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Underdog Redux And The Vanderbilt Commodores

Vanderbilt is the ultimate underdog at the BCS level. Is James Franklin enough of an "underdog tactics" coach to bring success to Nashville? The defense should be stellar, but ... any hope for the offense?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

You are never going to out-talent and out-athlete SEC foes, and while you may be able to out-coach them and pull an upset every now and then, then only way to win at Vanderbilt is to be unconventional.  It is a principle we have discussed multiple times at Football Study Hall, and it is the reason why the concept of underdog strategies is so interesting.

[W]hat strategies would be good underdog, high-variance strategies? Here are some possibilities. ...

  • Passing. It's very clear that passing is a higher-variance (and higher reward) strategy than running. The nature of passing can vary (if you only throw bubble screens that does not entirely count) but passing repeatedly is an underdog strategy. Now, good passing teams can reduce risk, throw safer passes, and the like. All good. And there is an open question with what mix of passes: Deep ones? Short ones? What blend is correct? That can be sorted out later. The bottom line though is that passing is a high variance strategy that can give an underdog a better chance of winning -- and a better chance of messing up and getting creamed. ...
  • High variance defense. This is a difficult question. On the one hand, the defense could go for a blitzing, press type defense that might grab turnovers and get opportune stops, on the theory that you only need a few of these to get an underdog advantage. On the other hand, to an underdog each touchdown given up could be backbreaking, and in any event shortening the game by forcing the offense to march the ball up the field methodically, using up the clock, might be better. Yes people like to talk about "if we have the ball, they can't score" but that mistakes time of possession with possessions. If the underdog can force the favorite to use up a lot of clock and, at minimum, not score a touchdown, and then the underdog can somehow pull of a touchdown itself, then huge advantage to the underdog. On the other hand, pressing defenses that give up big plays periodically might play right into the Goliath's hands because it can score without taking much time off the clock. There is more to this but that is enough for some preliminary thoughts. Likely some mixed strategy is best. ...

So those are some options. Interestingly, it could be argued that on offense, the best strategy might be something like the flexbone or another triple-option offense like Paul Johnson uses: it has big play potential (and thus can be a substitute for passing), yet carries the benefit of keeping the clock going, which works against pass-first underdogs.

I used this exact passage in my Summer Vacation discussion of UL-Monroe and their use of such unconventional approaches, and I am reusing it now because ... well ... ladies and gentlemen, the Vanderbilt Commodores, the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks of BCS conferences!

(Besides, what, did you think I wasn't going to re-blurb over the course of writing 2,500 words each about 120 teams?)

Long ago, (1939, to be exact) Sewanee -- sorry, The University of the South -- saw the writing on the wall and ducked out of their SEC membership.  Vanderbilt persisted despite higher academic standards and lower athletic funding, and they should be admired for that.  But admiration doesn't result in wins.  Bobby Johnson seemingly did everything well in Nashville, putting solid athletes on the field and showing some strong in-game coaching chops, and the reward for his solid efforts was a single bowl bit, the 2008 Music City Bowl in their backyard.  That whole season was something rather special.  ESPN Gameday came to town when they knocked off No. 13 Auburn (before anybody realized, apparently, that Auburn was actually trying to win games without gaining a single positive yard that season), they rose to No. 13 in the polls themselves, they won a bowl ... it was a great step forward.

A year later, they went 2-10 and Johnson retired.

Johnson gameplanned well, his teams executed, his defenses were usually salty, and in eight seasons he went 29-66.  After a year of ridiculously entertaining turkey-inseminator Robbie Caldwell running the show as interim coach, and another 2-10 season, Vandy brings in former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin.  Can he raise the program's ceiling, or is it pretty much set at this point?  Can the Commodores not only play unconventional, successful football, but sustain it for more than three months?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 2-10 | Adj. Record: 1-11 | Final F/+ Rk**: 96
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Northwestern 21-23 L 25.6 - 28.6 L
11-Sep LSU 3-27 L 11.6 - 28.9 L
18-Sep at Ole Miss 28-14 W 18.8 - 23.6 L
2-Oct at Connecticut 21-40 L 26.6 - 31.6 L
9-Oct Eastern Michigan 52-6 W 28.5 - 5.0 W
16-Oct at Georgia 0-43 L 6.3 - 33.8 L
23-Oct South Carolina 7-21 L 10.6 - 28.6 L
30-Oct at Arkansas 14-49 L 17.7 - 25.0 L
6-Nov Florida 14-55 L 5.8 - 30.8 L
13-Nov at Kentucky 20-38 L 19.2 - 36.6 L
20-Nov Tennessee 10-24 L 19.4 - 31.8 L
27-Nov Wake Forest 13-34 L 14.8 - 34.9 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 16.9 112 31.2 94
Adj. Points Per Game 17.1 117 28.3 62

