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2016 Opponent Look Ahead: Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt Stadium-1-2

Tennessee vs Vanderbilt

When: Saturday, Nov. 26th

Where: Nashville, TN (Vanderbilt Stadium)

Vanderbilt at a glance

Head Coach: Derek Mason (3rd year, 7-17)

Conference: SEC

All-time record: 528-575-43

2015 results: 4-8 (2-6)

Record against Tennessee: 30-75-5; Last meeting was a 53-28 victory for Tennessee in Knoxville last season

2015 Overview

Vanderbilt fans were looking for improvement in 2015 after a disappointing 2014 season. In Derek Mason’s first year, the Commodores went 3-9 and 0-8 in SEC play. Last season, Vanderbilt saw minor improvement as they bumped up to 4-8 and 2-6 in the SEC.

The Commodores proved to be more competitive in the SEC with wins over Missouri and Kentucky and some close games, such as a 9-7 loss at Florida.

Vanderbilt’s defense was the primary bright spot. In 2014, the Commodores were outscored by an average of 22.6 points per game in SEC play. Last fall, that number dropped to 9.7 points per game. In addition, three of their six league defeats came by 11 points or fewer. On offense, the Commodores were almost nonexistent, as they averaged 15.2 points per game (13th in SEC). Second year offensive coordinator, Andy Ludwig, will look to improve the offense in 2016.

Three questions for this game:

1. Will the Vandy offense be improved?

In 2015, the Commodores finished second to last in the SEC in total offense (326.5 ypg). Vanderbilt returns eight starters on offense. Among them is star junior running back Ralph Webb. Webb is an All-SEC selection and last year’s campaign saw him finish second in school history in single-season rushing yards (1,152). Along with Webb, the Commodores return a young, raw quarterback in Kyle Shurmur. Shurmur split reps with Johnny McCrary last season, but with McCrary now gone, Shurmur is the unquestioned starter (503 yds, 5 TDs, 3 INTs).

The offensive line will pose a big question mark as senior and former All-SEC left tackle Andrew Jelks will miss his second straight season with a knee injury. The offense should improve in Ludwig’s second year, but don’t expect it to be by much. Tennessee’s defense should not have a problem against the Commodore offense in 2016.

2. Will Vanderbilt’s defense pose any problems?

The Commodores’ defense showed drastic improvement in 2015. That could be because Derek Mason took over defensive play-calling duties, which is what he specializes in. At Stanford, Mason was a solid defensive coordinator, and helped the Cardinal rank nationally every year in total defense. In 2015, Vanderbilt finished sixth in the SEC in total defense (350.5 ypg), which ranked one spot ahead of Tennessee (362 ypg). What’s even more impressive is that they achieved that with only one defensive All-SEC selection in middle linebacker Zach Cunningham.

Vanderbilt returns seven defensive starters, including Cunningham, middle linebacker Nigel Bowden, and junior nickelback Oren Burks. However, out of the top five key offseason losses, four of them were defensive players, including defensive end Caleb Azubike and linebacker Stephen Weatherly. The defensive line will lack the star power it had from last year, so don’t expect too much from it. However, the Commodores have solid depth and talent in their linebackers and secondary. Look for the Commodore defense to put up similar numbers as last year, with perhaps some slight improvement. Last season, Tennessee proved to be too much for Vanderbilt’s defense and that could be the case again this year.

3. Will this game impact Derek Mason’s career?

This will be Derek Mason’s third year as the head coach for the Commodores, and so far, it’s been a rough road for him. He’s continued to express that Vanderbilt owns the state, even though he’s 0-2 against the state school. Media outlets continue to point out that Derek Mason’s seat is getting warm. This could very well be a make-or-break year for the third-year coach. The Commodores have the potential to improve this season and possibly make a bowl. If that doesn’t happen and they have another disappointing season, Mason could be looking for another job. When the talented Vols show up in Nashville on November 26th, things could get ugly real quick for Mason’s career at Vanderbilt.

How we expect it to play out

This game has all the potential to be a blowout like last year’s contest. Across the board, Vanderbilt simply can’t compare to Tennessee’s roster from a talent standpoint. The Vols have too much depth, talent and experience to let the Commodores secure a victory. Last year, running back Ralph Webb was the only offensive playmaker for the Commodores against the Vols as he reeled in 149 rushing yards. Tennessee defensive coordinator (former Vanderbilt DC) Bob Shoop will have a gameplan in place to contain Webb. The Vols’ defense looks to be more explosive and talented than last year, so the Commodores won’t be able to do much with their young offense.

Vanderbilt’s defense does not look to pose a threat either for Tennessee. The Vols have too many weapons returning on offense. Even with Vanderbilt’s solid defense last year, Tennessee was able to move the ball well through the air and on the ground. On special teams, the Vols have done well the past two seasons against the Commodores too. In both the 2014 and 2015 contests, Cam Sutton returned a punt all the way for a touchdown. With Sutton and Evan Berry returning, Tennessee’s special teams will make some huge plays in this year’s game once again.

Volunteer fans always look forward to this game, mainly because of Tennessee’s dominance over the Commodores. As mentioned before, this game could have an impact on Mason’s future at Vanderbilt because you just can’t keep losing to your rivals, especially if it’s in a convincing fashion. Even though the game is at Vanderbilt Stadium, there could very well be the chance that more Vol fans show up than Vanderbilt fans. Tennessee has a great chance to win this one convincingly and very well might head to Atlanta the next week.

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