AN OPPOSING VIEW
ATHENS — The View is always pleased to welcome back Adam Sparks, who has been giving us the scoop on the Vanderbilt Commodores for a number of years now.
Sparks is a veteran scribe who has been covering the ‘Dores for the Nashville Tennessean since 2014. He covered Middle Tennessee State for 13 years for Daily News Journal, so maybe we should’ve hit him up in Week 3 when Georgia played the Blue Raiders.
Sparks has chronicled one Vandy upset of Georgia so far. He was the reporter of record when the Commodores knocked off the Bulldogs in Athens in Kirby Smart’s first year at UGA. I’d like to say Sparks’ predicted that. He didn’t. But he did predict that year that if Vandy could bottle up Georgia’s run game they should be able to hang with them and, with a few breaks, could beat them.
They got a few break and beat the Bulldogs 17-16.
The point being, read closely what Sparks has to say, for he has his pulse on Vandy, which this year comes to Sanford Stadium with a 3-2 record. The Commodores already put a huge scare into Notre Dame earlier this season, coming up short in 22-17 upset bid. But they haven’t played as well since, and just barely eked a 31-27 win over Tennessee State this past weekend.
Sparks lives with his daughter Colby in Mount Juliet, Tenn., where he spends his free time as a Sunday school teacher, avid runner and lover of Southern fried foods. So he’s a good dude.
Here’s what he told me about Vanderbilt:
The View: What has happened since Notre Dame? Seems the Commodores have struggled since nearly knocking off that traditional power.
Sparks: That’s a good question. Derek Mason said “mindset” and the “mental aspect” of the game. That’s a little concerning, especially in the South Carolina game, because it was the SEC opener and a prime opportunity for a big early win. But this has happened before. Vanderbilt has a history of almost beating a high-ranked team, assuming that a repeat performance will beat a worse team, but then failing to play at that level again. Moving forward, Vanderbilt needs to regain whatever degree of confidence it had in South Bend. I’m not sure that’s going to happen at Georgia, but the process could start if the game is close late – but that’s a big “if.” The Commodores have winnable SEC games beyond Georgia, so things need to get back on track soon.
The View: I’ve heard nothing but good things about quarterback Kyle Shurmur but it seems like he’s struggled a little of late? Is that a fact and, if so, is there any particular reason for it?
Sparks: Kyle Shurmur is a good SEC quarterback. I’m not sure where he ranks, but he’s an upper-tier signal-caller. He has a good arm, a great understanding of the offense and a pro pedigree (his dad is Giants coach Pat Shurmur, and his great-uncle was long-time NFL defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur). He struggled against South Carolina and then early last week against Tennessee State, throwing two interceptions in the first quarter. But after those picks, he was nearly flawless the rest of the way. They need Shurmur at his best to have any chance in a game like (or any SEC game). We’ll see if that happens.
The View: What’s the latest on that terrible situation the befall Tennessee State player Christion Abercrombie of Atlanta? Did they ever determine exactly what caused the injury? How have the Commodores responded to it?
Sparks: Abercrombie is still in critical condition. At a prayer vigil Tuesday night, his uncle said he had improved a little, but it’s still a very serious situation. It’s really a day-to-day, hour-to-hour situation. I’m not sure exactly how he suffered the injury because he came off the field on his own power. Vandy and TSU met at midfield after the game for a prayer. Coach Derek Mason, who actually recruited Abercrombie, has visited the hospital several times since the game.
The View: Seems like I’m always asking this, but is Derek Mason going to be in good shape with the school and administrators if the Commodores come up short of a bowl bid this year?
Sparks: Yeah, I get this question virtually every week from SEC media members. I suspect it’s because a quick look at his record gives most people the impression that he would be fired if he coached at another SEC school. But he’s not at another SEC school; he’s at Vandy. The Commodores have had seven winning seasons in 58 years. Is that an excuse for not winning now? No, but it points to how difficult this job is – trying to win in college football’s best conference while a portion of your university views the football program more like an Ivy League school than an SEC school. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but it’s reality. Now, the arrival of a new athletics director could change that, but there’s a practical factor to this, as well. Mason signed a contract extension in summer 2017, pushing his deal back to five years (with the option of a sixth year). So he entered this season with four years left on his contract, and Vandy never gives up on a coach with those terms remaining. Plus, I can’t find anyone in the Vandy athletics department that thinks Mason should be gone. Some fans do, but no one that has a hand in such a decision.
The View: What are some of the matchups in Saturday’s game you think may be favorable for the ‘Dores?
Sparks: I don’t know if “favorable” is the right word, but I am curious to see if Vandy can get the upper hand in a couple of areas in the passing game. Wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb leads the SEC in receptions, receiving yards and TD catches, and Jared Pinkney is among the most productive pass-catching tight ends in the country. Will Georgia pay them extra attention in coverage or treat them like any other receivers? I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out. Shurmur-to-Lipscomb and Shurmur-to-Pinkney needs to work for Vandy to hang around in this one.
Predicting Vandy games has been an absolute crapshoot this season. Most thought the Commodores would be 3-2 at this point, as they are, but not necessarily by these margins – blow out MTSU and Nevada, nearly beat Notre Dame, lose by a lot to South Carolina, barely beat Tennessee State. Anyway, Georgia is a better team by a reasonably wide margin. I saw Vandy upset the Bulldogs in Athens two years ago, but that was a weird game and Georgia was still rebuilding. Georgia 40, Vandy 20.