Christian D'Andrea, editor and blogger extraordinaire at SBNation Vanderbilt fan site Anchor of Gold, was kind enough to answer all of our burning questions about Saturday's game. (You can read my preview of Tennessee for Anchor of Gold here). Presented below is our email exchange in its entire, mostly unedited glory.
Coaching and Recruiting
Prior to the season starting, the consensus seemed to be that Vanderbilt football might take a step back under Derek Mason, but that James Franklin had left a pretty decent foundation with talented recruits, improved facilities, and positive buzz around the Commodores. Now, it's looking like that step might have been off of the edge of a cliff.
Q: How confident are you in Mason's coaching ability-- is he a guy who can turn it around? Or, conversely, are you confident that he's NOT the guy?
A: Mason brought in the most highly-rated recruit in school history when he got Nifae Lealao last year. His class so far has an interesting mix of two, three, and four-star players. He's not the talker that Franklin is, but I think he's capable of staying afloat and maintaining Franklin's success on the recruiting trail.
Q: Franklin raided the 2014 recruiting class on his way out, but he left some highly rated guys on campus from previous classes-- are they being misused or has something else happened?
A: Many of those young guys are contributing - Oren Burks, Ralph Webb, and Johnny McCrary are leading the redshirt freshmen. The aforementioned Lealao, Dallas Rivers, and Tre Herndon are all finding the field as true freshmen. There's been a bit of a transition period under Mason, but this team is playing young guys on both sides of the ball.
Q: How fragile is this particular moment for Vanderbilt football-- did Franklin parachute out and leave the program in a lurch, was Mason the wrong hire, or something in between? It's tough as an outsider to understand where the fans are at.
A: Tough to say. Many fans feel like this season could be the pivot between regular bowl berths and a return to the
"Same ol' Vandy" EDIT: Vandy Classic of the past. I'm willing to give Mason another year to see if he can maintain recruiting and install successful schemes. The evidence through year 1 has not been especially optimistic, though.
When Tennessee has the ball
Q: Mason made his name as a defensive coach, and Vanderbilt's defense has been pretty salty the last few years under Bob Shoop. What happened to produce a fall from 46th to 87th in the F+ defensive rankings? Are the struggles on offense handicapping what could otherwise be a good defense, or has the switch to the 3-4 reduced the effectiveness of playmakers like Caleb Azubike?
A: The defense was struck by 2 major issues this season: youth and a new scheme. Mason switched the 'Dores to a 3-4 from a 4-3, which has come with growing pains but has the potential to be successful as this team adjusts to it. Beyond that, they had to replace their entire starting secondary this fall. The combination of those two factors really hampered Mason's chances to be successful in his first year.
As for Azubike...he's been moved from the DL to LB so often that I'm not even sure he knows what position he plays anymore. That has been a frustrating side effect of Mason's new scheme - although it came as a result of Stephen Weatherly's emergence as a strong pass-rushing OLB, so it's not all bad.
When Vanderbilt has the ball
Q: Full disclosure: I think Karl Dorrell is a terrible coach who never should have been hired, so I'm having a hard time framing questions about the Vanderbilt offense. That said, what kind of offensive identity is Dorrell trying to establish with Vanderbilt, and what does this offense do well? After playing musical quarterbacks through the first few weeks of the season, the 'Dores seem to have settled on Johnny McCrary-- what are his strengths and weaknesses as a QB? Is he going to have a long enough leash if he makes a bad play, or is Stephen Rivers still breathing down his neck?
A: Full disclosure: Most everyone on the Vandy side of things agrees with you. The only positive we've been able to take away from Dorrell's offense is a new ability to incorporate the team's tight ends in the passing attack. Aside from that, his unimaginative offense is just a breeding ground for 3-and-out drives. Handoff/Handoff/deep ball (or sack). That's the Dorrell mantra.
Stephen Rivers should be no where near this team's starting job. McCrary has been good enough to earn the starting job outright - he's got a big arm and has the greatest potential for big plays of any QB on the roster. However, he's not especially mobile and he struggles to maintain his accuracy against the blitz. Patton Robinette, who some UT fans may remember from 2013, will back him up and is likely to find snaps on Saturday. He's better under pressure than McCrary is, but not on the same level in terms of passing the ball.
What has to go right for an upset
Q: If you were putting together a game plan for this week against Tennessee, what kind of scheming do you do on offense and defense? Which player matchups do you try to exploit? What kind of game (high scoring/low scoring/ugly/clean) is the best scenario?
A: Offense: Establish a ground game and utilize quick outs/screen passes to force the Vols to back off the blitz. Vandy's offensive line has been horrendous at times in 2014. This team's offense will have to operate under the assumption that UT's pass rush is going to cause problems and force a quick release from McCrary.
Defense: Sell out against the run and make Josh Dobbs beat you through the air. This worked in stretches against Treon Harris and Florida. It leaves Vandy's young corners vulnerable, but it also puts the impetus on Dobbs to step up and prove that he can beat you with his arm.
Q: Special teams have been an occasional bright spot for Vandy this year, with several long kick returns against South Carolina. Do you expect that success to continue, and if so, is that a good sign for the future of Commodore football?
A: Darrius Sims is an explosive playmaker, but Derek Mason has backed off of his earlier comments that suggested Sims, a defensive back, would be earning carries out of the backfield. Over that same span, Sims has been less effective as a returner as well - but that may just be because teams are kicking away from him after taking two kickoffs to the house against USC. The special teams have looked good, but that's always a volatile experiment in college football.
Q: Name the most important Vanderbilt players on both sides of the ball if the 'Dores are to pull the upset. (I'd think Azubike against a suspect Tennessee offensive line is candidate number one.)
A: Offense: Ralph Webb. Webb needs to make plays and churn out first downs with his legs in order to take some of the pressure off McCrary and the Vandy passing game.
Defense: Stephen Weatherly. Azubike is a great pass rusher, but Weatherly may be even better. He's fast enough to chase down Joshua Dobbs and put the Vols in 3rd-and-long situations this weekend.
Q: Final question: Vanderbilt has played Tennessee tough over the years even when there's been a huge talent discrepancy between the programs, and the 'Dores enjoyed success against the Vols under James Franklin. How badly do these players want to knock the Vols out of a bowl game, and how important are the intangibles in this game (at home + prideful players + past success + hated opponent)?
A: This is the most important game of the year, make no mistake. Vandy's season is done no matter what on Sunday, but everyone wearing black and gold will feel much better about 4-8 if it includes the win that keeps Tennessee from going bowling. The players made several references to the rivalry in Tuesday's press conference, and I think they're excited to bring UT back to Nashville. However, the growing current of apathy that followed this team into last week's 51-0 loss to Mississippi State hasn't gotten any weaker since that blowout. This is the game that will motivate these players the most in 2014, but the overall lack of excitement surrounding Vandy football will dampen that effect.