Friday, October 03, 2008

Friday preview: Vanderbilt

Here's to hoping this is closer than D.J. Moore's hands ever get to the ball on Saturday.

This is usually the part of the Friday preview where you link back to your Cheese Puff piece, right? But if I remember correctly, Tennessee's was the final one you completed. That's correct. But wait! I did at least get the introduction to the Vandy edition of the Cheese Puff series written and metaphorized, and since it will segue nicely into the next part of this preview, that intro is preserved here:

"Oh, Vandy. Vandy Vandy Vandy. Poor cursed, benighted, lovable Vandy. On one hand, I feel like it's simply impossible for them to let bowl eligibility slip through their fingers forever; on the other, I wonder if they're simply fated to wander the cellars of the SEC for eternity, groping in the dark for a winning season like that Greek dude with the lamp* who spent his whole life searching for one honest man.

You might think that would be enough metaphor for Vandy's plight for one post, but the English major in me finds the 'Dores' struggles too epic to leave off even there. So, if you've got a few minutes to kill, I'd suggest fast-forwarding a minute in and watching this Canadian musical tribute to 25 consecutive losing seasons:

I like thinking of the part where Mr. Johnson (!) falls into the mine full of bats as the 2005 loss to MTSU.

Of course, all this focus on Vandy's Great Books-quality failures sorta ignores the fact they have some big honking wins under Johnson. They haven't yet come against Auburn, but even when the macrocosmic view of the 'Dores is pure frustration, there's no reason there can't be joy in the microcosm of hosting an Auburn squad coming off their toughest two-game stretch in years."

This is what's At Stake for Vandy Saturday: the end of the failure. The end of any talk of curses or bad luck or how they can't survive SEC football. The jokes about intramurals are done forever, or at least for another 25 years. After the 4-0 start, that line about a win over Auburn only registering on the small-scale of things couldn't be more wrong: with Gameday, a national audience, a shiny new top-20 ranking, and the possible definitive door-shutting on more than two decades of futility , this game couldn't be any more macrocosmic for the 'Dores. For Auburn's opponent, this is as big a game as it gets, or at least as big as it'll get until they win it.

That kind of sucks. Though to be fair, this is suddenly a season-defining game for Auburn as well: win, and there's very, very good odds the Tigers sneak off into their bye week at 6-1 with enough time to reload for a surprise assault on the SEC powers-that-be down the stretch. Vandy's resurgence means there's even something to play for beyond survival, too: with Auburn universally viewed as an also-ran in the SEC West race (everywhere but where it counts, i.e. the polls, thank goodness), a solid road victory over a team drawing as much respect as Vandy is at the moment would do a lot for Auburn in the credibility department, for whatever that's worth.

An Auburn loss, of course, is the end of any sort of league or worthwhile national ambitions, just as it was last week and will be again next week.

When Vanderbilt has the ball: they're just not going to match up well. Chris Nickson's a gamer and you have to give him credit for having not thrown an interception yet this season (albeit in almost half as many attempts as any other offense in the SEC), but Vandy's still averaging just 5.7 yards a pass attempt, .2 behind even Toddapalooza and 10th in the SEC. Nickson's also thrown only three touchdown passes.

It's true that part of those ugly passing numbers are a function of Vandy's success on the ground: behind rumblin-bumblin'-stumblin' tailback Jared Hawkins and Nickson, the 'Dores average a more-than-respectable 4.62 a carry and have been especially effective in the red zone.

There's only so far that running attack is going to take them, however, for two reasons: first of all, it hasn't been exactly gangbusters against SEC competition, averaging 3.3 against South Carolina and 3.2 against Ole Miss; secondly, it's facing Auburn. As the Vols so beautifully illustrated last week, you can pick up some yards and a couple of first downs battering away at the sorta-undersized Tiger front. But to actually put the ball in the end zone, you're probably going to have the big plays LSU did. Whether Nickson and the 'Dores patently average receivers--they have two seniors in newly-healthy George Smith and Sean Walker, but if you've never heard of either there's a reason for that--can connect on those big plays is debatable and borders on "unlikely." Remember, too, that for all the youth in Auburn's secondary the Tigers are currently the SEC's best pass defense in terms of yards-per-attempt.

