Friday, October 16

Mules, turnip, go: The Vanderbilt preview.

Here is your prize . . . now let's have a clean fight and come out swinging!

Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee.

Last season: Rode an opportunistic defense (and more than a little luck) to an improbable 5-0 start, including wins over South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Auburn; at the height of that streak they were ranked in the top 15 in both polls. Ran out of gas and won only one game the rest of the way, but it was enough to earn a bid to the Music City Bowl, where they stunned Boston College 16-14. Finished the season 7-6 (4-4 SEC), unranked but a solid third in the SEC East.

The season so far: Luck seems to have deserted the Commodores in 2009, along with anything else that went right for the team last year: They're 2-4, with their only wins coming over Rice, one of the few remaining winless D-IA teams, and Western Carolina, one of the few remaining winless IAA teams. Against SEC opponents, they've scored an average of 6.33 points per game, and last week they managed to lose to Army (and failed to score an offensive touchdown in the process). Current record: 2-4, 0-3 SEC.

Hate index, 1 being the St. Louis Rams under ordinary circumstances, 10 being the St. Louis Rams partially owned by Rush Limbaugh: One and a half. Having any stronger beef than that with Vanderbilt is probably a sign of severe anger-management issues. In the rare instances when the Commodores have beaten us, I've been more angry at us than I've been at them.

Associated hottie: Bettie Page was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" in her high-school class and went on to earn a degree from Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education, but opted not to pursue a teaching career because, as she put it, "I couldn't control my students, especially the boys." So, what, they were just supposed to control themselves?

What excites me: Vanderbilt just isn't very good at much of anything at the moment. They're particularly bad at throwing the ball -- Larry Smith is dead last in the conference in pass efficiency and doesn't even crack the country's top 100 overall -- and their more-or-less strength on offense, rushing, matches right up against the one thing we've been fairly consistently good at on defense. Meanwhile, their run defense has allowed an average of more than 200 yards per game to offensively challenged Mississippi State, Rice, and Army; even our creaking ground game might be able to make some progress against them on Saturday.

Other things the Commodores aren't particularly good at: protecting the quarterback, with 14 sacks allowed so far this season, punting, or punt returns. Vandy's averaging only 3.63 yards per punt return so far this year, with means that with Drew Butler continuing to pin them deep at every opportunity, we should be able to stick the 'Dores with some consistently bad field position that their offense just doesn't have the playmakers to overcome.

I understand this is a game where tackles are, by definition, going to happen, but I'd appreciate it if our offense could postpone that until after we've gained, I don't know, five or six yards.

What worries me: Don't know if you noticed, but Georgia isn't very good at much of anything at the moment, either, at least if the Tennessee game is any indication. In terms of total yardage, for example, Vandy's actually better than we are right now (336 yards per game versus 324), and anyone who thinks Larry Smith will be a sitting duck on Saturday needs only look back to Jonathan Crompton's performance last week to see just how good our godawful pass defense is capable of making him look. If Willie Martinez is incapable of finding a way to keep our defensive backs within 10 yards of Vandy's receivers -- and there's virtually nothing in the past month and a half to suggest that he's figured this out -- then Smith is most assuredly a risk to lace a couple medium-to-long balls past our secondary and keep Vandy in the game.

On the other side of the ball, Joe Cox had his worst passing day ever against Tennessee (19-of-34 for 146 yards, two picks, and no TDs), and he's going to have to get back on track against the nation's sixth-best pass defense in terms of opponent efficiency (second-best in terms of yardage). By almost completely taking away the long ball last week, Tennessee's defense effectively neutered A.J. Green -- the first team all year to have done so -- and, just for good measure, A.J. dropped a pass for what felt like the first time in the history of ever. As long as teams feel free to ignore our running game -- and we've given them hardly any reason to do otherwise -- Cox is going to face an uphill battle.

