The Commodores are coming to town. - Joe Robbins
Christian D'Andrea of SB Nation's outstanding Vanderbilt Commodores blog, Anchor of Gold, traded questions with me about the game tomorrow in Commonwealth Stadium.
The Kentucky Wildcats and Vanderbilt Commodores blogs on SB Nation have had a long and cordial relationship. Christian D'Andrea thoughtfully asked us to swap questions and answers about the football game tomorrow, and I happily obliged, although maybe not as happily as if the 'Cats were 5-4 rather than their current, unfortunate 1-8.
And so without further gilding the lily and with no more ado, I give to you, the seeker of serenity, the protector of Italian virginity, the enforcer of our Lord God, the one, the only, Chriiiistian D'Andrea! Oops. Did I just get carried away in a Geoffrey Chaucer moment there? I think I did. Anyway, here's the Q & A, and you can find my half here.
ASOB: So Vandy was all that and a bag of chips last year -- For Vanderbilt, anyway. Made a bowl, was competitive in almost every game but at Alabama and at South Carolina (which is totally forgivable). What have your expectations been like for football this year? Do you think you're meeting them at this point (or exceeding them)? What are your regrets so far, if any?
Christian D'Andrea: Vanderbilt is in a weird sort of limbo right now. We're 4-4 and have a very winnable slate of games ahead of us, but there is definitely a nagging feeling that we could be doing much better. We're meeting expectations, but this team seems like it has the talent to do more than it already has. James Franklin has been lights-out for Vanderbilt on the recruiting trail and worked wonders in changing the culture on campus, but there's something in the playcalling that has been a bit off. Vandy has the most talented roster that they've ever assembled in the modern era right now, but the struggling offense and the abundance of gadget plays has definitely been frustrating.
The 'Dores are good enough to beat teams like Missouri and Auburn without having to resort to the most obvious fake punts in the world. When you send your All-SEC tailback 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage on fourth down, opponents are going to figure out that he's not your punter. And yes, that actually happened.
ASOB: The Commodores are 12th in scoring offense. You were significantly better last year. What went wrong?
CD'A: The offensive line retained two key starters in Ryan Seymour and Wesley Johnson, but the rest of that group has struggled to perform at the SEC level. The line has gotten better in recent weeks, but their inability to consistently provide blocking for Vandy's skill players has been a problem. It's made Jordan Rodgers skittish in the pocket and taken away the impact of two stellar receivers (Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd) and has limited Zac Stacy's effectiveness out of the backfield.
When Rodgers has time, he can make plays. When he gets spooked, he takes a nine-yard sack. That's been a big factor in this team's ability to sustain/create drives in '12.
ASOB: What player on offense should Kentucky be most concerned about? On defense? Why?
CD'A: Zac Stacy left last week's 49-7 win over UMass with a tweaked ankle, but he should be healthy for Kentucky. I don't think I have to tell any UK fans about Stacy's impact as a player...but I will just leave this right here.
On defense, the Commodores have had some young players step up to fill the holes left by last year's departing seniors. Archibald Barnes and Chase Garnham have been the leaders of a surprisingly solid linebacking corps, and true freshmen Jake Sealand and Darreon Herring have been impressive despite their inexperience. I think we'll be seeing plenty of those four players on Saturday.
ASOB: The Commodores handled Kentucky easily last year in Nashville. This year's Kentucky team is 1-8. How confident are you about coming into Commonwealth Stadium and beating this UK team? Is there anything about UK that concerns you this year other than it being a road game?
CD'A: Confidence is a rare commodity for a Vanderbilt fan. I'm cautiously optimistic about tomorrow's game. Kentucky has been bad, but they've had their moments, particularly two weeks ago against Georgia. Vandy also has this bad habit of getting cute against teams that they should be able to beat with conservative playcalling. I can pretty much guarantee that James Franklin will rack up at least one failed fourth-down conversion that gives the Wildcats new life on Saturday.
Also, Kentucky's defensive weaknesses aren't exactly the type of thing that Vanderbilt can take advantage of right now. UK's giving up plenty of points against conference opponents, but the most the 'Dores have scored in SEC play is a 19 point showing versus Missouri. This game will be a sloppy one, and Vandy is good in sloppy affairs, but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't worried about Kentucky.
ASOB: Kentucky is actually better than Vanderbilt in 3rd down conversions. This is a shocking stat to me. How has this happened?
James Franklin doesn't care about third down. Those plays are just tools for him to gamble on fourth-down conversions. He'll have Jordan Rodgers take a knee on 3rd-and-1 before he gives Zac Stacy a handoff up the middle...
Seriously, that's a surprising stat for me, too. One of the factors there must be Vandy's predilection for plays and penalties that lead to negative yardage. The 'Dores have faced plenty of third-and-long situations in 2012.
ASOB: One basketball question: What are your expectations in the SEC this year, considering how many great players you've lost? Do you think you have a chance to realistically beat the Wildcats, and if so, what gives you that feeling?
CD'A: It's a rebuilding year, and things just got a bit more grim with Dai-Jon Parker's indefinite suspension. Going into this season without 94% of our scoring was bad enough, but losing our starting SG for an undetermined stretch is even worse. There will be a lot of growing pains in 2012-2013 for this team, but they also have the talent and playing style to pull off a few upsets.
I don't foresee the 'Dores beating the Wildcats this season, but if they do it'll be thanks to some lights-out shooting. Kevin Stallings has been able to win behind 3-4 guard lineups in the past, but this season should be even uglier than '08-09.
ASOB: Predict the score. Explain the outcome.
CD'A: Vanderbilt 20, Kentucky 13. This one will be a battle of field possession before a few bad turnovers present scoring opportunities for both sides. Ultimately, I think Vandy can stop the Kentucky running game and force Jalen Whitlow or Patrick Towles to beat them. Jordan Rodgers will do his thing - 200 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 170 of those yards to Matthews/Boyd - and it will be enough to take a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter. Kentucky will make it interesting and ensure that I'm filled with hate through the final five minutes, but ultimately the 'Dores hold on for the win.
Unless, of course, Zac Stacy goes nuts again. Then all bets are off.