SEC: Kenny Ladler

Most important game: Vanderbilt

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
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We're kicking off a new series today looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. We start in reverse alphabetical order with Vanderbilt.

Most important game: Sept. 6 vs. Ole Miss

Key players: The biggest change at Vanderbilt is at head coach where former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason was brought in after James Franklin bolted for Penn State. With the departure of senior starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, the Commodores will also be breaking in a new signal-caller. Sophomore Patton Robinette started three games last season, including the BBVA Compass Bowl. Stephen Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers, transferred from LSU in the offseason and is immediately eligible to compete for the job. Vanderbilt junior running back Jerron Seymour made eight starts in 2013 and tied Zac Stacy's school record with 14 rushing touchdowns. The Commodores have a large hole to fill at receiver where they graduated Jordan Matthews, the SEC's all-time leading receiver with 262 receptions. Mason has a lot of work to do with Vandy's defense, especially after losing Andre Hal, Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall -- three of the team's top-four tacklers -- from the secondary. The strength of Mason's defense, as it moves from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base, will be the linebackers. Darreon Herring (84 tackles), Jake Sealand (45 tackles) return in the middle, while Kyle Woestmann (six sacks) and Caleb Azubike (four sacks) move from defensive end to outside linebacker.

Why it matters: The second game of the season won't have postseason implications for either team, but it means everything in terms of Mason's first impression in the SEC. Taking over for the best coach in a school's history isn't easy. After three bowl games in a row and back-to-back 9-4 seasons, the bar is now set high at Vanderbilt. Mason will be looking to prove he can continue Franklin's success without much of a transition. His players, meanwhile, should have even bigger chips on their shoulders. They want the SEC to know their recent run wasn't all about Franklin. They'll also be looking for some revenge against Ole Miss for a season-opening 39-35 loss last year. Vanderbilt-Ole Miss isn't one of the SEC's highest profile rivalries, but it is one of the oldest. This will be the second time in two years that these two teams meet in Nashville, Tennessee. The Commodores played host to the Rebels in a highly entertaining back-and-forth game last season. There were four lead changes, culminating with a 75-yard touchdown run by Mississippi RB Jeff Scott with just over a minute left in the game. The loss didn't dampen Vandy's enthusiasm much, though, as the Commodores went on to beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. They'll need the same kind of mental resolve to make Mason's debut in 2014 a success.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Jim Harbaugh was in search of a defensive backs coach in 2010, he wanted someone who preferred a 3-4 defense. Stanford was making the transition to that scheme at the time. Harbaugh had already hired longtime NFL assistant coach Vic Fangio to run the defense, and he wanted like-minded assistants.

Enter Derek Mason. The up-and-coming coach had spent the last three years in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, and though they ran a 4-3, Mason knew his way around a 3-4 defense dating to his early days at Bucknell University.

“I think it's a different mentality,” Mason said. “I think it's a difference of philosophy in terms of what we look to do. Obviously when you go from a four-man front to conceivably what's a five-man front, there's a different mentality in terms of how you attack the line of scrimmage and what you're looking to do with your structure.”

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyFour years of success running Stanford's D has Derek Mason looking to do more as the head coach at Vanderbilt.
After Harbaugh left for the NFL, Mason was promoted to co-defensive coordinator at Stanford and put his own stamp on the Cardinal’s defense. Now, four years later, he’s bringing that defense with him to Vanderbilt, except that this time he’s in Harbaugh’s shoes. For the first time in his career, he’s the head coach.

Like his old boss, Mason went out and hired defensive coaches who share the same philosophy. And who better to serve as his defensive coordinator than David Kotulski, the inside linebackers coach at Stanford and the man who introduced the 3-4 defense to Mason when the two were together at Bucknell 15 years ago?

Bucknell was Kotulski’s second defensive coordinator job. Vanderbilt will be his sixth.

“We're very excited about the young men that we have,” Kotulski said. “Is there a transition point? Yes. And we put a lot of stuff in, no question about it. At this point in time, we just have to keep on playing faster as a unit, and it will come as we keep on getting better.”

