Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Maize 'n' Brew 2006 Season Preview, Part I of XIII

With the season around the corner its time to take a look at Michigan's upcoming schedule. We already know how the 2006 season stacks up statistically. How the teams on the schedule stack up this year is a different question, and one I will endeavor to answer. So over the next few weeks look to Maize 'n' Brew to give you a little insight into whom Michigan will be playing this year, and finally, a little insight (very little) into this year's Michigan team.

Looking this thing over, well, I spent a little too much time on it. The remainder of the previews will be substantially shorter, but for now, enjoy.

An Error Prone & Excessively Verbose Overview of:
The Vanderbilt Commodores

The Game
University of Michigan v. Vanderbilt University
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
Date: September 2, 2006
Game #: 1
TV: ESPN
Radio: WOMC-FM and CKLW-AM

The Opposition
University: Vanderbilt University
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Team Name: The Commodores
Conference: SEC
Number of National Championships: 0
Number of SEC Championships: 0
Last League Championship: Last Championship of any kind came in 1923
First Season of Football: 1890 (1-0)
Last Season: 2005 (5-6)
Head Coach: Bobby Johnson
Vanderbilt v. Michigan All-Time: Michigan is 9-0-1 versus Vanderbilt. Last meeting was 1969 in Ann Arbor. Michigan won 42-14.

A Brief History of Vanderbilt:

Located in Nashville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt University was founded in 1873 by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Apparently ole' Cornelius was quite the shipping, ship building and railroad magnet and was able to fund the establish of Vanderbilt by himself. A businessman worthy of being a James Bond villian, Vanderbilt took care of things the old fashioned way. When he felt a former associate had screwed him he wrote the following: "You have undertaken to cheat me. I won't sue you, for the law is too slow. I will ruin you." While I admire his business tactics, his taste in women's a little more troubling. Vanderbilt fled to Canada in 1869 to marry his "distant" cousin. Insert southern-bias/Tennessee joke here.

Still it was another distant relative who convinced him to open his notoriously tight pockets and donate the $1 million (in 1873 money) to found the university which bears his name.

Football History

Vanderbilt University began playing organized football in 1890. The Commodores (Cornelius' nickname from his schooner days) were major players in southern football until the 1950's. After that, well, you've modern Vanderbilt football.

Commodores. Not Comode-odores.
Though the latter may be more appropriate.


Since 1950 Vanderbilt has managed only 10 winning seasons with their last victorious campaign coming in 1982. High academic standards routinely take the blame for Vanderbilt's lackluster football prowess. (However, even Stanford and Northwestern find ways to be competitive every now and then.) Vanderbilt has never won or shared an SEC crown in football. In fact, its coming up on 85 years since they even shared a conference crown of any kind.

Last Season: 2005 (5-6)

2005 was the best season Vanderbilt has experienced in the last decade. Vanderbilt posted wins over Arkansas, Wake Forest and Tennessee. Not only did the Commodores put the capper on one of Tennessee's worst seasons since the Vietnam War, their victory was their first over the Vols since 1975. It was a losing season, but a good losing season. Here's what happened:

Vanderbilt started the season with four straight wins. Wins over Wake Forest, Arkansas, Mississippi and Richmond had Vanderbilt at 4-0. Spirits were as high as the expectations for this senior heavy team. Those expectations weighed the Commodores down. Like a man struggling to carry the cast of The View, they collapsed, dropping their next six games. Vanderbilt managed to find a way to implode against "Who-Dat?" Middle Tennessee State and never seemed to fully recover.

It doesn't just look like high school football.

Vanderbilt lost several games by a touchdown or less, before taking Florida into double overtime. The ghost of Danny Wuerffel haunted the Commodores that day and Vandy came up short, 42-49. With the pressure on, Vanderbilt wilted again against Kentucky. I'll repeat that, Kentucky. Needing two wins to secure their first bowl bid in two decades, Cutler guided the Commodores' offense to a season high 43 points. The problem was the defense gave up 48. The Kentucky loss sealed Vanderbilt's 23rd consecutive losing season.

With the pressure off, Vanderbilt took it to Tennesse on the Vols home turf, beating them 28-24 in front of 107,000 pissed off people. Well, 106,500 pissed off people. I'm sure a couple of Vanderbilt fans were there. Orson and Stranko were not in attendance, but you could hear them laughing in Chicago.

No bowl. A losing season for the 23rd consecutive year. Losing your best player to graduation. But they did beat their arch rival, in their house no less. As a Michigan fan I can tell you those things make a season successful, regardless of your record.

