Week: Minus TwoLooking Back
With under three minutes left against Florida last season, Vandy made a chip shot field goal to pull within a touchdown of the Gators. If the defense could hold, Vandy would have a crack at the tying score and a much-needed, signature win. Instead, Jeff Driskel took a read-option quarterback keeper – a play that haunted us the first half of 2012 – for a back-breaking 70 yard touchdown scamper. This was Driskel's second touchdown from beyond the red zone in the game – and the eighth big play (more than 20 yard) touchdown given up by our defense in our first six games. Notably, however, Driskel's run late in game 6 would be the last touchdown permitted by our defense all year from outside the red zone. Not coincidentally, we won all remaining seven games.
If the defense took it up a notch in the second half of the 2012 season, the offense turned over a new leaf entirely. In the first six games of 2012, except in a blow-out of Presbyterian, our offense never broke the teens. Even in beating Auburn the week after the Florida loss, we managed only 17 points. The rest of the way, however, Vandy averaged over 40 points per game, hanging 49 (UMass), 40 (UK), 27 (OM), 41 (UT), 55 (WF) and 38 (NC State) on the competition. And we took our foot off the pedal in several of those blow-out wins.
A wise-guy might simply conclude that our schedule in 2012 was front-loaded with difficult games and back-loaded with winnable ones. This does help explain the 2-4 start and 7-0 finish, but we also got a lot better. Not only did the defense eventually stop the big play, but it began shutting teams down – giving fits to highly-touted opposing quarterbacks like Mike Glennon and Tyler Bray. Ultimately, our opponents averaged only 18.7 points per game in 2012, while we averaged 30. There were two shut-outs. We ended the season with a top-twenty defense and the vast majority of our defensive playmakers are back.
As for the offense, it took time for the line to gel. And it did not help that the schedule was front-loaded. Even with Jordan Rogers at quarterback, NFL-caliber receivers (who are back) and all-time leading rusher Zac Stacy in the backfield, we struggled to score touchdowns in the early games, especially in the red zone. Once the line solidified, however, our offense was undeniably quite good. Statistically, on the season we out-rushed opponents; we out-threw opponents; we had more first downs than opponents; we even narrowly controlled time of possession. We also produced an impressive 57 percent fourth down conversion rate.
Put these offensive and defensive successes together and it is no surprise we won 9 games (for the first time since before Prohibition), and possess the longest active winning streak in the SEC. At the same time, detractors still look for that true signature win on last year's slate.
It is always difficult to read pre-season tea leaves. One key injury at a "skill position" can change everything as Missouri learned last year. If we stay healthy, I expect this year's team to be even better than last year's – but that may not translate to a better record. The rest of the SEC-East will also be better and our SEC schedule will be much trickier. I would put our over/under at 7 regular season wins. For many, that will sound disappointing – which is a sign of how far Coach Franklin and his staff have taken us in a short time.
There are several dangerous aspects to our 2013 schedule. We play critical early season games against Ole Miss and South Carolina. It is uncomfortable opening with crucial games before the new starting quarterback and backfield have had time to play together in game situations. At the same time, a very solid O-line should help make this transition easier, and the new quarterback's supporting cast does have plenty of experience. Nonetheless, both SC and Ole Miss have major league defenses and the offense will be tested right out of the gate.
This year's conference schedule also trades in Auburn for a trip to Texas A&M, which is a downgrade in the "likelihood of success" department (assuming a certain Heisman winner is still eligible.) Several SEC teams who finished behind us last year also have favorable scheduling quirks against us. Mizzou, with a healthy James Franklin, could easily arrive in Nashville fired up, believing and 4-0 after a breezy pre-conference schedule. UT has set their bye for us (our byes are for Florida and Georgia, by the way) and the Vols may be desperate to beat us to be bowl-eligible. (More on that next week.)
At the same time, we have some favorable circumstances, too, versus several upper echelon teams. South Carolina has a very manageable over-all schedule – but the first three weeks are challenging: the Gamecocks open with UNC, at Georgia, Vandy. There is a lot riding on that SC-Georgia game in week 2 – playing SC as a hangover game the following week is a break for us, whether they win or lose in Athens. Meanwhile, Florida also catches us (off our bye) sandwiched between Georgia and at South Carolina.
