NCF Nation: Trey Wilson
But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.
It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.
But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.
South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.
LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.
The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.
It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.
The defense will lose a lot up front, but linebacker Archibald Barnes and cornerback Trey Wilson are the only other significant losses.
There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
As the Commodores’ second-year defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, is quick to point out, that was good enough for sixth in the SEC ... or middle of the pack.
“That’s the reality in this league,” Shoop said.
The other reality in this league is that there’s no resting on your defensive laurels.
As good as the Commodores were last season on defense, as sound as they were and as proficient as they were at taking the ball away from opponents, it all starts anew Thursday night when South Carolina visits Vanderbilt Stadium.
“Each team has its own identity, and you can’t ever take it for granted that because you did it last year, you’re going to do it again this year,” Shoop said. “Each level of defense has its own piece.”
The Commodores are missing some key pieces from a year ago, notably middle linebacker Chris Marve, defensive end Tim Fugger and cornerback Casey Hayward.
“One of the biggest things we’ll miss is Casey’s playmaking ability because he had such a unique ability to intercept passes,” Shoop said.
Hayward had seven of the Commodores’ 19 interceptions last season, and that's a tribute to his ball skills and nose for the ball. But it’s also a tribute to the way Shoop likes to play defense.
The Commodores never quit attacking and are masterful at bringing pressure from all different angles. Although some of the pieces might be different, the approach won't change this season.
In fact, Shoop said he thinks there’s enough speed and versatility on this defense that the Commodores might take their creativity to another level.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are interchangeable, and this group might be even more suited to pressuring, believe it or not,” Shoop said. “Our linebackers and safeties are all basically the same guys. They all run around and are aggressive and fast.
“We may do it a little differently than we did a year ago, but our defense is built on running to the ball and never-ending pressure. Coach [George] Barlow, our defensive backs coach, always says that pressure makes the pipes burst.”
Shoop’s transformation of Vanderbilt's defense shouldn’t come as a surprise. He did it at William & Mary and put together some of the top defenses in the FCS ranks, which no doubt attracted the interest of James Franklin.
The Commodores allowed 9.6 fewer points and 96.4 fewer yards per game last season than they did the year before and intercepted 10 more passes.
Shoop, who earned an economics degree from Yale and was the head coach at Columbia University from 2003 to 2005, also isn’t afraid to think outside the box.
During the offseason, Shoop visited with a former SEC defensive coordinator also known for his innovative schemes -- current Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
So who knows what Shoop might dial up Thursday against the Gamecocks, who will have a new look of their own. Running back Marcus Lattimore returns after missing the last half of last season with a knee injury, and he’ll be in the lineup with junior quarterback Connor Shaw. They played only 1½ games together last season before Lattimore was injured.
“It’s really more difficult preparing for them now because you look at the film and see Connor playing so well at the end of last season and doing so many good things, and then you add Marcus to the equation,” Shoop said. “It’s a challenge. But like any opening game, it’s more about us than it is them.
“It’s on us doing things well, and it’s on me and the staff to adjust during the course of the game.”
Best interview: Yes, Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe had a pretty good time with the media in Hoover and Arkansas coach John L. Smith seemed to win over the main ballroom during his press conference, but the best interview of the week had to go to Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones. The veteran strolled right into our interview room munching on pecan pie bites without a care in the world. But the real magic came during his video interview where he playfully crushed his best friend and former teammate William Vlachos and gave fellow SEC blogger Chris Low a shout out during his hit. Jones came prepared and knew how to have fun.
- Moe on what's different about the SEC: “They say girls are prettier here, air’s fresher and toilet paper is thicker.” -- Offensive lineman Elvis Fisher later told us that this line was planned after a conversation during the trip over.
- But Moe wasn't done there: "Apparently Ryan Swope is a god because he can come in and get first-team all-SEC. But that’s fine.”
- And this one really got to Arkansas running back Knile Davis: “In the Big 12, we put our best athletes on offense. [In the SEC], they put their best athletes on defense."