What Went Right:

Jay Cutler. Unless you winter in a cave in Angola, you've heard of him. ESPN spent a great deal of time attempting to turn the "Who goes first? Vince or Matt?" debate into a three part conversation. Cutler had a record setting year for Vanderbilt. Over 3,000 yards passing, 59% competition percentage and a 21-9 TD/INT ratio. He was named All-SEC first team and SEC player of the year. Hell, his last collegiate pass was a game winning touchdown. Not a bad way to cap a career. Cutler went to Denver with the 11th pick of this year's draft.

The emergence of Freshman/Stud WR Earl Bennett. Bennett had 9 TD's as a freshman including a SEC record tying 5TD game against Kentucky. The discovery of a two headed RB monster that totaled over 1,000 yards. A surprisingly decent Offensive Line. Beating Tennessee at Tennessee. Plus wins over Mississippi, Arkansas and Wake Forest.

What Went Wrong:

The Defense. An inability to stop ANYONE cost the Commodores a winning season. After the Middle Tennessee melt down Vanderbilt gave up 34, 34, 35, 49, and 48 points in their next five contests. Losses to teams no one should lose to. Middle Tennessee State and Kentucky destroyed hope and bowl eligibility, respectively. Coming close, but still falling to Florida in two overtimes. Continuing to be the second half of the 20th Century Vanderbilt in the 21st Century.

What to Look for in 2006: Inexperience, mistakes, pain and suffering, and Nashville being burned to the ground after the Tennessee game, hide the Cheetoes.

Returning Starters on Offense: 6
Returning Starters on Defense: 6


Coaching:

Bobby Johnson jumped to Vanderbilt right after leading Furman to the D-1 AA national championship. Since then, well, things haven’t quite gone his way. Where Randy Walker found ways to make Northwestern competitive despite its academic requirements, Johnson has not. Though the offense has come around at Vanderbilt Johnson has failed to field a single, decent defense during his four year tenure. Johnson’s biggest criticism should be he can’t win the games he’s supposed to. Two straight loses to Middle Tennessee state emphasize this.

However, he has made the Commodores respectable in the SEC and that is an accomplishment in and of itself. If producing a first round draft pick out of Jay Cutler is an indication of future success, then Vanderbilt’s years ahead should go well. Recruiting seems to be getting better, though the majority of his recruits are still of the 2 to 2 1/2 star variety. The talent is definitely getting better at Vanderbilt, but the proof lies in the coaching. As talent rises, so to do the expectations. The expectations after the last two years of missing winning seasons, are that a winning season should be produced within this year or next. Based on the talent available and the coaching so far, I don't see it.

The Offense

QBs:

Vanderbilt goes from the SEC Player of the Year at the helm to unproven sophomore Chris Nickson. He's thrown only three passes in his career. He completed one of them. His backup is redshirt freshman MacKenzi Adams (yes, that is how he spells his name). Because there is nothing on their college careers I develed a little deeper into their past to see who these guys were.

Nickson, in being awarded the 2003 Mr. Football in Alabama, scored an unreal 67 TD's during his senior year in high school (402 points for those of you counting at home). In leading his high school to the Alabama 3A State Championship he threw for 2,946 yards and 42 touchdowns and ran for 1,526 yards and 22 touchdowns. Athlete anyone? Nickson will be backstopped by redshirt frosh MacKenzi Adams. Adams led his high school, Tulsa Union, to 6A state title in Oklahoma in 2004. Like Nickson Adams is a pure athlete. In addition to his football career, he was also a track standout.

Both QB's are option QBs. As a result, this year's Vanderbilt offense will focus much more on the running game than a drop back passing game. However, it’s not like Vanderbilt foresook the run when Culter was around. Looking at Culter's 3,000 yards passing its easy to overlook the fact that he racked up over 400 yards on the ground. Focusing on an option attack should reduce the number of errors Nickson or Adams will commit. Even so, expect turnovers and mistakes from both QBs. SEC teams are no stranger to the option and most have the speed to stuff the run and punish young QBs who hold the ball a little too long. In addition, when Vanderbilt gets behind early, which will happen a lot, there will be a lot of hospital passes and interceptions thrown by both QBs out of inexperience.

Working for these young quarterbacks will be a solid offensive line and a good receiving corps. Over the course of the season Nickson should post pretty good numbers (for a freshman) based on his athleticism and the fact that he will be passing a lot. But don't expect Nickson or Adams to win games on their own. However, do expect Nickson to give Michigan some early troubles as no Michigan Defense in the past five years has shown an ability to control a mobile quarterback.

RBs:

Should be decent this year. Vanderbilt's ground game was lead by the two headed TB monster of now junior Cassen Jackson-Garrison and now junior Jeff Jennings. Jennings blew his knee out against Kentucky. In 10 games he totaled 476 yards on 123 carries and 7 TDs. As a result Garrison inherited the full time starting job for one game, and made good use of the extra playing time posting 60 yards rushing and a TD plus 49 yards receiving against Tennessee. He finished the season leading the team in rushing with 539 yards on 97 carries and scoring 8 TDs in 11 games worth of work.