Changing defenses is never easy, but Mason knows what to expect as this Vanderbilt defense goes through the same transition.

Defensive linemen who are used to being on the edges are now being asked to take on blocks in order to free up linebackers. Defensive ends who have always played with their hand in the dirt are being asked to drop back and play in space.

“I think it's a three-phrase approach,” Mason said. “I think it goes from spring into summer and then back to fall. What happens is right now they're learning it for the first time. When you come back in fall camp, they will now have heard it for the third time, and I think hearing it for the third time, that's when it starts to go.

“I really believe that where we're at right now is just the first phase of it. We'll be fine.”

Veterans Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann are among those in unfamiliar territory this spring.

As defensive ends a year ago, Azubike shared the team lead in tackles for loss (9.5), and Woestmann finished with a team-high six sacks. In the new defense, they’re both moving to outside linebacker, where they will play standing up for the first time.

“We're learning a new scheme, obviously,” Azubike said. “But playing with this new coaching staff has made the process much easier because they understand the fundamentals needed. They don't rush you. They try to make sure you know exactly what to do in every single aspect of the game. With their help, there's very little we couldn't do.”

“The new staff is incredible,” Woestmann added. “These coaches are great X’s and O’s coaches. “They show us how the fits work and all the moving pieces that you draw up on the whiteboard. They do a great job really teaching us how to play football.”

As the Commodores adjust to the new defense, they’re doing so essentially without eight starters from a year ago, including two potential NFL players in cornerback Andre Hal and safety Kenny Ladler. It’s a unit that has talent, but is lean on experience. The goal is to develop leadership and game experience, but that will come with time.

“It's not a goal of winning championships right now,” Kotulski said. “It's about getting better each time. Now, bottom line, that's what we're talking about. We didn't come here to play for second. You play hard. You play fast. You have fun playing it. You compete and when you put all those pieces together, good things happen.

“Hopefully, we'll play a lot of important games as the years go on.”

Season report card: Vanderbilt

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
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Vanderbilt is the last of the 14 SEC teams to get its report card for the 2013 season, and once again, the Commodores received some high marks.

OFFENSE: C+

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsWide receiver Jordan Matthews was Vandy's offensive MVP after recording 112 catches for 1,477 yards and seven TDs in 2013.
For the second straight season, the Commodores averaged 30 or more points per game (30.1), although their running game dropped off to last in the league. Against SEC competition, Vanderbilt averaged just 115.4 yards per game on the ground. Give the Commodores credit, though, for taking a great player and riding him. Senior receiver Jordan Matthews made one key play after another, and Vanderbilt wasn't shy about feeding him the ball. Matthews concluded a record-breaking career by leading the SEC with 112 catches and 1,477 receiving yards. He was easily the most valuable player on offense, but senior left tackle Wesley Johnson at least deserves to be in the conversation. Senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels also showed a lot of courage by playing on a torn ACL in the last few regular-season games, and redshirt freshman Patton Robinette filled in capably in the couple games Carta-Samuels missed and in the bowl game after Carta-Samuels underwent surgery.

DEFENSE: B

There were some rough spots early, but Vanderbilt finished in the Top 25 nationally in total defense for the third straight season. The only other four SEC schools to do that were Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina. The Commodores gave up 35 or more points in all four of their SEC losses, including 50-plus to both Missouri and Texas A&M, but settled down and played their best football on defense down the stretch. The secondary was once again outstanding. Safety Kenny Ladler led the team with 91 tackles and also had five interceptions and five forced fumbles. Cornerback Andre Hal was one of the best cover guys in the league and led the SEC with 18 passes defended. Even though the Commodores weren't dominant on defense, they were opportunistic. Their 30 forced turnovers tied for second in the league, and they also finished in the top five in third-down defense. All in all, another solid job by Bob Shoop and his staff.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

The Commodores' return units weren't especially prolific, ranking 11th in punt return average and 13th in kickoff returns in the SEC. On the bright side, the Commodores were fifth in the league in net punting (39.1 yards), and senior placekicker Carey Spear was his usual dependable self. He made 15 of 19 field-goal attempts and was never shy about sticking his head in there on kickoff coverage, either. Adam Butler had two blocked kicks.