Best moment: Davis was as cool and relaxed as ever during his time in Hoover. He had no problem proclaiming that he still was the league's best running back, but the best moment came when he was leaving our room. As Davis headed toward the door, Chris asked him if he still thought he was the best and Davis replied with a smile, "Still the best and tell Marcus [Lattimore] I'm coming for him."
Best interviewer: We paled in comparison to the journalistic skills of Mississippi State offensive lineman Gabe Jackson, who took some time to interview Chris on camera. Chris looked like a deer in headlights when Jackson started firing hard-hitting questions and then asked him to name as many dog breeds as he could in 10 seconds. The tongue-tied Chris didn't even mention bulldog.
Most improved: LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has had a very up-and-down college career, but he walked right into media days without a nervous fiber in his body. He's known to boast a little about his talents and had every opportunity to once again, but didn't. He was very humble and praised his teammates before even mentioning his ability. Plus, he handled questions about his past at Georgia like a pro.
Most confident: We're naming our top four here:
- Moe: He's sick of hearing about transitioning over to the SEC and he let everyone know about it.
- Davis: No hesitation in claiming he's the SEC's best running back.
- Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray: He doesn't talk much, but he made the statement that Tennessee will win the SEC this season. That's pretty gutsy.
- Florida running back Mike Gillislee: His goal for the season: 1,500 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Florida hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ciatrick Fason in 2004 and 24 rushing touchdowns would break Tim Tebow's record of 23.
Coming out of his shell: Florida outside linebacker/defensive end Lerentee McCray is pretty soft-spoken and can be shy around the media, but not in Hoover. He was talkative and showed a little confidence when he said his favorite part of football is hitting the quarterback so he can "wipe the smiles off their faces."
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
It was most of the usual suspects, too -- Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
But right there at No. 18 nationally was Vanderbilt. First-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop came in and did a masterful job. He inherited some veteran leaders and mixed in his aggressive, innovative approach, and the Commodores played the kind of defense that steered them to their fifth bowl appearance in school history.
He knows his stuff, and just as importantly, his players know that he knows his stuff.
So when he looked them in the eye this spring and told them that last season’s defensive performance wasn’t good enough, they sat straight up and listened … and then took that as their challenge on the practice field.
“I told our guys, ‘What does 18th in the country in total defense get you? Sixth in the SEC,’” Shoop recounted. “That’s where we were. That’s what it gets you, a 2-6 conference record. This is big-boy football. When you look at it in the grand scheme of things, we have a long way to go.”
Not only that, but some of the Commodores’ top playmakers on defense from a year ago have departed. Middle linebacker Chris Marve is gone, and so are cornerback Casey Hayward, safety Sean Richardson and defensive end Tim Fugger.
“This 2012 version of the Vanderbilt defense will be different,” Shoop said. “We’re searching for leadership. We’re still going to be running to the ball as well as anybody in the country, and pressure. We’re a high-pressure defense. But some new playmakers are going to have to emerge.”
The good thing is that Shoop likes what he saw this spring. Up front, Walker May and Rob Lohr are both poised for big seasons, and Chase Garnham made a nice transition to middle linebacker after playing on the outside last season. Trey Wilson has a chance to be that next premier Vanderbilt cornerback, and Shoop thought safety Javon Marshall was one of the more underrated players in the SEC last season. Lohr and Marshall missed the spring while recovering from injuries.
Shoop thinks some of the incoming freshmen will have to help, particularly in the defensive line. The Commodores played 10 guys up front last season, and there wasn’t a guy on the defensive line who played more than 45 snaps a game.
Freshman linebacker Darreon Herring enrolled early and went through spring practice, which is a rarity at Vanderbilt. Shoop also thinks incoming freshman linebacker Jake Sealand can help this fall.
Vanderbilt had 29 takeaways last season, which was fourth in the SEC. It also scored five defensive touchdowns. Shoop said it’s imperative that the unit is equally opportunistic in 2012.