Then there are all the continuing frustrations we've faced for pretty much the entirety of the situation, which remain in effect for this week unless someone steps up to prove differently. We're still not covering kickoffs worth a flip; guess what, Vandy's averaging more than 24 yards per return, not that established excellence in returning kickoffs has been a prerequisite for making us look foolish. After a glimmer of hope against LSU, we returned to our turnover-happy ways in Knoxville; guess what, Vandy's #22 in the nation in turnover margin at +0.83 per game. In past years, given our usual strengths, we could count on even a subpar effort being enough against the Commodores. This year, it looks like even our average game might not be enough to convincingly get us over the top.

Player who needs to have a big game: Time for another cop-out: Everybody. There's not a single player on this team who can afford not to have a big game. The offensive line has to block better to open up holes for the running game, and the running backs have to hit them, or Joe Cox is a sitting duck. The receivers, obviously, have to catch those passes, and Cox needs to stop heaving up picks when he doesn't know where else to put the ball. The defense . . . well, they've all got to improve by leaps and bounds. And the coaching staff has to get up off their asses and start lighting fires under people. It should be plainly obvious that we're faltering in nearly every phase of the game, and there's not a single player on the squad who can afford to think that they can't get any better after the debacle in Knoxville.

What does it all mean?: Over the past week, I've seen what I can only assume are some of the more optimistic elements of Bulldog Nation posit that maybe last Saturday's humiliation at Neyland Stadium was only an analogue to the 2007 loss, in which we headed up to Knoxville to face a team we should've handled, collapsed in specific phases of the game where we should've dominated, and got humiliated on a national scale. The more optimistic fans see what followed that game in the latter half of the 2007 season and express hope that maybe a similar resurrection is on tap for this year's struggling team.

Make no mistake, I would love an outcome like that -- I'd pay large sums of money for it, in fact, and might even offer myself or my loved ones up for some particularly degrading sexual favors -- but that's obviously the absolute best-case scenario at this point. And even that best-case scenario, if it is to be accurately recreated from two years ago, involves going up to Nashville and playing an ass-ugly game in which we're fortunate to escape Vandy by the very skin of our teeth. (Hope you're keeping that leg fresh, Blair Walsh.)

But an ugly game is something we should probably be preparing ourselves for anyway. I earned some compliments for a comment I made in a recent SEC Power Poll ballot comparing Vandy to a rack of ribs: You know you're going to devour them, but you're not going to look good doing it, and you're probably going to feel lousy afterward. Despite their general futility against SEC competition so far, Vandy has at least done a good job of making their opponents look bad even while they're winning -- LSU, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss all beat the Commodores by at least two scores but had plug-ugly offensive performances of their own. Vandy's defense is good enough to make us look bad; that, combined with another performance from our defense as awful as last week's, is enough to lose this game for us, no matter how bad we might think the Commodores are.

For the record, no, I don't think our defense can possibly play that poorly two weeks in a row, particularly now that Willie Martinez has every reason to think he's coaching for his job at this point. But it can no longer be denied that a solid blueprint has been provided for defeating our pass defense. Stephen Garcia, Jordan Jefferson, and now Jonathan Crompton -- none of whom were regarded as anything special, the last of whom was regarded as a near-legendary bust -- all managed to have career days against us by pecking us to death with short-to-medium passes and being content to move the ball down the field eight or ten yards at a time. Larry Smith is not a great quarterback, or even a good one, but if Martinez can't figure how to get a defensive back within eight yards of any of Smith's receivers at the time the ball is thrown, then we might as well do all our kickoffs on-sides, because having our defense on the field at all just won't be a good idea.