OVERALL: B+

If you just looked at the Commodores' numbers this season, they weren't overly impressive. But it's a team that found ways to win, which is a credit to James Franklin and his staff, not to mention the leadership on the team. It's true that Vanderbilt didn't beat up on a lot of teams that finished the season with winning records. But to win nine games for the second consecutive year -- something that had never previously been done at Vanderbilt -- speaks for itself. The Commodores won at Florida, beat Georgia and also went to Knoxville and won, their second straight win over the Vols. Losing Franklin to Penn State was a downer, for sure. He took the Commodores to unprecedented heights and brought a much-needed edge to the program. Given his success, it was inevitable that he was going to bolt for a bigger job, and he did when the Nittany Lions came calling. Nonetheless, he engineered the kind of run that we might not see for a long time again at Vanderbilt, which had enjoyed just one winning season in the 28 years prior to Franklin arriving on campus.

The SEC's 25 best players: No. 24

January, 20, 2014
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Vanderbilt has been a breeding ground the last few years for outstanding defensive backs, and this next guy was one of the top safeties in the league.

No. 24: Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt, Sr.

2013 summary: Ladler finished second among SEC defensive backs with 91 total tackles. He also tied for second in the league with five interceptions, and his five forced fumbles tied for second nationally. Ladler was a first-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press and a second-team All-SEC selection by the coaches.

Most recent ranking: Not ranked in the 2013 preseason countdown.

Making the case for Ladler: A starter in the Commodores' secondary since his freshman season, Ladler blossomed this season into one of the more well-rounded safeties in college football. He'd always been a sure tackler, but improved tremendously as a pass defender this season. In fact, Ladler was the only player in the country (in the FBS ranks) with at least five interceptions and five forced fumbles. He developed a knack for stripping the ball and raking it loose. During a three-game stretch against Missouri, Georgia and Texas A&M, Ladler forced at least one fumble in each game. And then starting with the Texas A&M game, he had interceptions in four straight games. His consistency was what set him apart and was a big reason the Commodores finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense for the third straight season. Ladler owns the distinction of being the first Vanderbilt defensive back in history to lead the team in total and solo tackles for two seasons.

The rundown

No. 25: E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri, Sr.

Season wrap: Vanderbilt

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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For all the history Vanderbilt made this season (again), it's a season that probably will be best remembered for what the Commodores lost. Third-year coach James Franklin, after elevating the program to unprecedented heights, left to become the Penn State head coach.

The Commodores won nine games for the second consecutive year, the first time that has happened in the 124-year history of the program, and also finished in the Top 25 of the final polls for the second year in the row -- yet another first for the program. Keep in mind that until 2012, the Commodores hadn’t won nine games in a season since 1915.

It easily could have been 10 victories, too, if not for a 75-yard touchdown run by Ole Miss’ Jeff Scott with 1:07 to play in the season opener.

The Commodores persevered in 2013 despite a season-ending knee injury to starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, and they again played championship-caliber defense. They were No. 23 nationally in total defense, the third consecutive season in which they finished among the nation’s top 25 defenses. The only other SEC defenses that can make that claim are Alabama, Florida and South Carolina.

Offensive MVP: Jordan Matthews will go down as one of the best and most productive receivers to ever play in the SEC. The record-breaking senior led the league in receptions (112) and receiving yards (1,477). He also was a leader in the locker room and set the tone every day on the practice field. Even though opposing defenses shadowed Matthews and did their best to take him away, he still delivered one big play after another for the Commodores.

