Thursday, October 16

We hate it when our friends become successful: the Vanderbilt preview.

Hometown: Nashville, Tenn.

Last season: Not terrible, actually. Beat Ole Miss, gave Georgia everything they could handle, and shocked then-sixth-ranked South Carolina on the road, and were 5-3 at one point before losing to Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wake Forest to finish 5-7.

The season thus far: Stunned South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Auburn to start 5-0 and earn their first top 25 ranking in eons, but last week lost on the road to Mississippi State in a very "Man, I totally didn't see that . . . wait, yeah, I totally saw that one coming" fashion. Currently ranked 22d in the nation by the sportswriters, 23d by the coaches.

Hate index, 1 being Volvo station wagons, 10 being Hummer H2s: Four. If Vanderbilt were any other team in the SEC, their fans would be popping off right now about how they're gonna make the rest of the conference pay and Tennessee and Georgia and whoever better be watching their backs and blah blah blah, but as far as I can tell, they're doing nothing of the kind. Whether that's because of politeness or sheer apathy I'm still not 100-percent sure, but either way, class job, 'Dores. As usual, you're doing your part to keep the rest of us SEC partisans from looking like blithering douchebags.

Associated hottie: Actress Brooklyn Sudano, daughter of Donna Summer, attended Vanderbilt for a short time before pursuing an acting career; she was on "My Wife and Kids" for three seasons and has also made recent appearances on "90210" and "Without a Trace." A part in "Alone in the Dark II," though? I'd have a talk with my agent about that one. I'm just saying.

Celebrity preview: LOLcatz!

What excites me: Even at the height of Vandy's success so far this year, when they were doing things like punking South Carolina and getting Tony Franklin fired and whatnot, nearly every analysis of the Commodores included some disclaimer along the lines of " . . . even though they're still not very good at much of anything." And, relatively speaking, they still aren't. As of right now, the 'Dores are 117th in the nation in passing offense with fewer than 100 yards per game, 52d in the nation in rushing offense, and 118th in the nation (last in the SEC) in total offense. They're better on the other side of the ball -- 51st nationally against the run, 45th against the pass -- but they're still only 39th in the country, 10th in the conference, in total defense. And it's not like the offenses they've faced have been well-oiled machines, either: The best attack they've faced belonged to Rice, 24th in the nation with around 428 yards per game.

The 5-1 record that the Commodores have built in spite of those stats has not been built on smoke and mirrors, but it has been dependent on more than a few lucky breaks -- manifested mainly in the form of the team's turnover margin, which led the country going into the Mississippi State game and is still tied for 11th in Division I-A at +7. Of Vandy's 25 scoring drives so far this season, more than a quarter of them have begun as a result of opponent turnovers; what does this mean for Georgia? Well, the Bulldogs' TO margin at the moment is an even zero, but we've only coughed up the ball six times in six games, so if we can keep that up then we'll cut down on Vandy's opportunities for those quick scoring drives they like so much. (Case in point: Vanderbilt forced no turnovers against Mississippi State last week, and lost.)

Bobby Johnson didn't get fired, however, so we can't give MSU credit for a full Crooming.

Psychologically, it'll be interesting to see what kind of mood Vanderbilt's in coming off that upset loss to a 2-4 Mississippi State team. To this (highly biased) observer, that game looked a lot like the Vanderbilt-MTSU game from 2005: Vandy was an improbable 4-0 going into October and, with a win over the 0-3 Blue Raiders, would've been one win away from bowl eligibility with a moribund Kentucky squad still up on the schedule. Well, the Commodores lost at home to MTSU, 17-15, which started them on a six-game schneid that included winnable games against South Carolina and Kentucky. They did beat that year's hopeless Tennessee squad to end the season, breaking a 22-game losing streak against the Vols, but they still had to stay home and watch the bowls on TV.

I don't know if many of Vandy's players are having those same visions -- I suspect most of them probably aren't -- but that's still an M.O. that has become fairly prevalent for the Commodores over the past few seasons: Win just enough games, including at least one improbable upset over a league semi-powerhouse, to make people start talking about how this might be the year, and then . . . a string of losses in games both winnable and non- sends them to another postseason home alone. Again, I have no idea if anyone on the Vanderbilt squad is actually having these thoughts, but it's not a good situation to be facing as they head into Sanford Stadium to play a team that knows it still has some respect left to earn in both the conference and national-title races.

What worries me: Vanderbilt will be starting Mackenzi Adams in place of Chris Nickson at quarterback this weekend, and trust me, Dawg fans, you'd rather be facing Nickson. Despite not having actually started any games this year, Adams has come off the bench in the last three games to provide just over 20 percent of Vandy's (admittedly meager) total yardage this season; his completion percentage is better than Nickson's (56.8 to 51.4) and he's averaging more than six yards per pass attempt compared to Nickson's 4.4. Mackenzi is also quite mobile, and with 82 yards on 27 carries, he's the Commodores' fourth-leading rusher.

Slippery, that one.