The faster and more explosive back of the tandem is certainly Garrison. Garrison was 100 and 200 meter sprinter in high school and showed it against Arkansas when he broke off a 71 yarder. Both are serviceable running backs that aren't going to run you over or make you miss. They'll gain ground if the line can open a hole, but aren't capable turning nothing into something against good defenses. Both are a year older and more experienced, but Jennings is still nursing an injury that usually takes a full year to recover from. If Jennings returns healthy at 100%, they should crack the 1,200 yard mark again as a tandem, but don't expect either one to take over a game.

WR/TEs:

The real strength of the offense lies in sophomore WR Earl Bennett. Starting as a true freshman last year Bennett led the team in receiving yards (876), catches (79), and TDs (9). What's even more amazing about this kid is that he didn't start until the Richmond game. Second team freshman All-American, second team all-SEC, and first team freshman all-SEC. My favorite part from the Commodores website: "Responsible for every yard of game-deciding touchdown drive against Volunteers." Bennett appears to have it all. Speed, hands, polished route running, jumping ability, and all those little intangibles that make for a star.

On paper there's a pretty steep drop off after Bennett. Second leading receive Erik Davis (WR) and third leading receiver Dustin Dunning (TE) graduated. Backing Bennett will be Senior Marlon White (WR) and redshirt Sophomore George Smith (WR), the two were 4th and 5th on the receptions and yardage list, respectively. White is the more polished receiver of the two with 6 TD's last year, but lacks any real speed. Smith had 23 receptions and 2 TD's. His massive injury history does not inspire a whole lot of confidence either. There are a handful of freshman and redshirt freshman who could also see time, but no one that produced big on a high school or college level yet. Bennett and White will keep defenses honest. If Smith comes around, then Vanderbilt could have a good core receiving set plus one star on the wings.

As for TEs, there are none. The only returning TE is sophomore Brad Allen who didn't have a catch last year. He'll see competition from two incoming freshmen, but don't expect anything out of this group this year. Leon Hall & Co. will lock down on Bennett. I'm not expecting a lot of passes being thrown in the opener, but if the secondary can contain Bennett don't expect much from anyone else.

OL:

A surprising strength for Vanderbilt and the reason Nickson and/or Adams may not end up in the hospital on a weekly basis. The O-line is led by senior tackle Brian Stamper (really, is there a better name for an offensive lineman?). Stamper was recently placed on the watch list for the Outland Trophy which goes to the nation's best interior offensive lineman. Stamper went all last season without allowing a sack. Doing that in the SEC is pretty impressive. His partner in crime, junior tackle Chris Williams, ain't bad either. Also returning at starting guard is junior Josh Eams. Eams protected Cutler's blind side last year at left guard, and will return to his starting role with another year under his belt.

The question marks will be at center and the other guard spot. Vanderbilt will look to plug the gap with junior Hamilton Holliday. While this will be his first year at center his blocking shouldn't be the problem having played guard most of last year. Look for early screw ups during C/QB exchanges at critical times as a freshman and new center try to do a little too much. The biggest offensive line question will be at right guard. Merritt Kirchoffer who is coming off shoulder surgery should end up the eventual starter, but he'll be spotted early by a pair of red shirt freshmen. Look for the line to run left as often as possible behind Stamper and Eams.

Vanderbilt gave up 24 sacks last year. Taking away the outliers of no sacks versus Wake and 6 sacks versus LSU, the team only gave up an average of 2 sacks a game. Defenses will find it tough going up the middle against Stamper and Chris Williams. However, if either gets hurt Vanderbilt's in trouble. The depth drops off considerably after backup tackle junior Elliot Hood and there is little to no depth at center or guard.

This should be one of Vanderbilt's strengths this year, but they're not going to carry the team. They can't score points. Look for Michigan's defense to be inexplicably frustrated by Vanderbilt's guards and to get surprising penetration up the middle and then fall all over themselves trying to tackle Nickson. Did I just contradict myself? No. Michigan defenses make no sense. Thus, what should work won't, and what shouldn't will, to an extent. Such is the Dao of Michigan.

The Defense

While Vanderbilt should be able to put a point or two on the board, their opponents won't have any trouble doing that either. Worker's Compensation attorneys are already licking their chops at the scorekeeper's law suits they can file because of Vanderbilt's carpal tunnel inducing defense. The defense managed just 14 sacks last year, gave up 29 points a game, was 10th in the SEC in run defense, 11th in total defense and 11th in pass defense. Looking at the lineup, this defense will be even worse than last year’s.