Defensive MVP: Bob Shoop's defense the past three seasons was a huge factor in the Commodores' climb into the upper echelon of the SEC. In particular, the secondary was consistently outstanding, and senior safety Kenny Ladler did a little bit of everything this season. He led the team with 91 tackles, intercepted five passes and forced an SEC-best five fumbles. When the Commodores needed a play to be made this season on defense, Ladler was there to make it for them.

Best moment: Take your pick. Sweeping Florida and Georgia in the same season ranks right up there. But nothing trumps beating rival Tennessee for the second consecutive year, especially doing it in Neyland Stadium. Backup quarterback Patton Robinette's fake jump pass and 5-yard touchdown run with 16 seconds left won it for the Commodores, who last won two in a row over the Vols back in the 1920s, when they won six straight in the series.

Worst moment: Blowing the late lead against Ole Miss in the opener was a kick in the gut for the Commodores, not to mention being pillaged at home 51-28 by Missouri in the first week of October. But the real downer came off the field, when Franklin bolted for Penn State.
The loss of James Franklin is really going to sting for Vanderbilt. There's just no way to get around it, but all should not be lost for those that make up a more-energized Commodores fan base.

While it will be very hard for Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams to replace the charisma, fire and work ethic that Franklin displayed every day he was on the job, the program is light-years ahead of where it was before Franklin's arrival in 2010, which should help make this a more attractive job for top-notch coaching candidates.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Zumapress/Icon SMICoach James Franklin, who is now Penn State's new coach, has left a solid foundation at Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt was the perennial cellar-dweller of the SEC before Franklin came along. Now, there's swagger after three consecutive bowl berths (two straight wins) and back-to-back nine-win seasons (all firsts for the Commodores). The facilities have vastly upgraded and they'll only continue to get better because of what Franklin did -- and demanded. A new coach might not have the attitude and salesmanship of Franklin, but he'll have a good base to work with in Nashville, Tenn.

When Vanderbilt hired Franklin more than three years ago, the program had won just four games total in the previous two seasons and had always been traditionally looked down upon. Making a bowl would have been a major accomplishment for Franklin and the program, but he went far beyond that. Because of his triumphs with the Commodores, it will be much easier for this program to attract a decent name from the coaching ranks.

The Commodores could certainly look in-house, at defensive coordinator Bob Shoop or offensive-line coach Herb Hand, but if Williams decides to search elsewhere, he shouldn't have much of a problem luring solid candidates. Expect well-known up-and-coming coordinators to hear their names attached to this opening. Vandy might never be a true SEC championship contender, but it's now a job that you can't laugh at. There's moxie and confidence swirling throughout that locker room and program.

There's also a new breed of talent. Studs such as Jordan Matthews, Wesley Johnson, Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler might be gone, but there's a solid group of youngsters still in town. Keep an eye on running backs Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. Defensive end Caleb Azubike appears to have a bright future ahead of him, as do cornerbacks Paris Head and Jahmel McIntosh.

Getting Vandy to stay competitive means the Commodores' next head coach has to be able to build immediately. Even with a solid foundation, he has to be able to hit the same recruiting spots in the Southeast, especially the Atlanta area, with the same tenacity Franklin showed. He has to be able to keep the same level of confidence in that locker room and he has to invigorate a fan base that took a bit of an emotional hit with the loss of Franklin in order to keep this program relevant.

What Franklin did in Nashville was tremendous. Even after taking Vandy bowling in his first season, there was still plenty of skepticism. But the next year he did it again, this time winning a bowl, and equaled that accomplishment in 2013.

Really, keeping Franklin this long was a major win for Vandy, and now he leaves this program in much better shape than how he found it. He showed that there's a recipe for winning at Vandy -- but it isn't easy, and he's leaving some monster shoes to fill. The expectations are much higher at Vandy and it's going to take a special person to keep this momentum going.

Institutions with strong academic traditions have proven of late that winning is in fact an option. Vandy beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever in 2013 and hasn't lost a game in November since 2011. This team had a ton of momentum going into the offseason with Franklin as the coach, but now it's someone else's turn to keep that fire burning. With what Franklin has taught these guys, they'll be able to find it, and you had better believe they'll be motivated to show they can win without him.

