Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports


In the January 2014 BBVA Compass Bowl – the end of the James Franklin era – Vanderbilt buried Houston early, squandered a 24-point half-time lead, and then closed out the game strong for the win. Much has changed in the 19 games since that exhilarating bowl victory – and this Saturday’s road match-up with the Cougars will be an intriguing gauge of how far we have come lately.

The game is a test against one of college football’s most prolific offenses, led by Tom Herman, one of the NCAA’s hottest young coaches.

Houston is fourth in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 47.6 points per game.  The Cougars are fifth in the nation in total offense, amassing 561 yards per contest.  Houston’s ground attack is seventh nationally – and the Cougars boast the first true running threat QB Vandy has faced this year in Greg Ward, Jr.  Interestingly, Houston’s offense is also fourth in the country at converting third downs – a fascinating matchup since Vandy’s defense is third best in the NCAA at stopping third down tries.

Perhaps the most sobering statistic in Houston’s arsenal is that the Cougars are #1 nationally in turnover margin – a category that has haunted Vanderbilt throughout the Derek Mason era.  The potential problem with Houston’s statistical prowess (Houston is also 9th nationally in stopping the run) is the Cougars’ schedule.  While standing at 7-0, the Cougars have yet to face a team with a winning record.  In fact, Houston’s seven opponents have a combined record of 13 wins and 37 losses.  This is not to say that Houston is not very good – because they are; but the amazing stats have come versus winless UCF, Tulane, SMU, Tennessee State, Texas State, Tulsa and Louisville.  The narrow win over Louisville is respectable – but an SEC win would do wonders for the Cougars’ resume.

Vandy’s defense is coming off an SEC performance of almost historic proportions.  The defense held Mizzou to three points – and those occurred only because of a short field turnover.  Vandy stopped the Tigers on all 14 third down attempts.  Missouri got a first down on its first play from scrimmage – and would not gain another first down the rest of the first half.  Missouri amassed 45 yards of offense in the first half – and with two minutes left in the game the Tigers had only 111 yards and six first downs.  In the final two minutes our “prevent” defense almost prevented a Vandy victory, but overall it was an impressive day for Coach Mason’s defenders.

Zach Cunningham, Stephen Weatherly and Darreon Herring continue to play at a lofty level.  Oren Burks, Adam Butler, Torren McGaster, Andrew Williamson and Taurean Ferguson contributed impact plays.  Landon Stokes and Torey Agee turned in critical short yardage stops as Caleb Azubike missed another game.  It was a very good defensive performance – a fairly incredible stat:  Mizzou was held to zero or negative yards on 27 of its 53 offensive plays (20 of which were incomplete passes.)  The disclaimer here is that Missouri helped us by failing to hit on several long throws where the Tiger receiver got behind our safeties.  The number of near misses was alarming, but ultimately Mizzou could only hit 14 of 34 throws for 108 yards.  The open deep patterns do need to be addressed, however. 

On offense, Johnny McCrary was benched, but the message seemed to reach the entire offense: Produce.  The O-line and running game showed genuine signs of life.  Spencer Pulley is the reigning SEC lineman of the week.  Ralph Webb ran like he heard Darrius Sims’ footsteps behind him.  Webb collected 99 yards on the ground and Sims continues to impress as a big play threat – Freshman Josh Crawford, back from an injury, ran well too.  The maligned O-line recovered dramatically from a rough outing versus South Carolina.  Missouri’s defense is tremendous – but the O-line had its best game both run-blocking and pass protecting against the Tigers.

Freshman and first-time starter Kyle Shurmur did a nice job at QB.  He was poised and was not asked to take many chances.  His missed passes were generally low where they could not be picked off, and the running game thrived with Shurmur in control.  McCrary came in and held down the fort at crunch time – quietly completing 7 of 8 through the air.  With the more-mobile McCrary and the pro-set Shurmur in Vandy’s arsenal, a two QB system could give opponents a lot to think about.

Shurmur’s pocket presence was good – but his “internal timer” left him vulnerable several times.  Shurmur got stripped once – and almost twice.  The first fumble cost Vandy three points.  The second, “near fumble” was called a defensive TD for Mizzou until replay saved the day – in a game marred by significantly screwy officiating and copious reviews all afternoon.  Shurmur seemed to have excellent chemistry with Steven Scheu and Trent Sherfield – and Latevius Rayfield made a great play to break up an INT that would have derailed what proved to be our lone touchdown drive.  The wide receiver blocking in this game was also much-improved which allowed for increased success running on the edges.  Our up the middle short yardage scheme remains unreliable – but Ralph Webb did punch in a key touchdown from the two-inch line. 

Special teams had a rollercoaster day.  Khari Blasingame and Ryan White tied for special teamer of the week.  Blasingame was robbed of a forced fumble on an inexplicable call on the opening kick-off.  At the 11 yard line, Blasingame decleated the unsuspecting Missouri returner who coughed up the ball as he was spun to the turf – Vandy recovered at the six, and appeared ready to cash in a huge go-ahead score.  The ball, however, was returned to Missouri by the officials purportedly based on “forward progress.”  The apology letter from the SEC offices should be in the mail.  Blasingame also appeared to punch loose a bobbled punt in the fourth quarter which Arnold Tarpley did recover and Vandy was allowed to keep.  This was our best coverage of the year – and a monster improvement over early season efforts.

