As has become customary in these parts, I exchanged some questions and answers this week with a knowledgeable source regarding Georgia’s upcoming opponent. This week that meant talking to Thomas Stephenson of SB Nation’s Vanderbilt site, Anchor of Gold. Enjoy.
MD: Ralph Webb has rushed for 1000 yards in each of his first three seasons in Nashville, but this year is on pace to rush for closer to 500. Is it the offensive line? Scheme? What does Vandy need to do to get the running game on track?
Thomas: Vanderbilt currently ranks 126th in Opportunity Rate, which is ... suboptimal. Webb's lead blocker (Bailey McElwain) hasn't played at all this year and Vanderbilt also had to replace two starters from last year's line (LT Will Holden and C Barrett Gouger) and the end result is an offensive line that just isn't all that good at opening holes. Last week the two starting guards from the first four games were benched in favor of a couple of backups, which should tell you just where the problems are, and it doesn't help that last year's starting RG Bruno Reagan is playing center, a position he's never played before.
What exacerbates the problem is that Webb is very much a "see hole, run through hole" type of back rather than a home run hitter. Those consistent 4-5 yard runs are now 1-2 yard runs. That said, the fact that Vanderbilt is shuffling offensive linemen rather than giving more carries to Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield should tell you where the problems are, or at least where the coaching staff thinks they are.
MD: How prepared is Kyle Shurmur to put the offense on his back if the running game doesn't get on track?
Thomas: Well... I mean, that's basically what happened last week in a 38-24 loss to Florida. 24 points should be enough to beat Florida, so that one was on the defense. OC Andy Ludwig seems to be adjusting to the running game being crap: Shurmur attempted 40 passes (and really 41 when you count a sack -- interestingly, as bad as the line has been in the run game, it's actually been really good at keeping Shurmur upright.) What's more, for really the first time since Ludwig's been the coordinator, he opened up the downfield passing game. Vanderbilt does have some really talented receivers, and I think you'll see the team play to its strengths on offense more often as the season wears on. Interestingly, teams still seem to be loading the box to stop Webb.
MD: Last year Georgia got a first hand view of the awesome lethality of Zach Cunningham. How is the Commodore defense coping now that he's in the NFL? Who has stepped up to fill that void?
Thomas: The defense looked great for three weeks, then had trouble stopping Alabama's third string from doing whatever it wanted to and got pushed around by Florida's offensive line last week. We knew going in that the defensive line would have problems (the starters are decent but there's about zero depth there.) The linebacking corps and secondary have been pretty solid, though. Charles Wright was a revelation early on, though I haven't heard his name a whole lot the last couple of weeks. CB Tre Herndon was out last week (but should be back this week) and I think that made a difference with the secondary getting burned on some big pass plays.
MD: How is Derek Mason really doing at Vanderbilt? From the outside it would seem that a bowl game and a win over Tennessee in 2016 would buy him a ton of good will among the fanbase, even if he weren't a generally likeable guy. Is that perception accurate?
Thomas: There was a time when beating Tennessee and going to the Independence Bowl would have been grounds for a lifetime extension. You would think Mason would have a ton of good will, and to some degree that's true, but expectations have been raised to the point that some of our fans are actually upset that we lost to Florida last week. You know... like we're supposed to beat them, or something. But I'd say this is a tentative yes: Mason has a lot of good will with the fan base right now (though there does still exist an angry, irrational portion of the fan base that will turn on him), but I think a lot of that good will would be pissed away if we go 5-7 this year.
MD: What is your recommendation for a non-touristy place for visiting Bulldog fans to hit up before or after the game? Don't say the Ryman. We've been and it's transcendent. But we're looking for a place where annoyed locals will shoot us dirty looks while thinking "who invited the tourists?" Don't worry, we won't tell them you sent us.
Thomas: The problem with this question is that these days, I'm not sure there's anywhere in the city of Nashville (and especially the area around Vanderbilt) that a bunch of people from Georgia would seem out of place. Hell, seemingly half of my law school class was from Georgia. You'd have to get pretty far outside of Nashville for that to happen, and I wouldn't recommend going there after what you did to the Vols last week.
I'll be honest and admit that I haven't spent a ton of time in Nashville since I graduated (2009), but I do recommend the Pinewood Social Club downtown if you're looking for something to do after the game.
MD: Because we must: what's your score prediction?
Thomas: While I don't think Georgia will be sleeping on Vanderbilt after what went down in Athens last year, I think that Vanderbilt's defense will have a renewed focus after the last two weeks, and that will lead to... well, at least not getting completely destroyed. Kyle Shurmur will hit a couple of big pass plays to keep things respectable. I'll say 31-14, Georgia.
Thanks to Thomas for his thoughtful, thorough responses. And the recommendation on a place to order waffles with peanut butter mousse and bacon. That’s just solid execution right there. Until later....