BBVA Compass Bowl preview

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4
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Vanderbilt is looking to win back-to-back bowl games for the first time, while Houston wants to show that its high-powered offense can send another SEC defense reeling in the postseason.

The Commodores (8-4) and Cougars (8-4) meet in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. Here's a quick preview:

Who to watch: Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews. The SEC's all-time leader in receptions and yards steps back into his home state to take on a pass defense that is allowing 276 passing yards per game (ranked 116th in the nation). Matthews was one of the SEC's best receivers this season, catching a league-high 107 passes for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns. He's averaging almost nine catches and 111.2 yards per game.

Matthews had eight 100-yard receiving games this season and has caught double-digit receptions in three consecutive games. But it will be interesting to see if he sniffs the end zone -- Houston has given up just 12 touchdown passes and has 23 interceptions.

What to watch: Both secondaries. Houston has given up a lot of yards through the air, but one thing that could work in the Cougars' favor is the fact that Vanderbilt starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels is out (knee surgery). That means backup Patton Robinette will have to lead this offense. Robinette has passed for 488 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions this season. If the Cougars can harass him and keep Matthews in check, Vandy will have a long day.

On the other side, Vandy's secondary has been solid all season, allowing just 204 passing yards a game. Leaders Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler had solid seasons, defending 21 passes and snagging seven interceptions. Houston freshman quarterback John O'Korn has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns, while receiver Deontay Greenberry has 76 receptions for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Why to watch: The Commodores have been a feel-good story since James Franklin took over as coach three years ago, and this is the last time we'll see Matthews play in a Vandy uniform. He's had a truly special career with the Commodores, and it was only elevated with the arrival of Franklin. Plus, the Commodores have a chip on their shoulders after getting passed by Mississippi State in the bowl pecking order.

With Houston, it's a chance to see a team possibly on the rise behind a pretty fun offense that could give the Commodores fits. Behind a young quarterback and young playmakers such as Greenberry and running back Ryan Jackson, the future could be very bright for the Cougars.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 23, Houston 21. Two fun offenses take the field in Birmingham, but Vandy will be without its starting quarterback. This is a big stage for Robinette, but having Matthews next to him to make plays should take the pressure off him.

2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
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We still have the bowls to play, but we've gone ahead and selected our 2013 All-SEC team at ESPN.com.

Some of the selections were no-brainers. Others were agonizingly difficult to make. We placed a heavy emphasis on performance in big games, consistency and how a player impacted his team both on and off the field. Durability and being in the lineup the entire season was also a factor. In other words, if a player missed three or four games, we took that into account. And when it was close everywhere else, we looked at SEC-only statistics as the tiebreaker.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
AP: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia
OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
OL: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OL: Greg Robinson, Auburn
C: Travis Swanson, Arkansas

DEFENSE

DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn
DL: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
DL: Michael Sam, Missouri
LB: Ramik Wilson, Georgia
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
LB: Lamin Barrow, LSU
DB: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
DB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri
DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Michael Palardy, Tennessee
KR: Solomon Patton, Florida
PR: Chris Davis, Auburn

Loss to Vanderbilt turns up heat on UF

November, 9, 2013
11/09/13
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ron Zook called it "noise in the system" when negativity swirled around his third and final season at Florida. But Zook never lost to Vanderbilt, much less by blowout in the homecoming game.

That would be Will Muschamp's Gators, who lost their fourth consecutive game, an emotionally draining 34-17 loss served up on a platter for Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-4 in the SEC) on Saturday. It was the Commodores' first victory in Gainesville since a 7-0 victory in 1945, the first game of the series.

"You're not going to win many games turning it over four times and spotting the ball on the 10, 22 and 4," a dejected Muschamp said after the loss that dropped the Gators (4-5, 3-4) below .500 during the season for the first time since 1992.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWill Muschamp and the Gators lost their fourth game in a row, and their first to Vanderbilt at home since 1945.
"We're not good enough to overcome critical mistakes like that. You hold a team under 200 yards. ... Emotionally, it takes the wind out of your sails when you turn the ball over. You throw it to them, you give it to them inside the 10-yard line three times, you're not going to win. We're not good enough to overcome those things. We've got to take care of the ball."