“Takeaways are the great equalizer,” Shoop said. “They can turn a bad defense into a good one, a good one into a great one, and a great one into a championship defense.”
While some of the faces will be different, Wilson said the way the Commodores play defense next season will be exactly the same.
“We can’t be focused on making mistakes,” said Wilson, who had three interceptions last season. “If you’re going to do it, do it full speed. The worst mistake you can make on a football field is slowing down and letting a play happen.
“We have a lot of guys who played last year, so it’s not like they’re new guys.”
He’s not celebrating, either.
It took him all of one season to steer Vanderbilt to only its fifth bowl appearance in school history, and that was on the heels of back-to-back 2-10 seasons.
And since his arrival in Nashville in December of 2010, he hasn’t been shy when it comes to stirring the pot, or perhaps better stated from the Vanderbilt side of things, making sure the days of treating the Commodores as a second-class citizen in the SEC were never coming back … ever.
Those were Franklin’s words last October after he and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham went nose-to-nose on the field following the Bulldogs’ hard-fought 33-28 victory over the Commodores.
Both coaches felt like they were sticking up for their players.
In Franklin’s mind, it was about time somebody stuck up for the Commodores -- period.
“Everything I do is calculated, but that’s also who I am. I’m a fighter,” Franklin said. “You’re talking about a blue-collar guy who’s worked his way up the ladder for everything he’s got. I understand that respect and all those things are earned. I do. But what I noticed right when I got here, and I don’t think people meant it, was that people talked down to us.
“It was almost as if, ‘This is where you’re supposed to be. You’ve always been there. How dare you try to improve your place? This is where you’re supposed to be?’ I think people were used to being able to put Vanderbilt in the “W” column before the season started, and how dare we try to fight back?”
Franklin was fighting back the moment he took what many consider to be one of the hardest jobs in all of college football. He still bristles when he hears about the supposed ceiling on Vanderbilt football and is so focused on making Vanderbilt a destination stop for top recruits that he frowns on his players even mentioning that they grew up a fan of somebody other than the Commodores.
“Between what we’ve done on the field and what we’ve done in recruiting, our pool has changed,” said Franklin, who signed the highest-rated class in Vanderbilt history this past February.
“The first year we got here, there were only certain kids willing to listen to us. Then after this first season and what we did on the field, there were a lot more kids interested. Now, it’s on a whole different level.
“We’ve taken steps, but we still have a long ways to go.”
Franklin is hell-bent to get there, and he doesn’t mind stepping on a few toes along the way.
Franklin also has a renewed commitment, really an unprecedented commitment, from the Vanderbilt administration to make football a priority at one of America’s most prestigious universities.
Already, renovations are underway at the McGugin Center that will include a new locker room, team meeting rooms and a 140-seat theatre-style classroom. Vanderbilt Stadium is also being spruced up and will get new playing turf as well as a JumboTron.
And by 2014, a new indoor practice facility will be in place on campus.
Franklin had all of these improvements written into his new contract, which was announced last December.
And speaking of commitment, Franklin’s new deal, according to sources, is paying him right around $2.5 million per year.
So the head football coach at Vanderbilt is making more than the head football coach at Tennessee. Derek Dooley is set to earn just over $2 million in 2012.
“The important thing is that the commitment is in place here, and everybody is on board,” Franklin said.
There’s also an energy and a charisma surrounding the program that Franklin has worked tirelessly to create. The Vanderbilt players say they feed off Franklin’s intensity and the way he’s gone to bat for them.
“Any man who will fight for you like that, you’re going to give your all to have his back, especially when he’s willing to put himself in the crosshairs for the team,” senior cornerback Trey Wilson said. “We can look to that and say, ‘That’s somebody I can go out there and give my all for.’”
Don’t expect much to change during Franklin’s second tour through the league.
“People might get upset or frustrated or taken aback, but I’m like, ‘We’re just doing what everybody else in this league has been doing for a long time. You just don’t expect it from us,’” Franklin said. “A lot of it’s my personality, but it’s magnified because people aren’t used to that at Vanderbilt.”