Adj. Points tell us a different story than a full-season S&P+ rating does.  Basically, it describes to us how often a team was particularly good or bad, not just how they averaged out over a full 12 games.  Overall, 24 teams finished below Vanderbilt's 96th-ranked offense (according to Off. F/+), but only three were more consistently miserable than the 'Dores.

The national average of points scored (and, therefore, the midpoint of the Adj. Points curve) was 27.1 per game in 2010.  In terms of real points, Vandy reached that benchmark twice; in terms of Adj. Points, once.  And that one solid effort was wasted against Eastern Michigan.  Aside from general inexperience and iffy talent, injuries conspired against Vandy, and that was too much to overcome given the depth of other SEC teams.  The running backs position and both lines were dinged by injuries -- leaving in the wake a ridiculously young offensive line, among other things.  The result was predictable and hard to watch.

Of course, while injuries are bad for the present tense, they're often great for the future tense; thanks in part to injuries, Vandy can claim 11 returning starters on offense ... but they are 11 players who started for a mostly terrible offense.  New blood on both sides of the ball will be required as a supplement to simple experience.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 112 116 106
RUSHING 93 108 85 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 117 117 113 82
Standard Downs 105 115 99 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 115 116 116 110
Redzone 111 111 108
Q1 Rk 100 1st Down Rk 105
Q2 Rk 86 2nd Down Rk 103
Q3 Rk 116 3rd Down Rk 119
Q4 Rk 119

Our friend Year2 at Team Speed Kills pointed out recently that Vanderbilt currently has seven quarterbacks fighting it out on the depth chart, six of whom are on scholarships.  With the performance of last year's quarterbacks -- and the offense as a whole -- one cannot blame James Franklin for attempting to stock up.  Larry Smith is your "returning starter" (in quotes because that designation usually suggests quality but really probably shouldn't here); he completed 47 percent of his passes last year, barely eking over the five-yards-per-pass level (5.1, to be exact).  He is a decent run threat -- minus sacks, he gained 424 yards and managed a +2.4 Adj. POE last year -- but if I were a Vandy fan, I'd have been quietly rooting for one of the six other competing quarterbacks to beat him out.  They did not.  Smith finished the spring the No. 1 man.

Now, it does not necessarily do us a lot of good to look at last season's offensive footprint -- there's a new guy in charge.  James Franklin was the offensive coordinator for the somewhat resurgent Maryland Terrapins last year; here was Maryland's offensive footprint:

Strangely enough, there are quite a few similarities.  Both teams ran a smidge less than normal on standard downs, passed quite a bit in the redzone, and slowed the tempo down as much as possible.  Maryland took a few more chances on passing downs and played at an even slower pace, but there are as many 'sames' as differences.

So the question now is, is this a good thing?  Or would it be better if Franklin were to shake things up a bit?  Obviously Maryland's offense functioned at a higher level than Vanderbilt's (the Terps ranked 52nd Off. F/+, 39th in Passing S&P+), but was that purely because of coaching or the talent at hand (particularly receiver Torrey Smith and running back Da'Rel Scott)?

I always advocated for Vandy to hire either Mike Leach or Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo because of the uniqueness and underdog favorability of the offenses they run; while acknowledging that both coaches would bring their own set of issues to the table -- Leach obviously doesn't have the best reputation among athletic directors at the moment, and Niumatalolo is a dormant volcano mixed inside a glass case of emotion on the sidelines -- but other than a slow pace, Franklin brings little uniqueness (in terms of personality/footprint) to the table, and for this job, that is a strike against him.

