Unfortunately, in this process, there is not always much room for error. The offense Andy Ludwig presided over in the spring was stripped of Patton Robinette, C J Duncan and Andrew Jelks before the first snap. Justin Skule and Deandre Woods went down soon after –leaving the O-line and receiving corps decimated. We are playing very conservatively for a reason –and probably burning too many redshirts in the process. The current recruiting class, at least, looks strong at O-line.
As the 2015 season slips into the past tense this Thanksgiving week, Vandy seeks to win its third SEC game of the campaign. More than that, with a shut-down defense returning en masse in 2016, the offense needs to cultivate a bit of hope and momentum for next year. Ralph Webb, the offense's primary bright spot, went over 1,000 yards rushing for 2015 versus A&M. But Vandy passed for only 23 yards and was shut out for the second time of the year. The last time Vandy suffered two shut-outs in one season was 1998, the second year of Woody Widenhofer's tenure.
The defense held A&M to field goals – six of them – whenever the Aggies crossed into Vandy territory. Ironically, A&M's lone touchdown came on a third down 95-yard bomb late in the second quarter. A stop there and the Aggies would have punted from the back of their end zone with a precarious 6-0 lead – instead, after that one breakdown (following a time out), the game was essentially over.
The defense made a series of big plays in the red zone – it was a night, however, when turnovers would not come even when delivered on a platter. Special teams gave up one blocked punt – and almost another. It is an understatement to suggest that some sort of shake up is required at the helm of that department this off-season. The offense tried various looks and formations – but little worked after the opening drive: we got four first down on that drive, then A&M DC John Chavis stuffed the hashes, and we got six first downs the rest of the night (none throwing.) One can only hope that the return of C J Duncan and DeAndre Woods next year will take a little pressure off Trent Sherfield and the receiving corps. The lack of separation has led to miserable stats (and dipping confidence) for our quarterbacks – and the lack of a passing game has let defensive coordinators stuff the box and squeeze the running game.
Coach Mason rallied the troops after a demoralizing 11th game shut-out last year – and the Dores gave Tennessee all they wanted in Nashville. The last time Vandy visited Neyland, 14 points won the game. It was a very satisfying Commodore victory – but Tennessee is a lot better this year than their 2013 edition.
Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs has delivered dynamic stats – but Vandy has had a history of containing him. Vol running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara will challenge the Vandy defense – which has now allowed a 100 yard rusher in back to back games.
Last week A&M's Kyle Allen was accurate and decisive in the pocket – but A&M's receiving corps is the best in the SEC. When the Aggies spread the field, we were too thin to dial up blitzes – and aggressive schemes were our best hope. The effective passing game opened up the running game and we were soundly outclassed by the Aggies.
This week's game is the first anniversary of Coach Mason taking over the defense – let's hope he can light a fire under the squad in Caleb Azubike, Andrew Williamson, Darreon Herring and Jahmel McIntosh's last game. On the offensive side of the ball Jake Bernstein, Spencer Pulley, Steven Scheu and Kris Kentera will suit up as Commodores for the last time. These seniors have seen higher highs than most Vandy classes – and it would be nice to send them out in style.
In truth, the match-up here is not great – and Vegas has installed Tennessee as a whopping 17 point favorite. Vandy will need to force turnovers to compete – and special teams need to avoid being a liability. I keep thinking OC Ludwig has been saving all his trick plays for this game. Hope springs eternal, but reality is more worrisome. Pick: Tennessee 27, Vandy 10.
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Alabama enters The Iron Bowl with another National Championship on the line. In fact, a Bama loss here likely would lock the SEC out of the play-off. Auburn is playing well in the second half of the season after stumbling out of the gate. Bama is giving 13 points, even on the road. Pick: Bama 35, Auburn 23.
Underdogs have been on a roll lately in the Egg Bowl. Ole Miss can still win the West with a victory at MSU and a Bama loss. Both Mississippi schools are coming off huge wins. Vegas favors Ole Miss by one in a rare SEC battle of elite QBs this year. Mississippi simply has a bit more fire power. If Ole Miss wins this game and Bama wins, it will mean that Ole Miss lost the West on the fluke fourth down desperation pitch-back by Arkansas. That kind of "what if" tends to haunt for a long time. Pick: Ole Miss 41, MSU 38.
There is lots of drama in Baton Rouge this week – will this be Les Miles' final game with the Bengal Tigers? Could LSU possibly lose four in a row? To be honest, the match-up is horrible for A&M. The Aggies are one of the worst run-stopping teams in the SEC while LSU excels at running the ball. Am I even allowed to say this after A&M shut us out? Pick: LSU 34, A&M 33.
Florida rumbles along with only one loss – but the SEC East is fairly tarnished these days and since the suspension of Will Grier, the Gators have been average at best. To be fair, they have also been plagued by injuries in the trenches. Even in Gainsville, Florida State is favored by two by Vegas against the eighth ranked Gators. Florida's defense is very good – but I see Dalvin Cook busting one Ralph Webb-style. And in a tight game, the Gator's kicking woes do not help. Still, Gator special teams may be worth a few points. Pick: FSU 17, Florida 14.
South Carolina hosts Clemson, the number one team in the nation. Before the Gamecocks lost to Citadel last week, it seemed possible South Carolina might rise up and make a bold statement in this game. Now the 3-8 Gamecocks are toast, Shawn Elliot's bid to be full-time head coach is squashed (he only beat one team!) and Steve Spurrier will have avoided being on the sidelines for this beating at the hands of Dabo Sweeney. (Ironically, of course, the Gamecocks did give ACC power UNC its only loss to date.) Pick: Clemson 35, Carolina 17.
Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel's final game will be in Fayetteville – and it will not end pretty. Much like us, Mizzou's defense is outstanding, but the offense makes life hard. Arkansas has been playing tight, high-scoring games recently. The Razorbacks are the best 6-5 team in America and this one shouldn't be close. Pick: Arkansas 38, Mizzou 10.
Georgia Tech (3-8) hosts 8-3 Georgia. This Peach State match-up involves teams that expected far loftier standing in 2015. Instead of winning the East, Georgia is an also-ran recovering from a scare versus Georgia Southern - and Tech is simply reeling. After scoring 60+ in its opening two games, Georgia Tech is an incredible 1-7 in the ACC. Yet the Yellow Jackets lone win came over FSU. Tech actually has much more to play for here. Pick: Georgia 31, Georgia Tech 27.
Kentucky hosts Louisville needing one more win to be bowl eligible (I mean, really 6-win "bowl eligible"). The Wildcats have not beaten a Big Five team since September. 6-5 Louisville has had a rocky season – and is coming off a road loss where its defense looked bad. Did Kentucky gain enough confidence pouring 58 points on lowly Charlotte to wake up its offense for Bobby Petrino's visit? Louisville has won the last four games in this series. Pick: Louisville 37, Kentucky 34.
Thanks to the seniors and Happy Thanksgiving! Let's hope our defense brings its assassin mentality to Neyland again this Saturday and plays the role of Silencers. The unit is sneaky good – and Tennessee hasn't really been tested in over a month. The stunned silence that hung over Neyland after the 2013 game was quite memorable.