They’re also not used to the Commodores taking the SEC’s big boys to the wire, either. Their losses to Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee last season were by a combined 19 points, and the loss to the Vols came in overtime.
“That’s the next step, making sure we finish those games,” Wilson said. “Going to a bowl was just one of our goals, so there’s no complacency. We have the underdog mentality. Nobody wants to give us the respect we feel like we deserve, so we go out there and do whatever we have to do to take it.”
That lack of respect was never more apparent than the Tennessee game last season. Following the Vols’ 27-21 overtime win in Knoxville, a video surfaced of Dooley telling his players while they celebrated in the locker room, “The one thing Tennessee always does is kick the (expletive) out of Vanderbilt.”
At the time, Franklin said it was a wound that he would leave open and wouldn’t heal any time soon.
Well, it’s obvious that it still hasn’t healed, although Franklin warns that placing too much importance on one game in the SEC is foolish.
“There are situations that happen that are personal,” Franklin conceded. “I really don’t want it to be personal, because what happens is that your team and your coaches can sense that this game is more important than another, and the most important game for us is the next game on the schedule.
“Now, do things happen that get your juices flowing and make it a little personal? Yes. We don’t talk about those things a whole lot, but it’s more symbolic that our team understands that we’re not going to let other people define who and what we’re going to be.”
“I don’t know the guy that well. I think he came from William & Mary, but he’s doing a super job,” Spurrier said.
That guy is Bob Shoop, and he did indeed come from William & Mary.
“We want teams to think we’re playing with 13 or 14 guys on defense,” said Vanderbilt junior cornerback Trey Wilson, who has three of the Commodores’ FBS-leading 10 interceptions this season. “You never know where we might come from. We might drop in from the sky.”
One of the reasons Vanderbilt first-year coach James Franklin went and got Shoop from William & Mary was how creative Shoop had been, not to mention how successful he’d been.
Shoop is one of the few guys on Franklin’s staff that he didn’t know that well. But Franklin knew the caliber of ball-hawking defenses Shoop had put on the field in his four seasons at William & Mary when he transformed the Tribe into one of the top-rated defensive clubs in the FCS.
“He had a year where he was a defensive coordinator where they finished No. 1 in almost every single defensive category,” Franklin said. “I don’t care what league you’re in. That’s hard to do.”
Granted, the Commodores have only played one SEC game under Shoop, but the results have been the same as they were during his time at William & Mary.
They lead the SEC with 12 forced turnovers and eight sacks and rank 10th nationally in total defense, allowing 250 yards per game.
In three games, the Commodores have scored as many touchdowns on defense (three) as they’ve given up on defense.
Shoop, a former head coach at Columbia, is the epitome of the analytical type. He earned his economics degree at Yale and loves crunching numbers.
But he said the secret to Vanderbilt’s success on defense thus far doesn’t boil down to scheme. Rather, it’s how hard the Commodores have played, how smart they’ve played and how opportunistic they’ve been.
“I give credit to the players,” Shoop said. “The players have made the plays when the opportunities have presented themselves. When the ball’s in the air, we’ve attacked it really well. We’ve gone up for it and challenged for it.”
In the very first meeting Shoop had with his players this season, he showed them a 20-play highlight tape of defenses returning interceptions for touchdowns. There were clips on there from his William & Mary days. There were also clips on there from past Super Bowls.
“Turnovers are the great equalizer,” Shoop said. “They can turn a mediocre defense into a good one, a good one into a great one and a great one into a championship one. That’s something we’ve preached and emphasized.”
The players love playing in his system, too.
“We come from all over the place,” said sophomore linebacker Chase Garnham, who's tied for third on the team in total tackles with 13. “I’m sure it’s really tough on the offense, all the different angles we come from. It’s very aggressive, unique and creative. I like it a lot.”
