1. People all over the country have been analyzing Vanderbilt's 5-0 start, and I'm sorry, the reason can't be as simple as "best turnover margin in the division." What else, if anything, has been the cause of the Commodores managing to win so many games?
Well, don't underestimate the importance of the turnovers. With each of [Vanderbilt's] SEC games decided by a TD or less, netting 1.17 takeaways per game is huge.
But there are other factors too. There's no doubt this team plays with more poise at the end of close games than past Vanderbilt teams, but it's harder to tell exactly why. I tend to be sort of skeptical of what I see as sports fans' need to force outcomes into a certain narrative -- in other words, a team who gets more lucky breaks than its opponent will still be praised for "wanting it more," for "showing great toughness" or whatever. And to be sure, we've been getting our share of breaks so far this year, which is just as well since the universe owes us big-time.
Both our red zone offense and defense have been excellent (2nd in the SEC in both). We've already made two or three goal-line stands in conference play, and I'm told that our secondary is coached to play rather soft coverage in the middle of the field. So although I have my rather geeky doubts that a "bend but don't break" defense is sustainable for the long run, this seems to an intentional defensive philosophy for Vanderbilt.
2. Has the VU fan base come to expect wins now, or are people still pretty surprised and grateful whenever the team can pull off a victory? As far as you can tell, has that changed any in the wake of the loss to Mississippi State?
One implication of the loss to State is that it took away the feeling of invincibility that comes when your team has remained undefeated through really improbable twists. Keep in mind that both Ole Miss and Auburn looked like they were in the process of blowing us out in the first quarter! Once you see your team pull off goal line stands and sudden pick-sixes to win games, you start to expect the deus ex machina, that someone will pop up to save your team just in the nick of time. Just one loss, especially one loss to a team with a bad record, is enough to puncture that illusion!
I'm always pretty grateful for VU wins, and each of our SEC wins has been a legitimate surprise for me. Beating Duke, and possibly Kentucky or Tennessee, won't be a surprise this year, but I try to avoid the feeling that the team owes me success. If we keep winning and our bandwagon gets bigger, I'm sure you'll sadly see more of a sense of entitlement, but that takes a few years to develop.
3. Mackenzi Adams burned the Bulldogs on a number of big plays last year in Nashville, and personally, I'm a lot more worried about him as the starting QB than I would be about Chris Nickson. If I'm Willie Martinez, what kind of defensive game plan do I need to set down to make sure Adams isn't allowed to be the hero this Saturday?
Vanderbilt fans would pretty unanimously agree that Adams poses more of a threat, too. Although he's not a spectacular passer, he certainly has been throwing it a lot more effectively than Nickson. Though not as good a runner, he still possesess pretty good mobility.
From Martinez' perspective, I think an effective game plan would include some blitzing and some changing coverage schemes to try to exploit Adams' lack of experience and force him to prove himself. Although I think he's been making pretty good decisions (except for the desperation pick against State), we really haven't seen how Adams reacts to a whole game against a defense as good as Georgia's.
I also suspect Vanderbilt's game plan for him will rely on a lot of short passing (in addition to, if past experience is our guide on what to expect from OC Ted Cain, WAY too many QB draws). Georgia might want to take away screen passes and short routes and force Adams to prove himself with longer throws.
4. Regarding the matchup of Georgia offense vs. Vanderbilt defense, which Georgia player should expect to find the biggest target on his back?
Our most likely target is Matthew Stafford and the offensive line's pass protection. We lead the SEC with 19 sacks, and although, as you noted, Georgia's OL has done a good job of coping with injuries, it's only logical to test them in light of Vince Vance's injury.
That said, I'm also really interested and a little scared in seeing how we cope with Knowshon Moreno and the rest of the Georgia running game. So far this season, the pattern has been for Vanderbilt to come out unable to stop anyone's running in the first quarter. Then the defense makes the obvious adjustments of putting eight men in the box and perhaps some other adjustments too subtle for me to grasp. And from the second quarter our run defense tends to be pretty good. So I'll be really interested in seeing if Georgia's rushing is just too powerful for us to cope with, or if we follow this same pattern of adjustment.
5. What's the VU fan base's general expectation for this game (would covering the spread be enough, or do they expect an outright win?) and for the season in general? At this point, what would constitute a successful season based on what the Commodores have already accomplished, and what would come as a disappointment?
A few people are picking an upset over Georgia, but I don't think many people are outright expecting a win. We've thought all season that this game and Florida would be our toughest games of the year. Covering the point spread isn't going to bring any Vanderbilt fan a lot of joy, because as you well know, close losses to good teams is nothing new for us. But if Georgia wins I will be more concerned with how Adams looked and what our play portends for the future than with the fact that we lost to one of the top two opponents on our schedule. So in that sense, losing by 3 or 7 would suggest some success in the second half of the season.
Most of our fans are still pretty aware of the big picture of Vanderbilt futility, and I don't think anyone's predicting 5-1 in the back half of our schedule. But the fast start has certainly changed expectations. One of our more knowledgeable fans wrote the following recently:
[I]f for some unfortunate reason we're not even participating in bowl season, then I don't think Clemson would be looking at [Bobby Johnson] anyway (and at which point I'd probably be happy for them to take him off our hands!)
I don't think that parenthetical part represents the view of most people, and to be honest I found it a little shocking. But there's no denying people are going to be really disappointed if we finish 5-7 or even 6-6. Once people are projecting you for the Outback Bowl, the Papa John's would be a bit disappointing. But hey, we're Vandy. We haven't been to a bowl in 25 years, so it still sounds freakish to talk about disappointment with any bowl. Personally I'd be delighted if we hung on and got to Birmingham or Shreveport.
OK, the bowl name might be idiotic, but Birmingham is actually kind of fun. Promise.
Success relative to where we are now would be winning three of the four "winnable" games remaining (Duke, at Kentucky, Tennessee, at Wake) to finish 8-4. But if we finish 6-6, I'll continue to remind people that all the national pundits had us several wins below that. We haven't won six games in a season since 1982, so I would consider 6-6 paradoxically both disappointing (from the standpoint of now) and a qualified success.