLB||6'2, 220||So.||*** (5.7)||N/A||17.5||2.4%||1.5||0||0||0||1||0|
|Larry Franklin||OLB||6'1, 210||So.||*** (5.6)||N/A||15.0||2.1%||3.5||0||0||1||0||1|
|Casey Hughes||LB||5'10, 210||Jr.||NR||N/A||4.5||0.6%||1||0||0||0||0||1|
|Kellen Williams||OLB||6'1, 220||So.||NR||N/A||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Ja'karri Thomas||OLB||6'1, 212||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Nigel Bowden||LB||6'1, 230||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Zach Cunningham||LB||6'4, 200||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
7. The most underrated LBs in college football (or close to it)
The line struggled at times, but an outstanding corps of seasoned starting linebackers and exciting backups bailed Vandy out quite a few times. Chase Garnham was one of the nation's better blitzers, while Karl Butler was strong against the run. Neither garnered all-conference honors -- this is an outrage until you remember which conference Vanderbilt plays in -- but both will be senior leaders on a deep, scary unit of Vandy LBs this year.
The exciting freshmen are now exciting sophomores, and two four-star freshmen -- Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham -- enter the mix as well. Vandy is as deep at LB as it is thin at DT.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Kenny Ladler||FS||6'0, 205||Sr.||*** (5.7)||N/A||75.0||10.3%||3.5||1||2||1||1||1|
|Javon Marshall||SS||5'10, 195||Sr.||** (5.2)||N/A||71.5||9.8%||2||0||0||2||1||0|
|Andre Hal||CB||6'0, 184||Sr.||*** (5.6)||N/A||42.0||5.8%||2||0||2||14||0||1|
|Andrew Williamson||FS||6'1, 205||So.||** (5.4)||N/A||17.0||2.3%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Steven Clarke||CB||5'10, 195||Sr.||** (5.4)||N/A||14.0||1.9%||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|Jahmel McIntosh||SS||6'1, 200||So.||*** (5.6)||N/A||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Paris Head||CB||6'0, 175||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Torren McGaster||CB||6'0, 185||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Cory Batey||SS||6'0, 205||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Brandon Banks||CB||5'10, 165||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Jalen Banks||DB||5'11, 190||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Ryan White||DB||5'10, 178||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Tre Bell||DB||5'11, 170||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
8. Good luck
South Carolina completed seven of 15 passes against Vanderbilt. Missouri completed 14 of 40. Florida completed 11 of 20. Kentucky completed 13 of 35. Tennessee completed 19 of 41. Wake Forest completed 18 of 38.
Despite a mediocre-at-best pass rush, Vanderbilt's secondary came up big for a good portion of the year, and it could again with three returning senior starters. Andre Hal is one of the nation's better ball hawks -- his 16 passes defensed were among the nation's Top 20 -- and safeties Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall were nothing if not steady big-play preventers. If you cannot run the ball, good luck scoring against Vanderbilt through the air.
|Carey Spear||5'10, 190||Sr.||1||33.0||0||0||1||100.0%|
|Carey Spear||5'10, 190||Sr.||70||60.6||22||31.4%|
|Carey Spear||5'10, 190||Sr.||27-27||13-13||100.0%||7-11||63.6%|
|Brian Kimbrow||KR||5'8, 180||So.||22||22.1||0|
|Andre Hal||KR||6'0, 184||Sr.||12||22.9||0|
|Jonathan Krause||PR||5'11, 182||Sr.||25||11.2||2|
|Jordan Matthews||PR||6'3, 205||Sr.||6||8.8||0|
|Special Teams F/+||6|
|Field Goal Pct||12|
|Kick Returns Avg||60|
|Punt Returns Avg||34|
9. A foolproof underdog strategy: Be good at special teams
Fun fact: the teams with the top nine special teams units in 2012, according to Special Teams F/+, all finished with at least nine wins in 2012.
1. Kansas State (11-2)
2. Kent State (11-3)
3. Florida (11-2)
4. Northwestern (10-3)
5. Ball State (9-4)
6. Vanderbilt (9-4)
7. Louisiana Tech (9-3)
8. Middle Tnenessee (9-3)
9. LSU (10-3)
(No. 10 Oklahoma State only finished 8-5.)
A lot of these teams racked up gaudy win totals despite deficiencies in other areas of the game. Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee both had awful defenses (100th and 114th in Def. F/+, respectively), and Ball State's wasn't that great either (87th). Hell, Middle Tennessee's offense was no great shakes (90th in Off. F/+), and of the nine teams above, only Louisiana Tech (14th) and Kansas State (19th) had top-30 offenses.
Special Teams makes up about 10-15 percent of a game's outcome, on average; teams that can excel in this 10-15 percent can mask deficiencies and make game-changing plays when the offense and defense aren't on the field. You know, plays like Jonathan Krause's two punt return touchdowns, Carey Spear's seven field goals of 40+ yards, and Richard Kent's 22 punts downed inside the 20.
Vanderbilt ranked seventh in the country in Field Position Advantage despite an iffy ground game and an iffy run defense. Special teams was the primary reason why. Kent's gone, but Spears and all of the components of a damn strong return game return.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|14-Sep||at South Carolina||19|
|26-Oct||at Texas A&M||13|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||63|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||22|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||0 / +13.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (7, 6)|
10. Setting expectations on August 31
I honestly don't know what to make of this team. A combination of experience and youngsters with high ceilings should help shore up the offensive line, and Vandy's WRs (the starters, at least) and DBs will be among the best in a conference loaded with good WRs and DBs. Plus, there are interesting potential replacements for both Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy.
But the defensive line could get pushed around a lot, and I'm not sure the ground game comes around enough to get this team into the F/+ Top 30 overall. Vandy plays seven games against teams projected 39th or worse (five at home), so the Commodores should be able to get back to bowl eligibility, but setting the bar at 6-6 seems low compared to what others are expecting of James Franklin and VU.
Luckily, the season starts with a fantastic barometer. Ole MIss is another young team loaded with expectations following an incredible recruiting haul. The Rebels come to Nashville on August 31; if Vandy looks impressive and wins, then I'm all for eight- or nine-win expectations. If they struggle and lose, however, the goal sinks to bowl eligibility at all costs.
I'm going back and forth by the second. But only thinking Vandy might go 6-6 is staggering if you think back to where this program was just 24 months ago. Again, the margin for error is still small, but one gets the impression that the Commodores are done with being cannon fodder for quite a while. Anchor down.