Earlier this week I exchanged emails with Tom Stephenson. He is an editor at Anchor of Gold, and a contributor to Team Speed Kills in all things pigskin and basketball. He was kind enough to take the time to answer my questions. I answered his questions here.
1. My first question is a general one about Derek Mason. He is in his third season at Vanderbilt, and so far the Commodores are 2-3, but two of those losses were close, single score games (South Carolina won by three points, and Florida won by seven). It's pretty easy to imagine a scenario where Vanderbilt is at least 3-2 at this point. Is the program improving under Mason, and how many wins do you think he needs in order to be the Commodores coach next season (If Vanderbilt doesn't want him, UK would be more than glad to take him as their new defensive coordinator)?
The fun part is that if you're diving down that rabbit hole, Vanderbilt's probably closer to being 1-4 than they are to being 3-2 because they were honestly extremely lucky to beat Western Kentucky. (Side note for UK fans: if you like the idea of Jeff Brohm as your head coach, go check out his late-game management in the Vanderbilt game. It's not pretty.) Meanwhile, per S&P+ Vanderbilt had a 21% win expectancy against South Carolina and 16% against Florida. In spite of the close final scores, Vanderbilt never felt like they were threatening to win against Florida and basically shut things down with a 10-0 lead against South Carolina. It's like a soccer team losing 1-0 when they barely made a threat on goal. The final score is close in theory but you weren't actually ever going to score the equalizing goal.
It's really difficult to get a read on Mason's job situation. Vanderbilt, as a private institution, isn't required to release coaches' contracts and doesn't do it as a matter of course, so we have no idea if there's a significant buyout in play. The admin, perhaps unfairly, is viewed by fans as being way too patient with coaches (though honestly, until Kevin Stallings the past couple of years the current AD hadn't been faced with a situation where you'd want to fire the coach so who knows?) If I had to make a guess, Mason probably needs to go 5-7 but even then, the team's been unimpressive and it feels like the improvement we saw in 2015 was fool's gold.
2. Last season Vanderbilt's defense was a stout one only allowing 21 points per game and 5.2 yards per play which made it a top five SEC defense. Meanwhile, the defense was excellent on third downs only allowing conversions 28% of the time (second in SEC). This season, the defense doesn't appear as strong. The defense is now allowing 24 points per game, 5.9 yards per play, and allowing conversions on third down 48% of the time. So what gives? Injuries, player development, the loss of Stephen Weatherly to the NFL, or something else?
It's kind of funny because Vanderbilt's defense has been fine against two SEC offenses. It's been an option team (Georgia Tech) and a couple of pass-happy C-USA squads that have given the defense trouble, so perhaps an easy explanation is that Mason is gearing the defense to stop more stereotypical, SEC man-ball offenses and they've been successful on that front. It's a bend-don't-break unit that will allow offenses to gain some yardage before buckling down close to the goal line. Georgia Tech managed to get some big plays, but the defense has done just fine against Florida and South Carolina. So it's not a major concern right now; the concerns are all on the offensive side of the ball.
3. Staying on Vandy's defense for a moment, what are some players besides All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham that UK fans should be on the look out for? UK's offensive tackles are especially susceptible to getting beat on the edge, so does Vandy have players that can exploit that?
Adam Butler was a big presence on the defensive line in the Florida game, but the DL otherwise isn't really a strength for Vanderbilt. They do their jobs at occupying blockers and freeing up the linebacking corps to make plays, but the DL typically won't make a lot of big plays themselves. On the other hand, Vanderbilt's defensive backs are a strong point and I would look for some big plays from CB Tre Herndon in the secondary.
4. Shifting gears to Vandy's offense, running back Ralph Webb is one of the conference's best backs. He currently leads the league in rushing, and he averages an insane workload of 23 carries per game. Vanderbilt obviously sees him as their best offensive weapon. Describe Webb's various strengths and weaknesses.
Webb really is underrated because he's great at finding the yards that are there and generally avoiding negative plays. That's not something that will be obvious on a highlight reel but when you have, let's say, questionable line play having a back who can find the holes that they are creating is important. And when the line does free up space for him (rare, but it happens) he has the speed to make a big play.
5. Vandy's starting quaterback Kyle Shurmur left during the middle of the Florida game after taking a low hit. What's the outlook on him making the trip and playing in Lexington Saturday?
Shurmur left with an eye injury and didn't return mostly because Vanderbilt only had one offensive drive after he left. Indications are he'll be fine for Saturday.
6. Besides Ralph Webb, which other offensive players should UK fans be wary of watching the game on Saturday?
True freshman WR Kalija Lipscomb has already established himself as Kyle Shurmur's favorite receiver and is capable of making some big plays in the passing game. Also look out for Darrius Sims in the return game. He's had a quiet year so far but he's capable of making some big returns.
But, honestly, given the current state of Vanderbilt's offense you are probably going to see a lot of Sam Loy, Vanderbilt's punter.
7. What's your prediction and what are one or two of the biggest factors?
When Kentucky has the ball, the big key is going to be whether Stephen Johnson can limit mistakes. Vanderbilt's defense is best characterized as "opportunistic" and while they won't suffocate you they can come up with a big play when they need to. Honestly, if I were coaching against Vanderbilt's defense in the red zone I would probably just go in with the attitude that a field goal is fine (assuming my defense is decent) because it's better to come away with three points than screw up and get nothing.
On the other side of things, Vanderbilt's coaching staff pretty clearly doesn't trust the passing game and if you can keep Ralph Webb from finding an opening, you're probably fine. But if Vanderbilt does open up the passing game and hits a few throws downfield, Kentucky could be in trouble. Except that, well, the coaching staff hasn't shown at any point that they intend to do that.
My pick: Kentucky 17, Vanderbilt 10. I fully expect this to be an unwatchable slugfest.