Other tidbits:

  • Running backs Warren Norman and Zac Stacy return after playing only partial seasons due to injury.  They combined for a solid 790 yards, seven touchdowns and a +8.7 Adj. POE.  Though Franklin will likely attempt at least a few more passes than Caldwell did last year, that's still a decent weapon to have ... especially when added to a line with five returning starters (thanks to injuries), including 2010 freshman all-American Wesley Johnson.
  • Smith -- or whoever wins the starting quarterback job -- really, really needs some more reliable weapons.  Granted, Smith doesn't throw the most catchable ball in the world, but all three of his primary returning receivers -- John Cole, Jonathan Krause and Udom Udoh -- had catch rates under 50 percent and per-target rates of less than 6.2 yards.  You know how the term "replacement level" is catching among the sabermetrics crowd?  This is nowhere near replacement level receiver play.  Luckily, tight end Brandon Barden (425 yards, 62% catch) was solid enough to garner second-team all-SEC honors; he's good enough to help a bit.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 54 66 53
RUSHING 47 53 48 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 70 90 63 44
Standard Downs 57 59 58 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 38 31 48 97
Redzone 40 45 41
Q1 Rk 33 1st Down Rk 52
Q2 Rk 64 2nd Down Rk 60
Q3 Rk 84 3rd Down Rk 37
Q4 Rk 25

Franklin might not meet many of my "underdog checklist" criteria, but he did make a creative choice for his defensive coordinator.  Instead of recycling an old name (Carl Torbush, anyone?), Franklin went to the FCS ranks and plucked Bob Shoop away from William & Mary.  Focusing on a stout run defense, W&M had one of the better defenses in the country at the FCS level, and he should understand what to do with some decent personnel.

Most of Vanderbilt's problems in recent years came on the offensive side of the ball; the defense has been solid and should continue that way.  The 'Dores were solid on run D, and unlike a lot of less-than-athletic teams, they didn't let opponents off the hook on passing downs, actually getting more effective when leveraging opponents into second- or third-and-long.  The heart of this defense returns, particularly a deep line.  Ends Johnell Thomas, Tim Fugger and (in eight games) Walker May combined for 15.0 TFL/sacks in 2010; Fugger was strangely effective with the strip, forcing four fumbles, one of the higher totals I've come across in these previews.  May appears to have the highest ceiling of the three, waiting a while to get his opportunity but making the most tackles (23.0) and TFL/sacks (6.0).  Three tackles -- Rob Lohr (8.0 TFL/sacks), Colt Nichter and T.J. Greenstone -- have all shown potential, too.

There is solid depth in the secondary as well.  Second-team all-conference cornerback Casey Hayward (64.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 6 INT, 11 PBU) returns, as do cornerback Eddie Foster (6.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and safeties Sean Richardson (82.0 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 5 PBU) and Kenny Ladler (48.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks as a freshman).  With those TFL totals, one can see that last year's coaching staff made up for a lack of pass-rushing ability on the line (they were much better against the run up front) by assaulting the line of scrimmage with defensive backs.

Other tidbits:

  • I'm curious how Shoop will handle passing downs.  While Vandy's DBs proved adept at blitzing and attacking when asked, William & Mary actually held opponents to a brutal 33% third-down conversion rate while only registering 19 sacks all season.  That tells me they were more of a TCU-style, swarm-to-the-ball-and-make-the-tackle defense than a risk-taking, blitzing one.  If Shoop brings the same philosophy that he seemed to have in Williamsburg, VA (lovely town, by the way), it could result in at least a temporary step backwards on passing downs.
  • The front and back of the defense look solid, but there are holes at linebacker after the departures of OLBs John Stokes (62.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) and Nate CampbellChris Marve (8.0 TFL/sacks) has quite a bit of potential, however.

Vanderbilt's 2010 Season Set to Music

In honor of Robbie Caldwell, how about a little "Jive Turkey" from the ever-underrated Ohio Players?

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here. I don't dislike James Franklin personally.  Really, I don't.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's
Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 77
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 71
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -4 / -7.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 19 (11, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +4.2

A couple of "turnaround" factors jump off the page -- Vandy returns 19 starters, and their +4.2 YPP margin suggests they were quite unlucky in how efficiently their and their opponents' yards were turned into points.  That's good.  Now the bad: look at how far away they are from the "average" SEC team.  What will decent improvement actually do for them?  Now look at how much worse their turnover margin would have been had they recovered a normal number of fumbles.  I'm optimistic that the Vandy defense will continue to play at an average-or-better level, but I just have no faith that the offense is going to be effective enough to steal a couple of SEC games.

The good news is, the schedule could be a lot worse.  The 'Dores have seven home games -- including likely wins versus Elon and Army and you've-got-a-shot games against Ole Miss, Kentucky and UConn.  Win all of those, and they just need one big upset to steal a bowl bid.  But ... they probably won't win all of those.

With 11 seniors, Franklin has a decent base for building over multiple years if he has the chops and creativity.  Just don't expect much noise in 2011.





* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.