It's been quite a week in Music City...and contrary to some of the headlines you may have read, Vanderbilt is not dropping football, nor dismissing its sports teams, nor looking to leave the SEC. The Chancellor did, however, reassign Vandy's Director of Athletics Todd Turner (in what amounts to a firing), and place Vandy's varsity athletics programs under the newly formed Division of Student Life and University Affairs. It definitely shook up a lot of people in the athletics program, and whether it will prove to be a distraction for the football team Saturday remains to be seen.
I know Auburn is coming to town in a foul mood. By contrast-- and I don't get to say this very often-- Vanderbilt enters the game feeling pretty good about itself. The Commodores are coming off a 51-6 rout of Division I-AA cupcake Chattanooga, and the team feels strongly it should have beaten Ole Miss the week before. Vandy hung with the Rebels and fell short, 24-21, largely because of the lack of a field goal kicker-- more about that later.
Despite the fact that Vandy has lost 18 SEC games in a row, most of the fan base is feeling positive about the leadership of second-year coach Bobby Johnson, who formerly coached at Furman. No, he still hasn't won a game that means anything yet, but there's a simmering feeling that the South Carolina native is quietly doing the little things that will get the program turned around. (I know some of you are ready to dump Tommy Tuberville-- that's fine, just keep your filthy paws off of Johnson.)
When you talk about the Commodores' strengths, you start with their quarterback, Jay Cutler. The third-year sophomore has come miles from the young man who threw two picks at Jordan-Hare last year, and coughed up the ball early in the game for an easy Auburn score. Cutler now weighs about 225 pounds and has great athletic ability and toughness. With him under center, Vanderbilt runs the option just often enough to make defenses worry about it and waste time in practice planning how to defend it.
Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler looks to pass.
Last year Vanderbilt didn't throw the ball a whole lot, but after two games Vandy is averaging a surprising 277 passing yards per game. OK, neither defense they've faced was that good, and Auburn will be a step up. But even though Cutler still makes the occasional mistake trying to force something to happen, he has shown remarkable poise and accuracy, and is almost impossible to sack.
Ted Cain's offense has a variety of formations, but the base set is a conventional ‘I'. The fullback is sophomore Matthew Tant (5-11, 228), compact but powerful. Two tailbacks will carry the load-- sophomore Kwane Doster (5-11, 188) and junior Norval McKenzie (5-11, 202) should alternate. Auburn stuffed Vandy's running game pretty well last year (163 yards); the Commodores will have to improve on that if they hope to win this year.
Vanderbilt's offensive line averages about 6-5, 302 pounds. The tackles, juniors Justin Geisinger and Kenan Arkan, are the strength of the line; the center, sophomore Steven Brent (6-3, 278), is the smallest and most inexperienced. Brent will be playing in only his third full game.
On defense, the linebackers are probably the strength, and the line and the secondary are the team's biggest potential weaknesses. Sophomore linebackers Moses Osemwegie (6-0, 220), Otis Washington (5-11, 225) and Herdley Harrison (6-3, 235) are a young but extremely athletic trio.
(By now, you're probably saying, dang, Vandy starts a lot of sophomores! And you'd be right--most of the team's best players are third-year sophomores, and two of the captains are sophomores. There's only one senior in the starting 22.)
The secondary is inexperienced and possibly exploitable by a talented quarterback (no comments on Jason Campbell's performance so far). You will see Vanderbilt rotate in a number of defensive linemen to keep them fresh; the fact that starting tackle Ralph McKenzie (6-4, 300) is questionable for this game is a big concern. Vanderbilt usually plays a standard 4-3 alignment, but last week saw the Commodores take the unusual step of inserting a nickel back most of the time on first and second downs.
Carnell Williams has been able to break off long touchdown runs both of the last two years against the Vandy defense, so stopping him and the Tiger rushing game will certainly be a major focal point. I'm sure Vandy's coaches have studied long and hard what USC and Georgia Tech did on defense, and Auburn can expect to see more of the line-stacking that forced Hugh Nall & Co. into throwing mode the first two games.
Vanderbilt was stung by the loss of kicker/punter Greg Johnson right after spring practice, and the Commodores are relying on walk-ons to handle both kicking and punting. Neither walk-on has the distance that Johnson had, and as a result you may see Vanderbilt go for it on fourth-and-short, or pooch it on fourth-and-long, inside the Auburn 40. (It's galling for fans to think that if Vandy had known Johnson was planning to transfer, they could perhaps have recruited John Vaughn and/or Kody Bliss to replace him. Instead, both will line up on the other sideline Saturday.) Vandy's weakness in the kicking game could be costly if the game is close.
Auburn's will easily be the best defense Vandy has seen. From a psychological standpoint, I think the Commodores want to score first and force Auburn to come from behind-- for that reason you might see Bobby Johnson take the ball if Vandy wins the toss.
Despite its stumble out of the gate, Auburn is probably still the deeper and more athletic team. Vandy could be a bit psychologically fragile after all that's gone down this week.
But the Tigers may be struggling with their confidence right now, and if the Commodores could grab a 7-to-10-point lead, they might convince Auburn to start thinking, "Oh no, here we go again."
Auburn fans, I'm sure, see this game as a chance to right the ship after a nightmarish start. For Vanderbilt, it's a chance at a breakthrough win over one of the SEC's top-tier programs-- something that hasn't happened since the Dores beat Georgia in 1994.
Jefferson-Pilot will televise the game. Hard as it may be for Auburn fans to believe, Vanderbilt will probably not sell out its just-under-40,000-seat stadium Saturday. Ticket sales have been unusually anemic this year-- that happens when you haven't had a winning season since 1982.
Auburn brought a great crowd to Nashville in September, 2001, and might have had a slight edge in crowd noise that night. I'm guessing it will be that way again. Vanderbilt and Auburn won't meet again until 2007 at Jordan-Hare. For all you Plainsmen who are headed up, good luck, travel safely, and enjoy your trip. Oh, and a word to the wise, especially if your tickets are in the east stands: sunscreen!