The most relevant statistics on Adams from a Georgia fan's perspective, however, come not from anything he's done this season but from last year's UGA-VU game, in which Adams -- again, in limited action spelling Nickson off the bench -- blistered the Dawgs for 125 yards through the air on 7-of-10 passing and also rushed 14 times for 46 yards and four first downs. On the second-quarter touchdown drive that put the 'Dores up 17-7, he ran on the first four plays for 34 yards before tossing a 16-yard scoring pass to Sean Walker; late in the fourth quarter, he torched the Dawgs with a long pass play to George Walker and scrambled for a key first down, putting the 'Dores in prime scoring position before Cassen Jackson-Garrison fumbled and set the Dawgs up for their game-winning scoring drive. The kid is a real threat both on the ground and through the air, and Bobby Johnson evidently sees a real opportunity for him to test Georgia's so-so pass defense, so rendering this team one-dimensional -- as we were so successful in doing against South Carolina, Arizona State, and Tennessee -- is going to be a challenge.

We've got to keep mistakes to a minimum, too, for as I've already alluded to, Vandy has done a great job of making opponents pay for them. Of the 15 turnovers the Commodores have forced this year -- tied for 19th nationally -- four led to game-ending Vandy drives that ran out the clock, and two of those four preserved close single-score victories. Of the remaining 11, seven led to Vanderbilt points (three touchdowns and four field goals). We saw last week how dangerous that can be -- Matt Stafford's two interceptions led to Tennessee's only two scores, and in fact their only two sustained drives, of the evening -- and we've got to be careful not to give the Commodores those same kinds of opportunities.

One statistical category besides turnover margin in which Vandy has been doing quite well this year is sacks -- they're tied for 7th in the country with 19 sacks in six games. This is less of a concern for Georgia than you might have been led to believe, as we've only allowed eight sacks all season despite ongoing problems with the offensive line. That situation isn't getting any better, though, what with Vince Vance becoming our 3,346th left tackle to be lost for the season due to injury. (Fortunately, it appears tight end Bruce Figgins has elected to wait until the postseason to have his shoulder surgery, so we'll at least be able to move Kiante Tripp back to the O-line for the foreseeable future.)

Player who needs to step up: WLB Rennie Curran. In terms of hard statistics and 40 times, Rennie may not be the fastest player on the field, but he certainly looks like it most of the time, and his ability to laser-lock in on, and subsequently destroy, opposing ball carriers is going to be invaluable against a mobile quarterback like Adams.

"For the last time, I was not in 'Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,' and I've never appeared on 'Saturday Night Live.'"

What I think will happen: First of all, an apology. In my August ranking of SEC head coaches, posted as a sort of preseason ballot in the SEC Power Poll, I put Bobby Johnson at #12 with a bullet and denied any qualms about doing so; I pointed out that his record at Vandy wasn't actually any better than Woody Widenhofer's had been, and that it was hard to give him credit for taking Vandy to new heights when they were winning games here and there but still finding ways to play themselves out of bowl eligibility. Well, the Commodores haven't made bowl eligibility yet, but I still feel as though I may have, er, misunderestimated Bobby's coaching chops. Any time a team is this underwhelming in the statistics department but still manages to win games, that means somebody's doing a good job of coaching 'em up, and Johnson has done just that: His 'Dores don't turn the ball over much, they don't make their own job tougher with dumb penalties, and they capitalize on opportunities when they get them. Yes, they've been the beneficiary of no small amount of luck, but in college football as in everything else, luck is what you make of it.

And at the end of the day, what Johnson has done is to transform Vanderbilt from a year-in-year-out doormat to a team capable of pulling a nice upset here and there to a team about which every opponent has to murmur, "Dang, I'm not real excited about playing these guys this week." And that certainly includes the Bulldogs. While I'm happy for Vanderbilt, I'd be lying if I denied there was a little part of me that's grown wistful for the days when we had at least one gimme game in the SEC East.

All that said, this is still a game Georgia should win. We're at home, we've got the overwhelming edge in playmakers on both sides of the ball, our offensive production over the course of the season has been vastly superior. But I dare say you could've said the same thing about us two years ago, and look what that got us. I haven't gone back to count up how many of the guys on Vanderbilt's current squad were on the team that beat Georgia in 2006, but I'd imagine there are more than a few, and after starting 5-0 and knocking off a few name-brand SEC programs in the process, even the newbies on VU's squad probably don't feel nearly as much of an intimidation factor simply from walking into Sanford Stadium as past Vandy teams did.

If I still have vivid memories of 2006 -- and I do -- then you better believe these guys do too.

Between that and the danger presented by Mackenzi Adams, we could be in for every bit as serious a dogfight as we got from the Commodores the last two years. I think there are two keys to a successful Georgia outing here: 1) contain Mackenzi Adams, and 2) jump out to a fast start. I know that neither of those exactly count as earth-shattering insight, but as far as the first goal is concerned, Adams truly is the key to whatever offense VU will be able to produce, as the most productive yardage-gainer on the team after Chris Nickson is RB Jared Hawkins, who's only averaging 55.5 yards per game. And as far as the second goal goes, Vandy hasn't been asked to play from behind that much this season -- the biggest deficit they've made up so far was 13 points, against Auburn -- but they've been quite effective at protecting leads once they get them: Only once (Mississippi State, natch) have they lost a lead, and in two cases (Ole Miss and Auburn) they forced highly fortuitously timed turnovers in the waning minutes of the game to preserve micro-thin margins of victory. Letting the Commodores hang around in this one, in other words, would be a grievous sin, and that would be true even if we hadn't been made to pay for that exact same sin two years ago.