As well as Vandy's offensive line has played and as well-coached as they are under Johnson, the 'Dores won't be nearly as generous as the Vols if Auburn loses the battle for field position as decisively as they did Saturday. But of their 20 scoring drives on the season, only nine have been longer than 45 yards and four of those came against Miami (OH). If the Auburn offense and special teams can avoid setting up Vandy in short-field situations, there just doesn't seem to be enough oomph in the 'Dores skill position players to consistently overcome the likes of Marks, Coleman, Powers, Bynes (?), et al. If the Vandy offense can reach the 17ish-point mark that thus far only LSU has been able to crack, they'll have had a very good day for themselves.

When Auburn has the ball: they have got to hang onto it. As just explained, Vandy's offense doesn't appear to be the sort that'll be able to start at their own 20 and push Auburn all the way down the field the way LSU did. The numbers suggest the 'Dores can't even boast the sort of defense that will consistently keep Auburn from pushing them all the way down the field: Vandy is dead last in the SEC in total defense and next-to-last in yards-per-play. Down-to-down, Vandy's defense is actually definitively worse than their offense.

So how did they end up holding Ole Miss and South Carolina to 17 points each? Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. The 'Dore defense turned the 'Cocks over twice times (and got another gift on a punt return) and the Rebels a stunning six times. To quote Dr. Saturday on how badly Ole Miss threw that game away:
The headline of this game is "Ole Miss fumbles away the winning touchdown," when Dexter McCluster lost the ball into the end zone to negate his 56-yard reception on the previous play and preserve Vandy's field goal lead. But the Rebels missed opportunities and gave others away all night: Jevan Snead was picked off four times, Joshua Shene missed a field goal and Cordera Eason was stopped on 4th-and-1 at the goal line in the third quarter even before McCluster's fumble.
The importance of Auburn not turning the ball over, then, is twofold: not only should it help limit Vandy's offensive opportunities, but it's also kinda-sorta the only way Vandy's found to get stops. Even Auburn will have opportunities against Vandy's defense. If they don't turn the ball over and take advantage of those, they should win the game.

And to that end, I would suggest a heavy dose of the War Eagle formation and other run-oriented tricks. Vandy's run defense is ranked 10th in the SEC in opponents' per-rush, but even that mark is likely a result of facing the anemic ground games of Rice, Miami, and Carolina: the Rebels went for five yards a pop.

Consider that alongside the fact that Vandy's secondary--as you've probably heard by now--are all ballhawking terrors (having picked off poor Jevan Snead four times in only 25 attempts) and it becomes obvious how badly Auburn needs to stick with the run. It would, indeed, be an excellent time for the offensive line to play with the brute swagger they've allegedly been talking about all week; Vandy's got talent but also return only one starter in their front seven. The holes up front for Tate, Fannin and hypothetically Lester should be much wider than the ones Todd finds in the secondary, and the no-turnover imperative makes it readily apparent which ones Auburn should make it their business to exploit.

When special teams are on the field: Auburn just needs to break even, and they should be OK.

As easy as that sounds when you have Clinton Durst, Robert Dunn, and Wes Byrum "Wes Byrum," Auburn hasn't managed it since the Southern Miss game. The punt return team can't give Dunn enough room to even get started. "Byrum" is a proven liability until proven otherwise. Kickoffs and kickoff coverage both still have all the consistency of a manic-depressive yo-yo.

And now, JOY, comes a team with the third-best punt return in the country. If you want my opinion, Auburn shouldn't kick to D.J. Moore. We've seen that Saturn V Durst is up to the challenge or booting 50-yarders downfield and hanging them up in plenty of time to give his coverage a chance to converge; but given Moore's presence and the leakiness of the Vandy defense, he'll probably have more of a chance to play keep-away and rain bombs inside the 20; how well he does that will be critical.