The obvious scapegoat was quarterback Tyler Murphy, who was responsible for all four of Florida's turnovers. He threw three interceptions -- each returned deep into UF territory -- and gave Vanderbilt a sack-fumble just before the first half ended.

"I didn't play well," Murphy said. "I mean, when you throw three interceptions, you put the defense in a bind. You kill your momentum offensively. I've got to play better."

Murphy, who took the reins of the offense after Jeff Driskel was lost for the season in Week 3, is one of many Gators backups who have been thrust into starting positions. Florida has lost nine players for the season to injury, including five starters.

But Muschamp, Murphy and his teammates refuse to use the injuries as an excuse. The Gators and their fans expected even a hobbled team to defeat Vanderbilt.

The Commodores came to Gainesville with the nation's 85th-ranked scoring defense (30.3 points per game). Murphy took advantage with a career-high 305 yards on 30-for-46 passing, but much of that production came with Vandy safely ahead in the second half.

The expected advantage for Florida's defense, which entered the game No. 5 in the nation in total defense, was even more pronounced.

Vanderbilt came to Gainesville as one of the slowest-starting teams in the country. The Commodores were outscored 85-24 in the first quarters of its first eight games. On Saturday, however, the Commodores scampered through openings in a mistake-prone Gators defense, intercepted Murphy deep in UF territory and took a 10-0 lead, setting an ominous tone.

Murphy's second interception was just as damaging. The junior, who has been struggling with a shoulder injury sustained against LSU on Oct. 12, lofted a long pass into the swirling wind and badly underthrew Quinton Dunbar. Vanderbilt safety Kenny Ladler easily corralled the ball at the 50 and set up the Commodores offense at the Florida 22. Four running plays later, the Gators were looking at a 17-0 deficit just over 20 minutes into the game.

After a penalty gave them the ball at their own 9-yard line, the Gators finally showed some life with one of their clock-chewing drives. On the 13th play, freshman running back Kelvin Taylor ran for 10 yards to set up a first-and-goal, but Murphy checked out of a straight-ahead run to a short-side option that he fumbled out of bounds. After two incompletions, UF settled for a field goal amid a shower of boos from the stands.

"It was a miscommunication between me and the line," Murphy said. "That's just once again [where] we shot ourselves in the foot in the red zone. We got a field goal and needed a touchdown.”

Murphy's nightmarish day continued on the third play of the second half. His throw behind Trey Burton was bobbled into the arms of Vanderbilt safety Andrew Williamson, who followed the first-half script and returned the ball 38 yards to Florida's 4-yard line to set up the Vanderbilt offense for another easy touchdown and an insurmountable 24-3 lead.

After voicing their displeasure, the fans left in droves throughout the second half. Afterward, Muschamp took full responsibility for what they had witnessed.

"I’m a competitor. I don’t like losing. I certainly don’t like the product we are putting on the field, and that’s my responsibility. I take full credit for that," he said. "When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s not good, it’s not good, and it hasn’t been good. And that’s on me. We’ll make the decisions to move forward that we need to do to help this football team in the latter part of the season as we move forward. That’s my plan. I’m not asking for anybody to be happy. I’m not asking anybody to give a pass.

"My expectation, I’ll guarantee, is as high or higher than anyone sitting in those stands. There’s nobody more let down or hurt or competitive edge dented a little bit by this run. So it’s on me. We’ll get it turned. I can assure you that."

The players took a less defiant tone and were more stunned at what their season has become.

"Very shocking," Murphy said. "We come here, everyone in that locker room came to Florida to win and we're not winning, and you know that's unacceptable. As players we know it's unacceptable, and we're just going to keep fighting and keep pushing. We're going to try to make the best out of this season."

