SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Vanderbilt football in 2020
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series concludes today with Vanderbilt. If you missed any of the 14 previews, you can read them here.
I was too high on Vandy last year. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. I couldn’t have been.
I fell in love with the Big 3 of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney. I was selling myself on Vandy, fresh off a bowl berth, being somewhat frisky in the SEC, especially on offense. I assumed we’d see multiple SEC wins and perhaps even another bowl berth.
I was dead wrong. What happened was Vaughn was essentially the only bright spot on an offense that struggled to do much of anything. I didn’t expect that group to be ranked No. 125 of 130 SEC teams with that much NFL-caliber talent back. It was a disaster. Vandy couldn’t even score 2 touchdowns against a 4-win Mountain West school. Woof.
The 2019 season was a borderline fireable offense for Derek Mason. Some argued that it was time to move on. Who knows how much the bizarre Malcolm Turner resignation played a part in that. Whatever the case, Mason is back for Year 7 (!), and now, he gets a 10-game SEC conference schedule after what was easily his most disappointing season yet.
I’d say that’s not ideal.
As a result of the mess that was 2019, Mason fired both coordinators 3 weeks after the season ended. Should that move have happened before the Early Signing Period? In my opinion, yes, but Mason was correct to move on from Gerry Gdowski and Jason Tarver. Mason brought in Todd Fitch to run the offense and Ted Roof was hired to take over the defense.
Hey, it can’t get much worse than last year … or can it?
I mean, Vandy’s schedule last year featured 2 Group of 5 teams, a 4-win Big Ten West team and an FCS team. This year’s slate features 8 SEC teams that won at least 6 games last year. Half of Vandy’s schedule is against preseason top-15 teams. That’s a tall task for a pair of new coordinators who didn’t even inherit a top-50 recruiting class.
Roof will take on the role of defensive coordinator after he led the No. 21 scoring defense for Eli Drinkwitz’s Appalachian State squad. Mason will obviously have a big hand in the defense, but firing his longtime friend Tarver was a sign that he’s not tolerating another year of allowing 32 points per contest, especially not when Vandy ranks No. 4 in percentage of returning defensive production.
Fitch led a Louisiana Tech offense that ranked in the top 1/3 of FBS last year, and was No. 2 in FBS in Fitch’s first year in 2016. We know Fitch wants to throw the ball. A lot. Louisiana Tech averaged 35 passes per game last year. It’s the passing game prowess that made him an attractive candidate to Mason, who just witnessed his team rank No. 127 of 130 FBS teams in passing efficiency.
Speaking of that …
All new! Four quarterbacks joined Vandy’s 2020 class. They are former Kentucky quarterback Danny Clark, JUCO transfer Jeremy Moussa and 2020 recruits Ken Seals and Mike Wright. Who starts? Who knows? Seals was the only one who got any sort of spring reps before the pandemic shut everything down.
Seals, who threw for 53 touchdown passes as a senior at Weatherford (Texas) High School, might be the favorite to win the job based on the limited sample size so far. Wright has serious speed after a prolific high school career in Georgia. Moussa and Clark might be the veterans, but they missed part of fall camp being in isolation because of COVID-19 exposure.
This could be a fluid situation even after the season starts. Obviously signing 4 quarterbacks to a class is atypical, but it certainly was necessary. Vandy entered spring with just 35% of its offensive production back, and that was before 3 starters on the offensive line opted out. That’s a troubling thought for whoever wins the starting job.
If there was ever an offense in rebuild mode, this is it.
New athletic director!
Candice Storey Lee took over the aforementioned Turner following his strange exit. Lee, a former Vandy women’s basketball player, understands the unique dynamic of Vandy’s spending on athletics in the SEC. That was reportedly at the root of Turner’s resignation.
What will be interesting is if that at all impacts Lee’s first major decision — what to do with Mason. With Vandy being a private university, it’s unknown what his potential buyout sits at. It’s also unknown how the university will handle the pandemic from a financial standpoint.
That makes it fair to question if Mason is indeed coaching for his job. Usually an SEC coach coming off a 3-win season who fired both coordinators after Year 6 is firmly on the hot seat. But the dynamics at play in Nashville are worth monitoring. The bar is set so low for the Commodores in a year like this that it’s unknown what would warrant a firing.
Week 1: at Texas A&M (L)
That’s an awful matchup for a Vandy squad that has all sorts of issues up front. It’s hard to imagine the A&M defensive line not feasting on the Commodores. Mike Elko is going to dare a first-time starting quarterback to air it out. Barring some breakout performance for the ages from Vandy’s starter, this shouldn’t be that close.