And while it would be nice to get Dunn loose again, even more important is whether "Byrum" gets his mojo back. It was his miss that threw away whatever momentum Burns's introduction and subsequent good play had given Auburn last week; he'll likely have several such opportunities this week and an offense as desperate for points as Auburn's can't afford for him to continue to blow them.

Intangible reason for worry: Boy oh boy, doesn't it feel like everything's perfectly in place for Vandy? They've had a week off, the place is sold out, they just need this one win to get over the hump, and it's all playing out in front of a national spotlight the likes of which Vandy has never seen. Remember a couple of years ago when Rutgers was in the middle of the same kind of "We've fianlly arrived!" streak, hosted Louisville in the big Thursday nighter in front of more fans than those players had ever seen, and won when the Cardinals jumped offside on a field goal try for no reason? Remember last year, when Mississippi St. needed one more miracle to wrap up a winning season, all looked lost, and Ole Miss handed them the ball at midfield for no reason--there's one TD--before Pegues returned a punt for the second score and the win? Weird things happen with these kinds of teams, man, weird things.

Intangible reason for confidence: Three times this season Auburn has come out and looked thoroughly lost on offense. The first two times, they came back the following week and performed, if not brilliantly, at least competently. It seems only logical the seesaw would once again tilt in the opposite direction after the horrorshow last week.

Three Wishes: 1. Kodi Burns; this is a permanent wish until either he gets a start or the offense moves the way it should. 2. Two or more turnovers from the Auburn defense; for all their brilliance, the defense has "forced" just three turnovers in their three SEC games and two of those were absolute gifts-for-six from LSU and the Vols. 3. Something nutzoid; I know the buttoned-down approach is probably the right tack when you've been dealt the superhuman D-wretched O hand Tubby's been dealt, but does it feel to anyone else like this team could use more of the reckless "I know we're on our own 17, screw it, fake punt!" energy Tubby used to bring? An onsides kick, a fake FG, a reverse throwback to Burns ... something to make every game this team plays something other than a 10-7 slugfest. (Though preferably not called on 3rd-and-17, thanks.)

Success is / failure is: A win / a loss. I'm too exhausted by the last three weeks to ask for anything else, even against Vanderbilt. Just win, baby.

Your bottom line: As has been noted in multiple places (Dr. Saturday the most recent), Vandy's total yardage marks--the worst in the SEC by a mile--suggest that outside of their special teams wizardry and knack for the game-changing turnover, this is the same old Vanderbilt we've seen year after year.

Frankly, even for someone who's obviously a big believer in statistics and their ability to predict future returns, that's a little reductive. For one thing, while some of the turnovers and special-teams hoo-ha is 100 percent pure-fried luck, there's too much of it for it to all be coincidence. The secondary's that good, and I don't think there's much doubt about it. I think it's fair to say the value the Commodores place on their red zone opportunities probably helps explain why they're so good at converting them. That Nickson hasn't thrown a pick all year obviously has something to do with their nation-leading turnover margin. And besides, as Philip noted, when you shrink the yardage down to a per-play average, Vandy's only running a deficit of .4 yards a snap.

But here's the thing: for all of their offensive struggles, Auburn's per-play margin (4.7 a play on offense minus the 3.8 given up) is a positive .9--a not-insignificant 1.3 yards-a-snap difference over the 'Dores, and that's with Auburn having faced LSU. The Tigers are, without question, the better team.

The question, of course, is whether they'll play like it. As I think Auburn's due to play a little better and Vandy's due to play a little worse, the guess here is that the answer is yes.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong ...

Auburn 19, Vandy 16

*I knew this guy was named "Diogenes," but I thought he was mythical until looking him up on Wikipedia and finding he was apparently a real dude for whom the lamp-and-honest-man thing was just one detail in a whole list of eccentricities, one that includes public, uh, Onanism. The More You Know ...

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