With the heat rising after every loss, Muschamp said he is not worried about his job and plans to consider staff changes at the end of the season, as he has done before.

"You evaluate everything at the end of the season and that’s certainly what I will do," he said. "I’ve done that my first two years and I’ll do that this year. I'm not worried about that."

Midseason report: Vanderbilt

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
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The momentum Vanderbilt generated coming off the nine-win season a year ago, capped by the bowl victory over North Carolina State, was the kind of thing this program hadn’t seen in ages.
Coach James Franklin obviously believed there was more to do, too, as he was wooed by several other schools in the offseason, but chose to stay in Nashville. Everything seemed to be lining up for the Commodores.

But then the bottom fell out this summer when four freshmen were charged with raping an unconscious female student in a campus dorm room and were subsequently dismissed from the team. A fifth player, receiver Chris Boyd, was also later dismissed after agreeing to a plea deal for his role in helping to cover up the alleged rape.

The sordid case has hovered over Vanderbilt’s program like a dark cloud and has clearly had an impact, although Franklin and the players have gone out of their way not to use it as an excuse.

The season-opening 39-35 loss to Ole Miss was a rough way to start, especially since it looked like the Commodores were going to win it until the Rebels’ Jeff Scott broke free on a 75-yard touchdown run with 1:07 to play.

In a lot of ways, Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3 SEC) never seemed to fully recover. Injuries to linebackers Chase Garnham and Karl Butler have been crippling to a defense that has given up 35 or more points in all three SEC contests.

The schedule doesn’t get much easier from here with games against Georgia, Texas A&M and Florida over the next four weeks. Vanderbilt does hope to get Butler back when Georgia visits this weekend, and that should help.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Commodores were 2-4 at this same point a year ago and rallied to win their last six games of the regular season. This has been a resilient bunch under Franklin, and it’s going to take a similar run, albeit against a much tougher schedule, to match last season’s success.

Offensive MVP: Receiver Jordan Matthews. What else can you say about Matthews that hasn’t already been said? He’s one of the best receivers in college football and on pace to break the SEC record for career receiving yards and career catches. He’s posted five 100-yard receiving games this season despite opposing defenses targeting him every week and leads the league with 47 catches. He’s second in receiving yards with an average of 118.2 yards per game and has caught five touchdown passes.

Defensive MVP: Safety Kenny Ladler. The Commodores have been a breeding ground the last few years for quality defensive backs, and Ladler is next in line. The hard-hitting senior leads the team with 49 total tackles, including 30 solo stops, and also has an interception and forced fumble. Even though Vanderbilt hasn’t played to the same level defensively as it did the last two years, Ladler has been one of the top safeties in the league.


ATHENS, Ga. – If Georgia's situation doesn't seem familiar, it certainly should. After losing its first SEC game of the season on Saturday, Georgia no longer controls its fate in its pursuit of a league title.

No Bulldogs team has gone unbeaten in SEC play – or even in divisional play – since the conference split into divisions in 1992, and yet Georgia has claimed five SEC East titles in Mark Richt's 12-plus seasons as coach, including each of the last two years.

As they prepare for their often-treacherous visit to Nashville to face Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3 SEC), the injury-riddled Bulldogs understand that their BCS championship hopes are all but dead, but they remain among the top contenders in the East -- particularly since they've beaten South Carolina and both Florida and Missouri have injury concerns of their own.

[+] EnlargeShane Ray
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAaron Murray and the Bulldogs had a rough outing against Missouri and now will need help in the SEC East.
“The past two seasons, we've dug ourselves out of a hole and hopefully we'll try to do it again,” senior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “It's not ideal or what you hope for, but I think for us as a team, we know we can control what's in front of us in terms of the games we play. We have Vanderbilt next week in Nashville. That's going to be a tough game.”

Georgia was in an extremely similar position two years ago when it visited Vanderbilt.