Wilson, part of a secondary that rates right up there with any in the SEC, said Shoop is continually pounding home the importance of doing the little things right.
“That’s what separates the championship defenses,” Wilson said.
As impressive as the Commodores have been through three games, Shoop is well aware that the stakes are about to go up.
It starts this week against South Carolina and the Gamecocks’ twosome of Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery.
Shoop joked that it hit him last Thursday night in watching LSU’s 19-6 victory over Mississippi State on television that he no longer gets to just watch the SEC’s collection of premier athletes from afar.
“I’d always watched the SEC on the Thursday night games as a casual observer, but not actually thinking, ‘Holy crap, I’m playing against these guys,’ ” Shoop quipped. “I watched that game and said, ‘Oh my God, I’m right in the thick of this.’
“I watched those guys play and said, ‘This ain’t William & Mary anymore.’ ”
No, it’s not, but it’s also not the same old Vanderbilt.
The Commodores are talented and active in their defensive front, have one of the most productive inside linebackers in the league in Chris Marve and a secondary that allows Shoops to bring an assortment of pressure. They're also experienced on defense.
The Commodores have a saying on defense before every game.
“We always say three-and-out first series and first-quarter shutout,” Shoop said. “Through three games, that’s where we are. We’re on schedule. We’re not ahead, not behind, but we’re right on schedule.
“Now, we get the meat of the schedule, and we’ve got to get going. All we’ve done is get that first-quarter shutout, and we have to continue to go from there.”
Who’s ready for a little Hot and Not?:
Florida running back Chris Rainey: About the only thing the guy hasn’t done this season is sweep out the stadium after games. He lit up Tennessee for 233 all-purpose yards, including an 83-yard touchdown catch, and blocked his second punt of the season to lead to a Florida field goal. Rainey became the first Florida player since Percy Harvin in 2007 to rush for more than 100 yards and have more than 100 receiving yards in the same game. Only one other player (Georgia Tech’s Orwin Smith) has done it this season. Rainey brought a lot of negative attention on himself last year with the whole text message incident involving his former girlfriend. A much different kind of attention has come his way this year. Through three games, he’s been one of the best all-around players in college football with two rushing touchdowns, two receiving touchdowns, one punt return for a touchdown and two blocked punts. He’s second in the SEC in all-purpose yards, averaging 187.7 yards per game, and is an absolute blur when he gets into the open field.
Vanderbilt’s defense: The Commodores have scored as many touchdowns on defense as they’ve given up through three games. They have three interception returns for touchdowns, including two by Trey Wilson, and have only given up three touchdowns on defense. Vanderbilt leads the country with 10 interceptions and is tied for second nationally with 12 forced turnovers.
Auburn’s defense: The only three teams ranked lower than Auburn right now in total defense are Memphis, Kansas and North Texas. That’s not the kind of company you want to be keeping on defense when you’re playing in the SEC. Auburn is ranked 117th nationally and has allowed a staggering 1,603 yards in three games. The stats are ugly. But the way this team is tackling right now is even uglier.
Expansion talk: The college football landscape is about to change forever. With Syracuse and Pittsburgh joining the ACC and Oklahoma and Texas talking about a move to the Pac-12, we’re moving ever so closer to four super-conferences. With Texas A&M coming over to the SEC, it looks like it will be either West Virginia or Missouri as the 14th member.
Tennessee’s running game: The Vols pounded out minus-9 yards rushing in their 33-23 loss to Florida. They had 14 runs by the tailbacks that netted a grand total of 27 yards and now find themselves ranked 105th nationally in rushing offense. Tennessee’s running backs need to be more productive, for sure. But that young offensive line we’ve been hearing so much about, the one that’s supposedly oozing with talent, needs to start playing that way.
