Vanderbilt is looking to break a five game losing streak in opening games of the season and to beat MTSU for a third year in a row. On the other hand, Middle is looking to continue its success in season openers and finally take down the Vandy.
To gain some more insight about the Commodores, I asked VandyTigerPhD from Anchor of Gold to answer some questions about Vanderbilt leading up to Saturday.
1. Has Ralph Webb bulked up from last year? Also, is there an new dynamic he might bring this year that he hasn't in the past?
Ralph Webb is listed as 202 pounds on the depth chart for Saturday's game, which is the same weight he was listed at last year. Assuming that's accurate, I'm not going to to expect a huge change in terms of raw strength out of Webb. He has worked a lot on his footwork, so there's a lot of potential for him to get even more elusive (scary huh?).
The big talk this off-season around Webb has been that he's going to be more involved [in] passing plays, perhaps even put in the slot on a few downs. A lot of focus has been on getting him to run routes better and get in sync with Shurmur and the other WRs. I expect to see a lot of quick slants and screens to him to try and keep the LBs back a bit.
2. What can we expect from the defense this season, especially after a loss of talent from last season?
The biggest question for our defense is the loss of Zach Cunningham, second round pick of the Houston Texans. Few teams can lose a man like Zach and not feel the loss the next year. Zach was an elite player and players like that often make up for other's mistakes. Vanderbilt is not an elite program, so we're going to feel the hurt a bit more than some other teams might.
There's two ways this can be mitigated. The first is that we have a lot of talent and experience in the box, and a very strong front seven. The leader of this group is RS-SR Oren Burks. Oren has been making an impact since his freshman year, and it's been absolutely a treat to watch. He's fought in games that were well out of reach, and if anyone can take up the mantle of Zach Cunningham, it's him. The secondary is again going to be the weakest part of the defense, and how they perform against MTSU's powerful air attack is going to tell me a lot about what to expect from them.
3. Can Shurmur contribute more on offense this season? What has he shown this off season?
Kyle Shurmur last year was a tale of two quarterbacks. While he was subpar the first half of the season, he came into his own the second half of the season, culminating in a 400+ yard game against Tennessee. We're all hoping to see that Kyle Shurmur is better to start the season this year. I missed [the] spring game, but Coach Mason has been praising Shurmur's increased ability to read defenses at the line and adjust. He's gone so far to say that Shurmur is going to have autonomy on as much as 80% of the plays, a big increase from where he was even at the end of last year.
My favorite Shurmur story from the offseason was a simple one that Coach Mason relayed during media days. Mason was just in our facility and heard some music playing down the hall. He went down the hall to find Shurmur on his own watching game tape and analyzing the defenses. He and Coach Mason talked about what he's seeing and what reads to make against those defenses. Coach Mason may not be the best HC in the world, but few understand CFB defenses as well as he does, so he'd know how best to exploit them as well.
There's also [the fact] that his dad is a top notch QB coach, so there's a lot of things going for him.
4. What is general fan perception of this "rivalry"?
Personally, I'd liken it to the Mets-Yankees rivalry I grew up with as a kid. I was born in the 80s, so for much of that time, the Mets weren't anywhere near as good as the Yankees were. The Mets fans, however, were extremely into any "subway series" game and acted as it was life and death. I wouldn't say Yankees fans didn't care, but we really just didn't get that invested in it. We always kind of looked at the Mets as a little brother. We were happy to see them succeed, but we didn't really see them as a threat to us.
That's where I see the Vandy-MTSU rivalry. Y'all definitely see this as a huge deal and I don't blame you. We're your "cross town" rivals and in the vaunted SEC (though we don't often play like it) and a win against us has gotta feel great. I'd feel remiss though if I didn't at least note that there are some Vandy fans that don't want to play y'all at all given how this game is treated as a sort of Super Bowl for y'all.
5. What is Vandy's ceiling this year and do you think they will actually reach it?
That's a hard one. We've actually got an optimistic/pessimistic/realistic predictions article in the works right now over at AoG. This is a team that can do tremendous things, and it's a team that can fall flat on its face. The team can have a season as miserable as two wins and as high as... well... hell, 9 or 10.
Realistically, if we go 6-6 I'll be quite happy though considering we have a hell of a schedule. After [MTSU] we get a break against Bama A&M, then we host KSU. After which we have a hell stretch of Bama-@UF-UGA-@Ole Miss and @SC. Aside from Bama, we could win the rest of those. We could lose all of them too. Frankly, this game sets the tone for the whole season, and I hope Mason and his crew recognize that.
6. What’s your prediction for this one?
It'll be closer than least year's 47-24 drubbing, that's for sure. The common factoid you'll hear all game is that Coach Mason has never won the first game of the season with us. What that leaves out is that we really didn't have any talent those first two years and really we should have beat SC last year's opener. Still, no one is at 100% game one, and Vanderbilt can always Vanderbilt it up. I'll cautiously go with 38-26 Vanderbilt.