By now we are a third of the way through our breakdown of Vanderbilt Commodore football opponents for the 2013 campaign. We continue by taking a look at the 'Dore's fourth opponent of the year, UMass.
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 21; Noon EST
WHERE: Gillette Stadium (Foxborough, MA.)
LAST SEASON: 1-11 (1-7 MAC, 6th place (of 7) in MAC East; No bowl game)
CURRENT PRESEASON RANKING: Not ranked
SERIES HISTORY: Vandy leads 1-0. (Last meeting: Vanderbilt 49, UMass 7, in game nine last season)
OFFENSE: With a host of players lost to graduation, including the number one receiver and running back, you would be forgiven for thinking that the UMass offense would be in decline. Instead the feeling inside the Minutemen camp is that the improvement in play from the quarterback position will lead to an overall improvement this fall. The man expected to lead that improvement is athletic 6-foot-5 sophomore Mike Wegzyn who has spent the summer learning the intricacies of coach Charley Milnar's spread attack.
The backfield is young, but versatile, with lead back Jordan Broadnax complimented by both speed (Stacey Bedell) and power (Daquan Mack). Worth looking out for is Lorenzo Woodley, a true freshman running back who can do a little bit of everything and who is widely regarded as the best player of the incoming class.
While running the ball should be okay, the wide receiving corps is thin and may well be a problem area for a team who averaged less than 200 passing yards per game last fall. Though senior tight end Rob Blanchflower has become the face of the program in the transition to the FBS (and will play on Sundays in the future) there is very little of note outside of him. Better protection of the quarterback would see instant improvement to this unit, but a line that allowed 32 sacks last year (and who failed to control the point of attack) is likely to be just as porous early in the season as the Minutemen replace four starters.
Conclusion: If UMass is to drastically improve from a team that was one of the worst five (FBS) in the country last year then it will all start up front. A combination of JUCo and college transfers are being shoehorned together in an attempt to provide a platform from which the Minutemen can compete this fall. You have to think though that the Vanderbilt defense will just be too talented for UMass to have a chance in this one.
DEFENSE: As with the offense, the UMass defense loses a couple of key pieces from 2012. With the graduation of middle linebacker Perry McIntyre and safety Darren Thellen, other players are having to shift to fill the void. The new MLB, for example, will be Stanley Andre, a big hitting tackler who played last fall at defensive end. Placing the 'backers around Andre is difficult as UMass are expected to bring more 3-4 principles to the defense this year and recruited heavily in fast, athletic linebackers as a result.
The secondary is similarly young and talented, though 2013 may come too soon for the unit to gel together perfectly. By 2015 this group will be one of the best in the conference, but for now expect big plays followed by lapses in concentration. Certainly not a good combination for UMass fans as their defenders attempt to cover the dynamic duo of Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.
The defensive line is a huge concern as UMass was pushed around in almost every game last fall as they went up against offense lines who were simply bigger and stronger than them. The lines are always the biggest problems for teams moving from FCS to FBS because though finding fast and agile guys at the skill positions is relatively easy, there a so few big linemen who can play at the elite level. Outside of a transfer here and there (Justin Anderson from Maryland being the most noteworthy) this is a unit which will have to improve from within.
Conclusion: The Minutemen defense was horrible in 2012 giving up 194 points in four games against non conference foes. This unit, much like the whole team, is still very much a work in progress and it is hard to see them having the talent or the depth to stop Vanderbilt controlling the ball for long stretches of the game.
Other Factors: For a team that goes three and out a lot UMass can at least count on their punter to do his best to flip field position. Colter Johnson is one of the best in the league and it was his leg that was a major reason UMass was able to beat Akron for their sole victory last fall. Johnson has a strong and accurate leg, and in a close game he can prove to be the ace up the Minutemen's sleeve.
Conclusion: The problem when you are pinpointing a punter as a difference maker is that it usually means a team has few realistic ways to win. UMass may improve some in 2013, but they will not improve quickly enough to beat a Vanderbilt team who are themselves still on the rise. Though there is a chance the 'Dores will start slowly after a game against South Carolina the week before, they will pull away in the second half for a dominating victory.
Preseason Preview: Vandy vs. UMass
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