To achieve the first goal, I think we're going to need to blitz early and often -- not something that Willie Martinez has ever been wild about doing, obviously, but at least our defense will be the healthiest it's been in weeks; having Dannell Ellerbe and Rod Battle back in the front seven will dramatically increase our ability to pressure Vanderbilt's backfield. As for the second goal, we got an early jump on Tennessee last week in part because the Vols were so busy keying in on Knowshon and A.J. Green that Mohamed Massaquoi was frequently left all by his lonesome in the open field. After three-plus seasons of tear-your-hair-out dropped passes, it's almost hard to fathom that our receiving corps might actually be giving our opponents fits again, but other than maybe Rice -- who lost to VU but still rolled up more than 400 yards of total offense in the process -- Vanderbilt has yet to encounter a passing game, or an offense period, with anywhere near the firepower the Dawgs have.

And let's be real about the schedule Vanderbilt has faced, particularly what I guess would qualify as their two "marquee wins" -- a miracle fumble at the 1 to preserve a 23-17 victory over a 3-3 team, and a one-point win over what looks like the worst Auburn team in a decade. I'm the last person who wants to be seen as pissing in Vandy's Cheerios, but those wins are significant because it was Vandy winning them, not because either of their victims were particularly wonderful. (Is it safe to say that Georgia will put up a much tougher fight against Vandy than, say, Auburn did? I think it is.)

Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seat belts, as we're about to begin our final approach to FAIL.

When all is said and done, though, we've got to get back to the fact that Vanderbilt has been an extremely disciplined and well-coached team this year, and that alone should keep this from being the runaway that Georgia fans would no doubt like to see. As I've explained, beating the Commodores all depends on not making stupid mistakes, and I don't think anyone who's watched Georgia play over the last few weeks can claim that we're anywhere near stupid-mistake-free at the moment. I can see us handing a gift-wrapped score to VU in the form of a turnover at some point in the game, probably also a busted coverage or two reminiscent of the ones that allowed Mackenzi Adams to bust loose a couple times in Nashville last year; our offense was productive enough last week against a Tennessee defense every bit as good as (if not better than) Vanderbilt's that, even taking such mistakes into account, I think we'll be able to stay out in front of them on the scoreboard. But in the end, I see this situation as shaping up a lot like that Tennessee game -- domination on the stats sheet that never quite translates into the gigantic lead the home crowd is clamoring for. The oddsmakers are giving Georgia a 15-point cushion, and I'm sorry, nobody who's seen the last two installments of UGA-VU should be putting one thin dime on Georgia to cover that.

Dammit, Vanderbilt. It's great that you've become competitive and everything, but could you go be competitive with someone else in our division? I'd like to try and avoid any massive coronary events before I turn 35, thanks.

If you're trash-talking: For all the acid reflux that the Commodores have caused Bulldog Nation over the past couple seasons, the fact remains that they've only won 18 of 68 games against us, which, factoring in two ties, is a .273 winning record. (Well, hey: That's actually better than South Carolina's or Kentucky's record against us, so they've got that going for 'em, I guess.) And if you need a Plan B, I guess you could always slag off Vanderbilt as a fallback position for rich kids who had the money to get into Duke but not the SAT scores. I seem to remember us doing a lot of that at The Red & Black when the Vandy game came up on the schedule, for some reason.

Maybe y'all can favor us with an explanation of how you "stearoll" someone.

Why you should root for Georgia even if you don't care about this game: That's actually a tough one, because Vandy is the underdog in this one, and I can certainly see why the sheer surrealism of an "OMG Vanderbilt's SEC East title run!!11!1!!" storyline would be appealing to a lot of folks who otherwise have no dog in this fight. But come on, people -- you don't really want Georgia to lose their second Homecoming game in three years, do you? Won't somebody think of the toasters?!?!

I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia covers 15 and doesn't give up any turnovers and commits seven penalties or fewer. If we still fancy ourselves an SEC title contender (or national title, for that matter), it's about damn time we started acting like one.


Anonymous said...

For a slightly different perspective regarding fans, I think if Vandy fans would get into some trash-talking of their own, it make the rest of the SEC fans look a little more normal. We could point to Vandy and say that if those intellectuals did it, why shouldn't we aspire to the same?

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that *other* game that kept Vandy from going bowling in 2005...the complete obviously-SEC-front-office-decreed screwjob the Dores got against Florida. Probably still the worst judgment call I've seen from an SEC official this decade (Penn Wagers straight up not knowing the friggin rulebook last week isn't exactly a "judgment call").

AuditDawg said...

Apparently Danell Ellerbe is out this weekend too, but will play against LSU.