On the other side of the ball, I can't get excited about our prospects for scoring a lot of points, as our continued ineffectiveness in the running game gives opposing defenses the green light to go charging after Joe Cox as much as they possibly can. Vandy's pass defense is even stouter than most, so if they do the logical thing and double-cover A.J. Green -- clearly the linchpin to our passing game, as last week proved -- then we're going to have to throw it underneath and be content to nickel-and-dime our way down the field. We might've been able to do that last week if Orson Charles and Aron White had been involved in the game more, but Mike Bobo seemed to completely forget they were even on the roster. A general lack of awareness of how our talent is actually performing on the field seems to have become a frustrating trademark of our coaching staff this season, and that's got to change. Playmakers like Charles and White have to be involved; on defense, we need to bite the bullet, throw seniority out the window, and give guys who are producing (Bacarri Rambo, for example) a shot in place of guys who aren't. I would hope that this message is finally getting through to the coaches and shaking up some of what has been allowed to stagnate in terms of personnel decisions and play-calling, but I won't be truly confident until I see it on the field.

Come on, even his name is awesome. Why is this kid still standing in line for playing time?

We do have an ace in the hole, though, on special teams (except for kickoff coverage, of course). Brandon Boykin has been spectacular on kickoff returns; Drew Butler has been even more so on punts, and between that and Vandy's ineffectiveness in the punt-return game, we should be able to hold serve in the field-position battle for pretty much the entirety of this game. And if it comes down to a last-minute field goal like the '07 game did, Blair Walsh has been a money kicker in whom we should have the utmost confidence.

But the big, looming intangible in this game is our team's crisis of confidence, which is even more acute now than it was in the wake of the 2007 disaster against Tennessee. At least in that game we had some tangible evidence of some things we were good at but just hadn't been good at in Knoxville; this year we've done nothing consistently enough to be able to call it a fallback. The coaches' attitudes are inscrutable, and the players are obviously hurting. And just like two years ago, there is unsettling evidence that we're not taking the magnitude of our recent failings as seriously as we ought to be, at least in terms of practicing up and getting better at what we're not good at.

If our coaches do as good a job of that as they should do -- as we're paying them to do -- then we win this game, not in a blowout, but solidly enough to regain a little confidence. As it stands now, though, I see this being an ugly game regardless. My hunch is that we can't possibly let two mediocre QBs murder us two weeks in a row, but even if our defense holds up against Larry Smith and the Commodores, I don't see how our offense improves overnight -- the run-blocking issues we're dealing with aren't the kind that gets solved with a wave of a magic wand, and that's going to keep Joe Cox from being able to do anything heroic even with A.J. Green on the field. I think either one of these teams will be lucky to make it to 20 points, and while Georgia, even after last week, is the better team here, I just don't see them winning by any more than three or four points.

As postgame emotions go, "relief" is not my personal favorite, but it's better than many of the alternatives.

I'll take it, though. We need to win badly enough that we can't get greedy about final scores at this point. The one thing I am going to get greedy about is my hope that we win this one because we're the better team and not because we get lucky. Guys, there's no point in waiting around for one of your teammates to pull that magical game-changing play out of his ass. Make that play yourselves, and keep making them until we win this thing.

If you're trash-talking: Then you obviously have no sense of shame, because no fan who watched his/her team get blown off the field as comprehensively as we got blown off the field against Tennessee last week has any business trash-talking anybody ("anybody" including Vanderbilt, the ACC, pretty much all of Division I, and quite a few high-school teams). If you meet that rare Commodore fan who's truly intent on busting your balls about something, remind him/her that Vandy has only beaten us four times in the last half-century, thus making a Commodore win in this series an even less frequent occurrence than the U.S. Census, and leave it at that.

I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment wearing nothing but a Georgia flag wrapped about my nether regions if: Georgia covers the spread, which last I heard was up to about eight points or so. Even in the few wins we've had this season, we haven't exactly won convincingly; a win by a couple of scores would at least be convincing in the sense that it might convince some people we're not as utterly helpless as we looked last week. Whatever happens, let's just please not do any dancing on the midfield logo, thanks.


opsomath said...

excuse me sir i believe the spread was covere'd.

Whirl said...

It's naked time.