Missouri vs. Vanderbilt
Date: Oct. 25
Record: Vanderbilt was 9-4 in 2013 with one of those losses being at home to Missouri, 51-28. Missouri leads series 3-2-1.
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
Coach James Franklin, who turned a long moribund Vandy program into a solid winner, has left for Penn State. There’s a lot of talent still around at Vanderbilt and they may not slip to pre-Franklin levels, but there is serious question as to whether the Commodores can win nine games again under new coach Derek Mason.
The questions start at quarterback, where several intriguing options but no absolute answer exists. Patton Robinette is probably No. 1 to at least start things off, having played in 10 games and started three last year. He showed a bad habit of throwing to the guys in the wrong colored shirts last year with four touchdowns versus five interceptions throwing. But he did show a dangerous running ability.
Steven Rivers (younger brother of San Diego Chargers QB Phillip Rivers) has little game experience but his three years of experience at LSU could be valuable, and as an LSU grad now in the Vanderbilt Divinity School, Rivers is eligible to play immediately. But it’s redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary who could end up at the top of the heap when all is said and done. He has good size and a big arm. All these guys have reasons to think they might be good college QBs, but none has proven it on the field yet.
That’s not a problem at running back, where a pair of strong runners return in Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. Seymour takes the lead with more than 700 yards last year and a real nose for the end zone (14 touchdowns.) With quarterback a little uncertain and a strong line, Vanderbilt could be playing some old-fashioned running game football this season.
Rather like the QB position, the ‘Dores wide receiver set has potential but not much experience. Jordan Matthews will go down as one of the all-time greats in Nashville, and replacing him is a very tall order. Sophomore Jordan Cunningham has a great deal of potential, and another soph, Latevius Rayford, got some playing time before an injury cut his season short last year. But don’t be surprised if newbies off of those great recruiting classes push for playing time. Redshirt frosh C.J. Duncan was particularly impressive in spring camp. And don’t forget, Mason used the tight end very effectively in his offense at Stanford. Experienced guys like Steven Scheu may start to begin with, but Scheu’s been more of a blocker than a pass-catcher and there’s room for change if the young guys show in practice they’re ready.
While the offensive line lost their best in LT Wesley Johnson, the rest of the line returns intact and this will be a strong point for the Commodores. The core—center Joe Townsend and guards Jake Bernstein and Spencer Pulley—are back for more. RT Andrew Jelks, who looked quite good for a freshman last year, switches to the left side. If Vanderbilt’s going to depend on the rush heavily, at least they seem to have a line up to the challenge.
Vandy’s defense isn’t as worrisome as the O. This is another team making the popular switch to a 3-4 system, but unlike a lot of them Vanderbilt has a ready-made nose tackle on the roster in Vince Taylor. Barron Dixon, also a senior, could also contribute in the middle or be the strong side end. Pass rush comes from young Adam Butler, but there are other good players in the mix here and Vanderbilt will be able to switch guys in and out and keep fresh legs in the game.
The role of linebackers will change in the new alignment. Inside, Darreon Herring was sharp last year and Jake Sealand also brings some experience. But folks in Nashville are excited about freshman Nigel Bowden who may push Sealand to the bench. Outside are two excellent players. Perhaps the finest, Caleb Azubike moves from end to OLB and from either a two- or three-technique he’s a guy you must account for if you don’t want to lose yardage. In spite of missing the final three games he ended up with nine and a half tackles for loss last season. On the other side Kyle Woestmann is a high-motor guy who likes to hit and led the team in sacks last year. With some young guys seemingly ready to move up, the ‘Dores will need this fifth-year senior and team leader on the field.
Vandy fans will be hoping the Commodores strong recruiting of the last couple of years will be seen in the secondary, where all four starters from last year leave. At corner, Torren McGaster is a redshirt sophomore who has a lot of potential but may not be ready to be a big-time SEC corner. Likewise, Paris Head was a highly-coveted recruit but he’s another sophomore who has to prove himself on Saturdays. Darrius Sims may break into the mix, but he’s just as inexperienced. At safety, Andrew Williamson and Jahmel McIntosh contributed as backups last year, Williamson with 20 tackles and a couple of picks. But keep an eye out for Emmanuel Smith, the true freshman is getting a lot of buzz around Nashville and may be hard to keep off the field.
Vanderbilt has one other key loss, consistently strong kicker Carey Spear, and there’s no obvious replacement.
Vandy’s had the greatest run in school history, but expecting another nine-win season is awfully far-fetched. Another bowl may be possible, and with a baby-soft non-conference schedule (Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion) they probably pull out a winning record. But they’ll struggle in the SEC, and this should be a comfortable win for Missouri who suddenly are 7-1 and getting some national attention.
Darren Hellwege is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the United States Basketball Writers Association. Find him on Twitter: @KBIAHellwege