ATHENS — We return to our old friend Adam Sparks of the Nashville Tennessean to give us the scoop on Vanderbilt, which visits Sanford Stadium on Saturday.
Sparks is a veteran reporter who covered Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro for 10 years before taking over the Commodores’ beat a few years ago. He got there about the same time coach Derek Mason did, so he has followed that whole situation closely. Sparks handled The View for us last year and, remarkably, agreed to again this year!
You can read Sparks’ work on The Tennessean’s website and/or follow him on Twitter @AdamSparks.
Now onto the questions:
1. First of all, how did Vanderbilt end up with four consecutive SEC games on the road? I haven’t researched that but it certainly sounds unusual. And given the Commodores road woes under coach Derek Mason, it seems sort of unfair.
Sparks: “I’m honestly not sure. I think it’s just by chance. I don’t see it as necessarily unfair. After all, Vandy played three of five at home to start the year, and one of its road trips was about an hour away (Western Kentucky). This SEC schedule is certainly not what Vandy would choose, but it would look far more favorable if the Commodores had, let’s say, a 3-3 or 4-2 record right now — which were both very attainable.”
2. Speaking of Derek Mason, I’m sure you knew this one was coming, but what would you see is the level of his job security about now?
Sparks: “In terms of his job security, if Vandy was 3-3 overall, and perhaps an SEC win in there, I think he would be 100 percent safe. Vandy administration really likes Derek Mason and it wants a reason to keep him around long term. It simply needs to be convinced that the program is headed in the right direction, regardless of the speed it’s getting there. With all that being said, Vandy’s final record does not project well. A 2-4 mark at this point is disappointing, but the bigger concern for fans is that Vandy likely will be an underdog in five of its remaining six games. That yields a 3-9 record and 0-8 SEC mark, the same as Mason’s first season in 2014. A lot of things could happen on the field before season’s end, and a lot of opinions could change, as well. It’s in Vandy’s nature to wait and let things play out.”
3. I see that running back Ralph Webb is again getting it done for the Commodores, averaging 113.7 yards rushing a game and an SEC-best 132.5 all-purpose yards. I was surprised, then, to see that Vanderbilt ranked so low in the league in rushing offense. How do you explain that and what are the issues for the Commodores’ offense?
Sparks: “Early on, Webb was being complemented well by power back Khari Blasingame, but that’s fallen off some. Vandy would like to establish the run early and then stick with it, but it just hasn’t gone according to plan as much lately. Webb is perhaps the most valuable offensive player to his team in the SEC, in my opinion, so it makes since that Vandy is giving the ball to him so much.”
4. Conversely, it looks like Vandy is playing some good defense again. Could you give us a sort of scouting report on the Commodores on that side of the ball and offer some insight as to what makes them so good?
Sparks: “Linebacker Zach Cunningham is unquestionably Vandy’s best defensive player. He’s a tone-setter, a sideline-to-sideline pursuer of the ball. He has great instincts and almost always finishes the ball around the action. Vandy’s defense was thrown off kilter a little during a three-game stretch against vastly different offenses in Middle Tennessee, Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky, but it’s been in its comfort zone against SEC opponents. In SEC games, Vandy leads the conference in total defense and ranks second in scoring defense. Pass coverage has been relatively good, but the pass rush has been lacking. The run defense has been strong at times, but there have been too many hiccups on third down. And Vandy has also missed too many opportunities for interceptions. It’s been a pretty good defense in SEC play, but I know Mason thinks it should get better.”
5. Looking specifically at the matchups with Georgia, are there any ones in particular you think the Commodores feel good about and can exploit? For instance, pretty much everybody in the league has a better kicking game than the Bulldogs.
Sparks: “Vandy has been a disaster in some areas of special teams lately. It’s had two punts blocked, three other punt snaps mishandled, one punt snap fumbled, two punt returns muffed in last week’s game, etc. So if the Commodores win special teams in this game, they might have a chance to win it. At this point, I think Vandy has been too inconsistent in too many areas to say it has an advantage in terms of a specific matchup. I can say that Vandy can run the ball well if it gets in a groove offensively. And its defenders are effective in stripping the ball if opposing ball-carriers are lazy with it, especially around the goal line. That’s kind of Vandy’s script for winning just about any game — run the ball well, eat clock, force turnovers, get stops in the red zone.
Sparks’ Prediction: “If Vandy can bottle up Georgia’s ground game enough to make the Bulldogs throw it, then the Commodores have a chance. Of course, I’m sure every opponent Georgia faces could copy and paste that line. That being said, I think Vandy sticks with its routine to this point, which is playing SEC games close, but not winning. The Commodores have lost three SEC games by 3, 7 and 7. Vandy hangs around for a while, but Georgia pulls away with a late score — Georgia 27, Vandy 14.”