Week 2: vs. LSU (L)
Even if LSU has some figuring out to do with its new offense, I don’t think we’d see the second-stringers struggle against Vandy. Maybe we see a big play from Chris Pierce with Derek Stingley Jr. draped all over Cam Johnson, but it figures to be one of the few bright spots of the day for Vandy.
Week 3: vs. South Carolina (L)
This might appear to be a winnable game, but South Carolina’s defensive line should have a major advantage. Vandy’s only hope is that Mike Bobo’s offense is still not in sync just yet and maybe one of the Dores steps in front of one for a key pick-6. But again, Vandy getting pushed around at the line of scrimmage seems imminent.
Week 4: at Mizzou (L)
This might be the most winnable game on the schedule, especially after what Vandy did against Mizzou in Nashville last year. I’m guessing Mizzou will have a much clearer offensive identity this time with Drinkwitz. The Vandy defense actually holds strong for a bit thanks to Dayo Odenyingbo and Dimitri Moore flying all over the place. But a couple of late passing scores allows Mizzou to avenge the embarrassing 2019 loss.
Week 5: Bye
Week 6: vs. Ole Miss (L)
Vandy’s 5 most winnable games are all in order. Wild. This should be the best chance for Vandy’s offense to get some sort of mojo going. Fitch turns to Wright, who flashes his potential with a rushing score against the porous Ole Miss defense. But Vandy’s inexperience at quarterback surfaces again and poor throws lead to interceptions by Keidron Smith and Jaylon Jones to give Ole Miss the victory.
Week 7: at Mississippi State (L)
Unfortunately for Vandy, this winds up being the “Kylin Hill can do it all game.” The MSU star tops 100 yards rushing and receiving en route to a lopsided MSU win after the Alabama loss. Vandy’s quarterback situation gets a little better with Wright flashing some more potential, but it’s much too short in another road loss.
Week 8: at Kentucky (L)
Once upon a time, this was a fair matchup at the line of scrimmage. That’s no longer the case. The Cats have 3 legitimate All-SEC candidates on the offensive line to complement a ground game that returns nearly 2,000 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns from 2019. Kentucky, fresh off a bye, runs all over Vandy, which starts to feel the effects of a long, conference-only slate.
Week 9: vs. Florida (L)
Depth, depth, depth. This is where you need it. The season hasn’t even started yet and Vandy is running into depth issues. Beating a team like Florida doesn’t happen for Vandy unless everything lines up perfectly. Instead of this being a competitive game like 2018, the Gators cruise with their bevy of talented receivers.
Week 10: vs. Tennessee (L)
Tennessee’s roster is no longer at the level it was at when Vandy dominated that matchup from 2016-18. That was Jeremy Pruitt’s first hurdle to clear. He did that last year with an 18-point win in Knoxville. Maybe this stays a touch closer for a bit than the experts think, but Tennessee should still have enough in the tank to wear down Vandy over the course of 60 minutes. The Vols’ get consecutive wins against their intrastate rivals for the first time since 2014-15.
Week 11: at Georgia (L)
I’m gonna set the over/under at 3 points that Vandy scores against that Georgia defense. Take the “over” if you wish.
2020 projection: 0-10, 7th in SEC East
No, I don’t hate Vandy. I promise. Seriously. Go back to last year when I wrote nice things about the Big 3. I promise, I wrote nice things.
But how in the world can I pencil in Vandy for a victory based on the information we know? This offseason is supposed to huge for continuity. Vandy replaced both coordinators and has 4 new quarterbacks, only 1 of whom got spring reps. The 3 starting offensive linemen opting out didn’t help, and neither did losing a 2-year starting safety like Tae Daley or reserve defensive back Tre Douglas. Shoot, Vandy’s grad transfer kicker Oren Milstein opting out didn’t help, either.
And this is after a season in which Vandy was -185 in SEC play. Now, without even a game against Arkansas, Vandy is going to do what exactly?
The good news is that there’s production back from that defense. The bad news is that defense was bad news last year. Even if that group improves, which I expect it will, this team getting to 2 wins seems like a pipe dream at this point.
I don’t know if 0-10 would result in Mason getting fired. I argued before that I thought it doesn’t make sense to make any sort of long-term decisions on coaches good or bad. That includes a coach who can’t win a game.
The bar for Mason is low, but it’s so low for a reason. Now would be a good time to clear it.