With the Liberty Bowl right around the corner, the ‘getting to know your enemy’ posts are going to come fast and furious over the next couple of weeks. I’ve already shed the light on some off-the-cuff facts about Vanderbilt University but I definitely needed some help with the Commodores football team. Probably like most you, I haven’t watched a lick of Vanderbilt football this year. Thankfully, Christian who runs the Anchor of Gold SB Nation site is all over it and has been inundated in everything Vanderbilt this year. He helped me out by answering a few of my patented long-winded questions about them.
Bearcats Nation: Vanderbilt looks to be turning the corner as a football program. What is James Franklin doing that his predecessors didn’t?
Christian: The Franklin difference is that he’s addressed the losing culture in Nashville head on and somehow been able to use it to his advantage. He took an apathetic fanbase and the toughest academic requirements in the SEC and turned those into challenges for both current players and recruits. Other coaches say that you don’t want to go to Vanderbilt? That’s because they don’t think you’re smart enough to handle football and classwork. Vanderbilt has no football tradition? That’s fine, because we’re going to start one – and now you have the chance to be legendary rather than just another link in a chain. He’s been able to flip the stigma that surrounds this team to create a high-risk, high-reward scenario for his players and interested recruits. The success he’s had in 2011 is showing that this gamble is paying off.
The results have been shocking, both on the field and on the recruiting trail. The Commodores not only are headed to a bowl game (with every single significant player from 2011 being a member of someone else’s recruiting haul), but also have a top 25 recruiting class for 2012. Five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel has Vanderbilt as a key presence in his final four schools. Quite frankly, we’ve never seen anything like it at Vandy – and it’s awesome. We finally have a coach that cares about football as much as the average SEC fan.
BN: The Commodores played really well against Georgia, Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee but lost those games by less than a touchdown each. What did that do to the psyche of the team?
C: Vanderbilt football has seen its share of moral victories over the past decade. What was different in 2011 was that these close losses didn’t manifest into the team quitting over the course of the season or playing down to lesser opponents. For example, the Commodores hit their 2006 game with Tennessee at 5-5 and chasing their first bowl bid in 25 years. They lost a heartbreaker in Knoxville, giving up a fourth-quarter lead. Then, with the chance to get that elusive 6th win against Wake Forest, they crapped the bed entirely and just gave up. The Demon Deacons scored 31 straight points to open the game, and Vandy finished at a listless 5-7.
Five years later, Vandy’s at 5-5 with games to go against UT and Wake. They lose a heartbreaker against Tennessee in Knoxville, giving up a fourth-quarter lead. Then they head to Carolina to play the Deacons…and completely mop the floor with them. Vandy finishes 6-6 and heads to the Liberty Bowl.
In the past, these close losses would have ground these players down over the course of the season. In 2011, it seems to have energized them. Credit the coaching staff for keeping morale up, but also praise the players for keeping things together over a roller coaster season.
BN: UC has the ‘Down the Drive’ chant that seems to infuriate opposing fans. We Bearcats fans love that they hate it. Any chants from the Vandy contingent that we should be on the lookout for?
C: We’re still working on that. Do disappointed sighs count as chants? Because we got really good at those over the past four decades.
Seriously, though, we’re bad at chants and taunting. I live in Madison, WI now and realize just how far behind Vandy fans are every time I go to a Badger game. Students there are like the Picasso of drunken chants, just pushing the boundaries of what we ever thought possible. Commodore fans could learn something there.
BN: Let’s talk x’s and o’s. Most UC fans, myself included, probably haven’t watched the Commodores play much this year. Who should we be on the lookout for in this game?
C: The Vandy offense has relied on three key players during their second half resurgence. The first is quarterback Jordan Rodgers. Rodgers, the younger brother of the Super Bowl MVP Aaron, emerged this year as the best pure passer Vanderbilt has had since Jay Cutler. He is solid in the pocket, can find receivers downfield, and is also a threat to run the ball, averaging about 49 rush yards per game in his starts.
His main target has been sophomore Jordan Matthews. Matthews also has some famous bloodlines – he’s cousins with Jerry Rice. The young receiver struggled early in the season before exploding once Rodgers took over at QB. Check out these splits: first 6 games – seven catches, one TD, 109 yards. Last 6 games – 30 catches, four TD, 613 yards. His 19.5 yards per catch was the most in the SEC for receivers with more than 30 catches. He’s the team’s biggest deep threat since the days of Earl Bennett.
However, the guy with the biggest impact on offense has been All-SEC tailback Zac Stacy. Stacy was a platoon guy in his first two seasons before breaking out in 2011. He set a Vanderbilt record with 1,136 rushing yards and recorded five 100-yard rushing games on the season. He’s a powerful little guy with the speed to break long runs – he’s got five carries that went for 40 yards or more this season.
Tight end Brandon Barden is also a big receiving threat as an athletic end. A rebuilt offensive line has been solid as the season has progressed.
Defensively, the ‘Dores sport an underrated D-Line that features Tim Fugger, a powerful end who you’ll hear from a few times at the Liberty Bowl. Linebacker Chris Marve is this team’s heart and soul on the defense, and cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Trey Wilson are very strong in man-to-man coverage. This team’s secondary is its strength, but they’ve been solid across the board when it comes to getting stops.
BN: If you were a UC coach scouting Vandy’s offense and defense, which position or unit would you want to exploit?
C: I’d say the offense and more specifically the offensive line. Vandy’s defense is driven by veteran players who have come up big in this team’s wins. However, the offense features a patchwork line that has been beset by injury problems this year and could be vulnerable.
Coach Herb Hand has been incredible in developing young players to take up starting roles, but Vanderbilt’s struggles to keep their quarterbacks upright over the past few years have been notable. If UC can get a good push up front and keep pressure on Jordan Rodgers all night, it could rattle the first-year starter in the biggest game of his NCAA career.
BN: Who’s winning this thing?
C: Vanderbilt is undefeated when it comes to bowl games played in the Volunteer State. Granted, that’s just 1-0 and we needed a MVP performance from our punter to get there (2008 Music City Bowl), but I think James Franklin gets these guys fired up and takes the win.
For Vanderbilt, this is the culmination of a season where no one believed in the team and a bowl bid was the best possible outcome. For Cincinnati, I imagine there’s got to be some frustration from missing out on a BCS bid by a narrow result. I think that mental shift – along with the absence of Zach Collaros – gives Vandy the edge in a close game.
P.S. When Vanderbilt hosted Xavier earlier this month, Kenny Frease got into it with our fans, screaming an audible “fuck you” to our lower bowl season ticket holders. I don’t necessarily condone what happened in the Xavier/Cincinnati game, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t smiling when I saw that goofy bastard leaking blood on the court.
Well I can already feel my brain swelling with knowledge of Vandy football. Once again, big thanks to Christian for those responses and remember to follow him on Twitter if you have an account. Dude appears to be a Futurama fan and has a distaste for Xavier University that all of us can appreciate. Those are definitely two pluses in my book. And be sure to check out Anchor of Gold for the most up-to-date Vanderbilt coverage. You should probably follow them, too, just to have your bases covered.