DL :

In a cosmic sense they exist. Sort of. Other than defensive end Chris Booker, there is no one on the line that can do much of anything. This group is either young and undersized or old and undersized. There wasn’t a single lineman among the top eight tacklers on the team. Expect Vanderbilt’s 169 ypg average to balloon this year. I wish there was more to write about on these guys or that someone was on the fringes of respectability. But there isn’t. Vanderbilt’s starting DL stacks up with David Carter and Chris Booker at the ends, and Ray Brown and Theo Horrocks at the tackles. This group combined for 68 tackles last year. Total. They only managed 5 sacks combined. Bad, bad news.

LBs:

The Good: Vanderbilt gets two starters back! The Bad: They lost three of their top six, and the defense’s leading tackler to graduation. Returning Starters Jonathan Goff and Kevin Joyce (both juniors), had good sophomore seasons for the Commodores last year. Goff registered 53 tackles and a sack, while Joyce added 47 tackles and a sack. Unfortunately, adding them together they’re still 18 tackles behind departed Moses Osemwegie who led the team with 118 tackles, 3 sacks and a pair of INTs. Last year’s backup junior Marcus Buggs will step into the final starting spot. He provided 29 tackles last year.

Having two experienced starting linebackers should help to aid the DL a tad, but the LB corps can’t expect the DL to return the favor. Goff & Co. will see wave after wave of large men thundering toward them as the DL can not match up size wise with opposing OLs. Woe to the Commodores if any of the starters go down. Every back-up listed is a redshirt freshman. This will be good for Vanderbilt down the line, but is a kiss of death in 2006. Decent starters, not great starters. Nothing after them. Again, bad, bad news.

S/CB:

Big troubles. Lost their leading tackler. Vanderbilt plugs their new starting safety Reshard Langford as “one of the team’s top talents and a viable All-SEC competitor.” With 54 tackles and a team high 3 INTs, maybe he warrants it. The SEC though so and named him to the All-SEC freshman team. After him, there’s limited talent. Sophomore CBs Josh Allen and Jared Fagan actually had playing time last year. Fagan grabbed the game sealing INT against Tennessee, but only made 10 tackles all year.

Again a pile of redshirt freshman and a gimpy senior fill out the depth chart. Last year’s defensive secondary wasn’t that good allowing 13 yards per catch. With three guys we know anything about in the secondary, and a bunch of question marks, Michigan is going to have a field day against them.

K/ST:

The hits just keep on coming for Vanderbilt. Bryant Hahnfeldt handled both the punting and kicking duties for the Commodores. True to form he tore his ACL against Tennessee. Whether he’ll be back a full strength for the season is up in the air. When he kicked he was impressive and he was named to the All-SEC Freshman team. The blocking and coverage teams were not so good. Hahnfeldt made 12 of 17 field goals, but had four of his misses blocked. Patrick Johnson and Kyle Keown fill the backup place kicker and punting duties. Returns will be handled by Earl Bennett, who as we have discussed, is electric.

If Vanderbilt was a country: Costa Rica.

The highest literacy rate in the western hemisphere. Instead of spending their money on guns and armies, Costa Rica does something unique, it spends that money on education. Like Vanderbilt, smart people everywhere and lacks both defensive and offensive capabilities. Unlike Vanderbilt, it is not playing in the SEC or against Michigan. If it was, based on these comparisons, all the smart people would be beaten senseless and imprisoned by these ravaging Cromagnons and their country sacked.

The Outlook:

This is going to be a tough year for Vanderbilt. In looking at their schedule, I can only see two to three games where they’ll be favored Tennessee State (D1-AA), Temple and Duke. The rest of the schedule is merciless, with the possible exception of Kentucky and Mississippi (but even they look better than last year). You can count on losses at Michigan, Alabama, Arkansas (revenge!), Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.

Best Case: 6-6

The only way this happens is if the Commodores manage to win all three winnable games, beat Kentucky and Mississippi in the toss ups, and sneak out a win against South Carolina. This would require everything going their way, and I don’t see it happening. If they somehow manage to do this, I can’t wait to the ESPN coverage as literally hundreds of Vanderbilt students and Alums pack up their pocket protectors and head to the November 29th Mocolate Bowl played in Guatemala. Me Gusta Mucho!

Worst Case: 1-11

Again, a long shot. This would require cataclysmic flops against hapless Duke and Temple, and the team crumbling around Johnson as the season goes on. While I can see them dropping a game they should win, they’ll also win one of the toss-ups.

Most Likely: 3-9

Wins over Tennessee State, Temple and Kentucky. Lots of humility and crying the rest of the season. After the Tennessee game expect the Vols to raze Nashville in retaliation for last year. That game is going to be ugly. It's going to be anothr tough season in Nashville.

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