South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore: Without him, South Carolina’s probably 1-2 right now. Lattimore leads the country in rushing, averaging 178 yards per game. He already has 534 yards in three games and is an absolute beast running the football. For those wondering, the single-season SEC rushing record is 1,891 yards, which was set 30 years ago by the great Herschel Walker.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen: Despite the two losses, Mullen is still a very good coach, but a coach who didn’t have his best day last Thursday in the 19-6 loss to LSU. Mississippi State fans aren’t real thrilled with the fact that he benched his starting quarterback with more than 10 minutes to play and didn’t use any timeouts on the final drive. There’s also the matter of Mullen’s 2-10 record against Western Division foes.
LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan: LSU’s defense racked up 16 tackles for loss in the 19-6 win over Mississippi State, and Logan had 3.5 of them. The Tigers run talented defensive linemen in and out of the game at a dizzying pace, and Logan was one of the many that the Bulldogs couldn’t block last Thursday.
Kentucky’s offensive line: The Wildcats managed just 35 rushing yards in their 24-17 loss to Louisville, and quarterback Morgan Newton was sacked six times. This is not the offensive line everyone was expecting at Kentucky this season. Injuries have played a role, but the Wildcats have managed just three rushing touchdowns in their first three games and have already given up 12 sacks. They allowed just 19 sacks in all 13 games a year ago.
Ole Miss: To be fair, the Rebels’ defense has not played that poorly, and it’s certainly been an upgrade from last season. But when you lose 30-7 to Vanderbilt – the Commodores’ most lopsided victory over an SEC team in 40 years – it’s a team thing. It’s not just one phase, one group of players or one coach. It’s everybody, and the simple fact is that Ole Miss is reeling right now. The offense, in particular the offensive line, has been a huge disappointment. The Rebels haven’t been able to run the ball, and quarterback Zack Stoudt had Vanderbilt defenders in his face for much of the game last Saturday. It all added up to five interceptions and just 85 yards rushing. The defense doesn’t get a pass, either, not when you give up 281 rushing yards to a Vanderbilt team that hadn’t rushed for that many yards against an SEC defense in 17 years. Already, the season is teetering. The Rebels desperately need to win at least one of these next two against Georgia or Fresno State. If they don’t, that open week that follows will seem more like a year than a week in Oxford.
After an unproductive first quarter of "action" Vanderbilt broke the scoring drought in the second quarter when quarterback Larry Smith found a hole in Ole Miss' defense, cut to the right on a draw and sprinted into the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown.
But things didn't stop there. Almost exactly a minute later, Vandy's Trey Wilson intercepted Zack Stoudt's pass and returned it 52 yards for the score, making it 14-0. That makes two interceptions for Stoudt in the game and three defensive touchdowns for the Commodores in the past three games.
With the second quarter dying down, both teams had combined for 215 yards and three turnovers. Yuck.
One bright spot for the Rebels, who have just 104 of those yards, is that running back Brandon Bolden is back in the lineup after suffering a fracture in his ankle in the season opener against BYU. He currently has 27 yards on five carries and one catch for 14 yards.
Alabama coach Nick Saban would like to see more of his second-team players playing at a higher level, but he was pleased with his first units in last Saturday's scrimmage. In particular, he said the quarterbacks threw the deep ball well, and the Crimson Tide made more explosive plays down the field than they did the week before. Don't be surprised if senior receiver Marquis Maze emerges this season as one of the top big-play threats in the league. Saban continues to say that both quarterbacks, AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims, are going to play, although Alabama is not releasing any quarterback statistics from the closed scrimmages. The Crimson Tide are still searching for their best combination in the offensive line. True freshman Cyrus Kouandjio has been everything Alabama thought he was and is making a legitimate run at the starting left tackle job. It's also been a very good preseason camp for sophomore offensive guard Anthony Steen.
The Tigers' scrimmage last Saturday focused more on the younger players, so true freshman Kiehl Frazier took the snaps at quarterback. One of the stars of the scrimmage was true freshman receiver Quan Bray. He's not the only first-year playmaker who's made a name for himself this preseason. It's also been a big camp for true freshman running back Tre Mason. Two other true freshmen expected to contribute right away are center Reese Dismukes and safety Erique Florence. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said after the scrimmage that it was the toughest decision he's had in picking a starting quarterback. Junior Barrett Trotter helped separate himself with his mental and physical toughness, according to Malzahn. Freshman receiver Sammie Coates will have foot surgery this week.