Ryan White also gave Vandy a solid performance returning punts on a wet day.  Despite several high points on special teams, it was not all unicorns and rainbows.  We were caught napping again on a fake punt.  We missed two field goals – the latter a chip shot to ice the game.  As it clanked off the upright with two minutes left, it seemed almost impossible that we had failed to seal a two score lead after dominating all day.

To be honest, the final two minutes of this game were not our finest hour.  Running out the clock for the “icing” field goal, we ran right on third down rather than centering the ball.  This loomed large when the short boot caromed off the right upright.  Then, after holding Missouri to 6 first downs all day – we dropped back and gave up 4 first downs as Missouri drove to our 13 yard line.  Again, replay helped a lot on this drive – moving Missouri backwards on a big Adam Butler sack that had initially been called an incomplete pass.  Vandy did not close out this game with authority – but we won an SEC game.  And we needed the win badly.

It was our first SEC win since a crisp Knoxville night in November, 2013, that feels like a long time ago.  Our reward was a bowl match-up with Houston, who we face again this Saturday night.  Pick: Houston 34, Vandy 30.

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The Florida-Georgia contest in Jacksonville is no longer called “the World’s Largest Cocktail Party,” but this year the game should decide the East like in the old Cocktail Days.  While Florida’s season has been a pleasant surprise and Georgia’s a dreary disappointment, whoever wins this game will take the lead in the East.  Florida has only one loss – but the Gators’ are also winless without suspended qb Will Grier.  Replacement qb Treon Harris will be tested by Georgia's pass rush.  Georgia’s offense, meanwhile, has struggled to recover momentum after losing RB Nick Chubb.  A win here would heal a variety of Bulldog wounds that have accumulated as Georgia has whiffed on the East Title the last several years.  Vegas has installed Florida as a three point favorite – however, the underdog often surprises in this series.  Florida’s defense will be the best unit on the field, but the Gators’ kicking struggles could rise up to bite them in a close game.  My brain says Georgia and my gut says Georgia – but Georgia keeps finding ways to let the East slip away. Pick: Florida 20, Georgia 17.

Auburn hosts Mississippi in another SEC death match.  Ole Miss righted the ship last week, throttling Texas A&M at home.  Auburn lost an excruciating four overtime struggle at Arkansas.  Ole Miss still has only one SEC loss and, if the Rebs win out, an appearance in the SEC Championship Game remains a legitimate possibility.  Auburn’s season could devolve into chaos with a loss here.  A&M, Georgia and Bama still remain on the Tigers’ schedule.  Both teams need this game desperately.  Pick: Ole Miss 35, Auburn 27.

Coming off a bye, South Carolina travels to College Station where Texas A&M’s offense is in a genuine funk.  The Aggies were held to three points last week in Oxford.  On opening night last year, A&M massacred the Gamecocks on national television – scoring almost at will.  South Carolina’s defense is very opportunistic as we know all too well – and A&M turned the ball over for three pick sixes two weeks ago.  Notably A&M slumped last week after losing a physical battle with Bama the week before.  Coming home and recuperating versus the Gamecocks should get the Aggies back on track.  Pick: A&M 34, Carolina 16.

Tennessee gave Bama all the Tide wanted in Tuscaloosa last week.  This week the Vols play their only back-to-back road game of the year in Lexington.  Tennessee’s front-loaded schedule becomes easier from this point forward – assuming the Vols can avoid post-Bama let-down syndrome this week.  Kentucky’s “wheels fell off” after a good start last year – and the wheels are getting loose again now after losses to Auburn and MSU.  The Bulldogs ran through and over Kentucky’s defense with surprising ease.  Last year’s collapse adds a lot of pressure to the Wildcats here.  Tennessee’s offense should pick up where MSU left off.  Pick: Tennessee 45, Kentucky 20.

Rounding out the conference schedule is UT-Martin’s visit to Fayetteville.  The Skyhawks are 5-2 this year, but are best remembered for giving up 76 points to Ole Miss.  Arkansas will likely be better hosts than the Rebels.  UT-Martin is probably fortunate the Razorbacks held on to beat Auburn in their 4 OT thriller last week.  Pick: Arkansas 51, UTM 7.

Traveling to 18th-ranked Houston is a tough challenge – but pre-season this match-up posed as a probable win.  Houston has exceeded expectations by a wide margin – and a team gets better the more it believes in itself.  Still, Houston’s schedule does raise a few question marks.  And Coach Mason’s emphasis on time of possession and play count is the precise recipe for taming a prolific offense.  Incidentally, Vandy is now No. 8 nationally in time of possession.  In case you are wondering #1 in time of possession is Stanford.  Unfortunately, Vandy is also #125 in red zone offense.  If the Commodores plan to compete in this game, our red zone efficiency has to improve dramatically.

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