For us Vanderbilt fans, it's been a strange season. As I'm sure you've heard, the Commodores temporarily became media darlings in September by opening the season 4-0 for the first time since 1984. Long known as a team that couldn't finish a game in the fourth quarter, Vandy seemed to exorcise some of its past demons by actually coming back and beating Wake Forest and Arkansas in the fourth quarter on the road, and following that with convincing home wins over Ole Miss and Richmond.
Then it all came crashing down like a house of cards. MTSU blocked a last-second field goal to beat Vandy 17-16 in Game 5, and the Commodores ended up going 0-for-October. Making it worse was the fact that the MTSU and South Carolina games were within reach in the final minute, but the Commodores failed both times to close the sale.
Being 4-4 at this point probably exceeds most fans' preseason expectations, but after the 4-0 start, most fans figured VU was a shoo-in to earn its first bowl invitation since 1982. Now Vandy needs to win two of its last three to avoid extending the 22-year bowl-less streak, and though the Kentucky game looks winnable, the other two are in forbidding venues in Gainesville and Knoxville.
In past seasons Vanderbilt has run a good bit of option to keep defenses honest, but the Commodores have gotten away from that this season. They've committed to a more conventional rushing attack to complement the passing of senior quarterback Jay Cutler, who was the coaches' choice in the preseason for All-SEC signal caller. (I know, you Gator fans thought Chris Leak deserved that honor, but as it turns out, Brodie Croyle has probably played better than either of them.)
Vandy currently leads the SEC in passing offense (252 yards per game), and Cutler (No. 6) is the man who makes it go. A seasoned, fifth-year senior with great field vision, Cutler is capable of slicing up good defenses if given time to throw. He is also more than capable of making hay on the quarterback draw, which Vandy typically runs 3 to 5 times per game, so defenses dare not leave him unaccounted for. The consensus of most NFL gurus is that he is a probable second- or third-round choice in the 2006 draft.
Cutler's main targets are senior Erik Davis (2), junior Marlon White (82) and freshman Earl Bennett (10). Davis and White were hurt in the South Carolina game, but both should be ready to go vs. Florida. Senior tight end Dustin Dunning (84) has also developed into a reliable pass catcher, to whom Cutler often looks on third down.
Vandy's base formation on non-passing downs is a traditional I, with sophomores Jeff Jennings (21) and Cassen Jackson-Garrison (22) rotating in to share the carries. The offensive line, beset by some injuries by this season, is down to eight healthy bodies, and a couple of starters are new to their positions. The rushing game has been effective at times, although some good SEC defenses (most notably LSU's) have been able to shut it down.
After seeing Florida's game last week, it seems obvious to me that Cutler should provide the Gator defense a much sterner test than did Joe Tereshinski and Georgia. The game might come down to Vanderbilt's ability to protect Cutler vs. Florida's defense, which leads the league in sacks.
A wild card to watch might be fullback / H-back Steven Bright (16), whom offensive coordinator Ted Cain has used at just about every conceivable offensive position. A multi-taltented former quarterback, Bright can run the ball, catch it or throw it. When he's in the game, Vandy's offense is much more multiple and unpredictable.
Other than the fact that Vanderbilt's defense can't stop the run and can't stop the pass, it has played pretty well, yuk, yuk. OK, that might be stretching things a bit... the defense has improved some as the season has gone on. But most opposing running backs have gone through the Commodore defense like Phillip Fulmer through a buffet. Though Coach Bobby Johnson and defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler have worked hard to put more speed on the field, Vanderbilt still doesn't have the athletes to measure up to most SEC defenses. The pass rush has been virtually non-existent, the secondary play spotty, and the tackling mediocre to awful.
Consequently, I suspect that Urban Meyer's spread offense is due for a big day against the Commodores. Spreading the defense out prevents Vandy from stacking the box to stop DeShawn Wynn, and if Vandy does try that tactic, I expect that screen passes and out passes by Leak should be highly effective. Vandy typically plays a soft, bend-but-don't-break style that dares offenses to throw, but it will be interesting to see if it employs that strategy against a passer as good as Leak.
In the Georgia game, Florida appeared to have solved many of the blocking problems it had earlier in the season. Vanderbilt does not generally play an ultra-aggressive defense; instead it looks for chinks and tries to pick its prime opportunities and spots for blitzes. Fowler is well aware that Leak can burn a team that overdoes it.
Vandy currently ranks 10th in the SEC in total defense, and last against the pass. Its best player on defense is outside linebacker Moses Osemwegie (30), currently third in the conference in tackling. Two of Vandy's four secondary starters are freshmen, a fact which Leak may attempt to exploit.
Special teams overview
Out of Vandy's 25-man recruiting class last year, only two signees have played as true freshmen. But both have had a huge impact, and both play on special teams.
Bryant Hahnfeldt, who handles kickoffs, punts and placekicking, has been a savior for Vandy in the kicking department, an area that was shaky all of last season. He puts a fair amount of his kickoffs into the end zone, punts for about a 41-yard average, and is 11-for-15 on field goals (5-of-6 from 40 yards or more). On the down side, Vanderbilt has had a kick of some sort blocked in three of the last four games, so fans have been doing a fair amount of complaining about the units as a whole.
The other true freshman is Earl Bennett, a youngster about whom Vandy fans are very excited. Bennett, who returns both punts and kickoffs, has the kind of make-people-miss moves that Vandy fans are not used to seeing. He hasn't returned one for a touchdown yet, but most of us feel he will before the year is out. He can also be explosive at receiver, and turned in a monster, 16-catch, 204-yard performance against South Carolina.
Summation / prediction
I would feel a lot better about this game if Florida had lost to Georgia. With Georgia still having to face a good Auburn team, Florida still has legitimate hopes of getting to the SEC Championship Game. Consequently the Gator fan base is energized, and the Gators know they can't afford to stumble. The Swamp should be rocking.
What does Vandy have working in its favor? In addition to its aforementioned bowl hopes, I like the fact that the game is at night. The heat and humidity at the Swamp can take a toll on a team like Vandy, which is probably not as deep as Florida-- but moving the game to night neutralizes that advantage. The Commodores' two big early-season wins both, notably, came at night before loud, raucous road crowds. Also, Vandy has had a week off to prepare for this game, giving several injured players a chance to heal.
Be advised, Florida fans, that this is not the same kind of sad sack Vanderbilt team to which the SEC has become accustomed. Cutler is a tremendously poised quarterback who can pick apart even some of the SEC's best defenses. The 2005 Commodores play well-coached, disciplined football (fewest penalties in the SEC) and don't beat themselves (only two fumbles lost all season). For a change, no team all season has blown Vandy out (even the LSU and Georgia games were close going into the fourth quarter).
Still, the Commodores have dropped four straight, so there's no telling where they are confidence-wise.
What would it take for Vandy to win in Gainesville for the first time since 1945? In all honesty it would take a near-perfect performance by Cutler and the offensive line... a big advantage in time of possession... a couple of gift turnovers by Leak and the Gators... and the unexpected return of Ron Zook to the sidelines as head coach. Given that not many of those things are probable... I'm picking Florida to win by a score of about 34-17. (Which, incidentally, was the final score last year.)
Brent Wiseman covers Vanderbilt football for VandyMania.com.