Back from a groin injury, true freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell was impressive last Saturday during the scrimmage part of the Bulldogs' practice. Coach Mark Richt told reporters that Crowell had a "couple of great runs" and also had a "great run after the catch" for a touchdown. It was the first time Crowell had gone full speed since injuring his groin on Aug. 12. True freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell sat out Saturday with a pulled leg muscle, but is making a strong bid to be one of the Bulldogs' top three receivers. One of the surprises this preseason for Georgia has been that junior college newcomer John Jenkins hasn't been able to overtake Kwame Geathers at nose guard. Jenkins sat out Saturday after pulling his hamstring Friday in practice.
Coach Joker Phillips liked the aggressiveness of his defense in last Saturday's scrimmage. He said the Wildcats are running to the ball and attacking from different angles. One of first-year defensive coordinator Rick Minter's priorities was to create more turnovers. The first-team defense gave up a couple of big plays early in the scrimmage, but settled down after that, Phillips said. Quarterback Morgan Newton continues to play with confidence this preseason, and Phillips really likes Newton's command of the offense right now. The Wildcats are still trying to settle on their starting receivers, although Phillips felt like they caught the ball as a team better on Saturday.
The Rebels' first-team defense was missing some key players nursing injuries in last Saturday's scrimmage, including linebacker Joel Kight and safety Damien Jackson, but defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix was still pleased with some of the turnovers they were able to create. Wesley Pendleton and Tanner Burns both had interceptions, and true freshman linebacker C.J. Johnson had another big scrimmage. There's still no word on Ole Miss' starting quarterback, and coach Houston Nutt is content to let the competition play out. Randall Mackey started out with the first team and was intercepted by Pendleton on his first play, but came back later in the scrimmage and threw a 53-yard pass to Donte Moncrief.
Coach Steve Spurrier was anything but pleased with his offense following last Saturday's scrimmage. But the defense? That was a different story. "The defense took charge," said Spurrier, noting that the offense had trouble making a first down when they put the ball on the 30. Quarterback Stephen Garcia struggled through a 3-for-11 day passing and was also intercepted once. Backup quarterback Connor Shaw, who played extremely well in the last scrimmage, didn't participate in this scrimmage after injuring his thumb. He hopes to return this week. The Gamecocks held out star running back Marcus Lattimore and star receiver Alshon Jeffery from the full-field part of the scrimmage. Once again, freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney made his presence felt. This should be the Gamecocks' best defensive line in a long time.
The offense and defense differed as to who won last Saturday's scrimmage, but coach Derek Dooley felt like there was improvement across the board. The first-team offense put together a pair of drives that were at least 10 plays. Quarterback Tyler Bray had his most efficient performance of the preseason scrimmages, going 10-for-20 for 144 yards and a 5-yard touchdown pass to true freshman Vincent Dallas. Dooley feels like the Vols will be better equipped to run the football this season. True freshman Marlin Lane's speed has helped. Defensively, true freshman outside linebacker Curt Maggitt has been one of the stories of preseason camp. He had four tackles in Saturday's scrimmage.
The defense forced five turnovers, and it was an overall sloppy performance by the Commodores' passing game in last Saturday night's scrimmage. Dropped passes plagued Vanderbilt on offense. It wasn't a live scrimmage, and the whistle blew when defenders touched the offensive player. Still, coach James Franklin was pleased with his defense's performance. Cornerback Trey Wilson intercepted a Larry Smith pass and returned it 35 yards. Backup quarterback Jordan Rodgers was intercepted on back-to-back passes. The offense managed just two touchdowns in the 99-play scrimmage. The Commodores are still looking for somebody other than Jordan Matthews at the receiver position to emerge as a consistent playmaker.