The main oddity of our schedule is that, following Mizzou on October 5th, we go bye, Georgia, at Texas A&M, bye, at Florida. That is a five week period where we will face nothing but pre-season top ten teams. We will not be favored in any of those games. This imposing slate looms as a potential mid-season momentum-crusher. The coaching staff and team did a great job last year of hanging tough through the difficult early portion of the schedule. They will be challenged again this year, particularly during this mid-season gauntlet.
Needs and Expectations
This year's defense should be excellent. The d-line should be stout; the defensive ends, downright scary. There is lots of depth, too. Walker May, Kyle Woestmann, and Caleb Azubike will wreak havoc from the outside. Jared Morse will anchor inside. There is buzz about newcomers all across the line. In the secondary, Andre Hal is on the watch-list for the Thorpe, Bednarik and Nagurski Awards. Despite losses to graduation at cornerback, Hal and Steven Clarke are established defenders – notably, the depth chart behind them is very young. Our safeties are dominating. Kenny Ladler led the team in tackles last year, and he is on the CFPA Defensive Back Trophy Watch List, while Javon Marshall is perhaps the surest open-field tackler on the squad. At linebacker, a bevy of young talent got playing time as last season wore on. Chase Garnham is on the Lott Trophy Watch List, and Karl Butler and Darreon Herring should lend solid support.
Last year the defense did have some trouble with the big play – but, as noted, it tightened up as the year progressed. The defense also was not as sharp at profiting from turnovers as it should have been. In fact, of 25 opponent fumbles, we recovered only 7. Some of that is just bad luck – but it is an area where we certainly should improve. Similarly, we recorded 11 INTs – but more than half of those came in two late season pick-fests. When we won the turnover battle last year, we won the game. Bottom line: we have work to do, but multiple guys on this defense will play on Sundays. They should be fun to watch.
The offense has more question marks, but a lot of upside. Austyn Carta-Samuels brings a lot of experience from Wyoming – but it is not SEC experience. And behind our starting quarterback there is no college quarterback experience. Carta-Samuels will be initiated under fire by Ole Miss – a team we could not run against last year (Zac got banged up.) Luckily, in addition to a solid line, Carta-Samuels has deadly wide-outs in Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. In fact, Matthews' decision to return (when he was likely a solid NFL draft choice) is a strong vote of confidence for Carta-Samuels' arm. Both Matthews and Boyd frequently merited ESPN Top Plays attention last year, and they should continue to garner abundant attention from opposing defenses. One other question mark: will Wesley Tate or Brian Kimbrow emerge as the money back in a talented backfield? Or will they form a "thunder and lightning" running back by committee along with Jerron Seymour? Kimbrow has blazing speed, while Tate is a bruising runner whose older brother is already in the NFL. A likely change from last year will be our quarterback's propensity to run. Former signal-caller Jordan Rodgers was free to rely on his legs as much as his arm. My guess is the braintrust will discourage Carta-Samuels from running as much with almost no back-up experience behind him.
With newcomers at key offensive positions, turnovers are always a concern. The solid O-line, led by Wesley Johnson, who is on the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award Watch Lists, should help with ball control, and the running game. Two things the offense needs to work on are getting tight ends into the passing game, and developing an effective screen pass threat to offset opposing pass rushes. Neither worked sufficiently last year. The O-line was pivotal in the dominating "wild Zac" formation last season. Zac Stacy is gone to the pros, but whoever wins this job should see significant action. If it happens to be a dual threat reserve quarterback, opponents will have even more to worry about. An optimist would argue that the team was a juggernaut, averaging 58 points per game, when Carta-Samuels started last year. Most experienced Vandy fans are not optimists, but Coach Franklin is working on that.
We had some inspired special teams play in 2012– despite giving up long returns in our bowl game and versus UT. Carey Spear is back – and he is on the Lou Groza Award Watch List. An experienced kicker is invaluable– and Spear is also a pretty good tackler. Richard Kent has been punting for us forever; he is gone to the pros, too, and there will be a fight between Colby Cooke and Taylor Hudson to see who takes over hang-time responsibilities. Again, opening against Ole Miss on national TV with a rookie punter will add some drama to an already high-pressure game.
In the past, pre-season was a time when Vandy fans could dream. Under the Franklin regime, the fan base has reasons to dream big. Only two more weeks until that first kick-off finally goes airborne.