The Vandy File
Head Coach: Derek Mason, a renowned connoisseur of microfiber vests, ceviche, and beating Tennessee with ever-increasing and hilarious regularity.
2018 record: 6-7, 3-5 SEC
Home field: Vanderbilt Stadium (40,550)
Famous alumnus: Recording artist and aeronautical inebriation enthusiast Dierks Bentley (B.A., 1997). There are also a few senators, CEOs, and ambassadors. But not a single drunken Nashville bachelorette party participant could pick any of them out of a line up, unlike ole Dierks.
Not Every Season Can End In Houston
Derek Mason enters his sixth season in Nashville having completed arguably his most successful campaign in 2018. While the Commodores did lose 45-38 to Baylor in the Texas Bowl to end the year, they tallied both their highest win totals of the Mason era overall and in conference play. And they beat instate rival Tennessee for a third year in a row, their longest win streak in the rivalry since 1926. That’s a good year by Vanderbilt standards.
The bad news for Vanderbilt is that it will be hard not to take a step back in 2019, due in large part to personnel losses on both sides of the ball and a rough scheduling draw.
Gone from Nashville is offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who left to take the OC job at Utah. Also gone is quarterback Kyle Shurmur. The Shurmur-nator threw for 3130 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2018, but perhaps more importantly he threw only 6 interceptions, rarely putting the Commodore defense in bad positions (they did plenty of that by themselves, but more on that later). Vying to replace him will be five to six signal callers, including a couple of freshmen and a MAC-tion veteran. None other than 6’3, 205 pound redshirt junior Mo Hasan, Deuce Wallace (who saw limited duty in 2017 but was not on the team in 2018, h/t Tom Stephenson of Anchor of Gold) and Ball State transfer Riley Neal has ever taken a collegiate snap.
But it’s cool. The Nashvillains return lots of guys on the offensive line.
Wait, what’s that? [Consults notes . . .] Apparently Vandy loses starters Justin Skule, Bruno Reagan, and Egidio DellaRipa and with them 90+ starts over the past three seasons. Skule was an anchor at left tackle before being drafted in the 6th round by the 49ers. Reagan started 40 consecutive games, including every contest of his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons before signing with the Chiefs as a free agent. I think this goes without saying, but here goes anyway: losing one of the most successful QBs in recent program history and three bellweather offensive linemen up front is not ideal, and a surefire recipe for some growing pains in 2019.
On the bright side, however, the ‘Dores do return KeShawn Vaughn, the SEC’s leading returning rusher (157 carries, 1244 yards, 12 TDs). The 5’10, 205 pound junior will be a key safety net while new offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski (an offensive assistant for Vandy since 2014 in various roles) finds the heir apparent to Shurmur.
The ‘Dores also bring back seven of their top eight receivers from 2018, including leading receiver Kalija Lipscomb (87 receptions, 916 yards, 9 TDs) and runner up Jared Pinkney (50 catches, 774 yards, 7 TDs). All in all, the pieces are there for a Vanderbilt offense that was 8th in the SEC in total offense and 10th in scoring offense to remain competent on that side of the ball, assuming they find a field general to lead the show and someone to block long enough for him to make decent decisions.
Oh dear. Here’s where things get a little dicey. A few weeks ago Bill Connelly, Doyen of Data, proposed a detailed method of analyzing returning production on both offense and defense, recognizing that simply talking about returning starters isn’t definitive. But no matter how you dice it, Mason has serious holes to fill on this side of the ball. Vandy ranks a truly awful 119th in returning defensive production under Bill C.’s rubric. This from a unit that was 13th in the SEC in total defense in 2018. Vandy gave up 31+ points five times last season and lost every one of those games.
The Black and Gold do return four of the team’s top five tacklers, including standout Dimitri Moore (75 tackles, 5 TFL in 2018). But the secondary suffered serious losses. Joejaun Williams departed early for the NFL, taking a team-leading four interceptions and 14 pass breakups (not to mention 52 tackles) with him. Also gone are senior DBs LaDarius Wiley and Donovan Sheffield. All told 7 of the ‘Dores 13 interceptions from last season are gone.
On the bright side former Illinois corner/nickel Cam Watkins (38 tackles, 3 pass breakups) will grad transfer in to fight with several young players for time on the back end. Also keep an eye on 4 star safety recruit Anfernee Orji, who has great size and athleticism and could end the season entrenched in the rotation. But Vandy will likely be vulnerable in the secondary in 2019 as new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver takes over playcalling duties from Derek Mason.
Up front Vandy returns juniors Dare and Dayo Odeyingbo, as well as junior Drew Birchmeier, all of whom posted solid contributions in 2018. But as a unit the ‘Dores lack solid size and speed up front. It’s a fine unit for Conference USA, but the Vandy line that gave up 194.7 yards per game on the ground in 2018 will have to improve in 2019, and I don’t think anyone can guarantee that will happen.
The Bottom Line
Like every schedule faced by every team in the SEC, Vandy’s is brutal. After opening at home against the ‘Dawgs the Nashville Nauticals will travel to face a tricky Purdue squad that’s gone to bowls in each of Jeff Brohm’s first two seasons. After a bye they get their first SEC West opponent, LSU. In short, the odds are good that Vandy will take the field at home against Northern Illinois on September 28th looking to avoid an 0-4 start. Non-conference tilts with UNLV and East Tennessee State should be W’s.
But Mason will need to find wins from among contests against Ole Miss (in Oxford), South Carolina (in Columbia), Florida (in Gainesville) and Tennessee (in Knoxville) to avoid the kind of 3 to 4 win season that has doomed many a previous Commodore of the Commodores. Vanderbilt upped its game in 2018, but several of its opponents look set to do the same in 2019, and that’s a blueprint for a down year in Nashville.
UGA prediction: A Vanderbilt defense looking to establish consistency on both the defensive front and in the secondary is exactly what you want if you’re Jake Fromm and his huge, veteran offensive line. Look for the Red and Black to come out of the shoot runnin’ the dang ball while also conducting interviews for the various open receiver spots on the UGA offense.
Defensively, a young Vanderbilt front will be the first test of Kirby Smart’s avowed emphasis on havoc plays. There are likely to be a lot of chances for this one to get away from the ‘Dores on both sides of the ball, and I think they’ll take advantage of several of them. My prediction: Georgia 41, Vandy 17. Until later . . .