The Bulldogs suffered a pair of early losses and arrived in Nashville needing a win that would make the ensuing open date tolerable with a huge game against Florida on the horizon. Georgia's 33-28 win is best remembered for the postgame shouting match between Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and Commodores head coach James Franklin, but it was Georgia punter Drew Butler who made the play of the game when he tackled Kenny Ladler deep in Georgia territory in the game's closing seconds after Udom Umoh blocked a Butler punt.

Georgia claimed a 24-20 win over Florida after the open date and rolled through the rest of the conference schedule, earning the first of two consecutive berths in the SEC championship game and setting up the blueprint for what the Bulldogs now must accomplish in order to return to Atlanta.

“The best thing we can do right now obviously is to get ready to play Vanderbilt and try to get a victory there,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “It's been tough to be able to do that, especially last time we were there. It was quite a game if you remember, and we were very fortunate to get out of there with a win.

“So we've got to just try to take care of that business and then the open date we can probably see how the dust is settling then prior to the Florida game. But the biggest thing we can do to help ourselves is to get ready this week.”

No. 14 Missouri (6-0, 2-0) is in the driver's seat in the East after handing No. 15 Georgia (4-2, 3-1) a 41-26 loss on Saturday, but the win was costly for the Tigers. Quarterback James Franklin took a hard hit from Bulldogs outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and suffered a separated shoulder that could force him to miss the rest of the season.

Freshman quarterback Maty Mauk performed well after replacing Franklin against Georgia, but he now must face No. 22 Florida (4-2, 3-1) and No. 11 South Carolina (5-1, 3-1) over the next two weeks. Florida dropped its first league game on Saturday at LSU, meaning the Gators' next two games -- at Mizzou and against Georgia in Jacksonville -- will have a major say in their fate. And South Carolina still must beat Mizzou and Florida and hope Georgia loses again somewhere along the line.

“It's the SEC. You never know. Missouri could lose, too,” Georgia running back Brendan Douglas said. “You never know what could happen. But Missouri's a great team. I'm not going to say anything about them, but you never know what could happen.”

[+] Enlarge Jordan Matthews
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesJordan Matthews and Vanderbilt enter Saturday's game against Georgia also off a loss to Missouri after a bye.
Richt agreed with that sentiment, noting on his Sunday teleconference that, “It might be who can handle the adversity the best – who can find a way to win, who can fight and scratch and figure out a way. That's probably what it's going to come down to.”

Georgia learned that much over the last few weeks when injuries to tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley, Jonathon Rumph and Michael Bennett and safety Tray Matthews caused the Bulldogs to play most of the last two games without some of their top playmakers.

Although Mitchell, Marshall and Scott-Wesley are out for the year and Bennett is out until at least the Florida game, Richt said Rumph should return to practice on Monday. Gurley and Matthews, he said, also might return for the Vandy game.

Regardless of whether they play, the main goal for Georgia this week is to get out of Nashville with a win that lets the Bulldogs reach their off week, heal from some of the injuries that have been so costly lately, and prepare for the showdown in Jacksonville. The back end of the Bulldogs' conference schedule -- after facing four top-15 teams in the first six games -- is more manageable, but they have to get past Vanderbilt for those games to matter the way they have in the last two seasons.

“We really need to just focus on the task at hand, which right now is Vanderbilt, and take it one game at a time,” Lynch said. “To be 4-2 after the kind of gauntlet we've been through, with four or five ranked teams in six games, is not easy.

“I think that even if from a national standpoint, people have kind of lost hope for us, which is fine in my eyes, no team will have a better resume in terms of strength of schedule than we have through this season, so I think there's some merit in that.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If you're looking for one of the country's more underrated coaches and units, look no further than Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and his defense.

The Commodores ranked 19th nationally in total defense (333.9 yards per game) and fifth in the SEC last year, but not many people are looking to throw compliments up Nashville way. Maybe they should because Shoop, who enters his third season as Vandy's defensive coordinator with eight senior starters, has steadily made his defense better and better.

The talent has mostly remained the same, but Shoop's meticulous commitment to detail and unity has influenced improvement.

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
Sean Meyers/Icon SMIVanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is quietly building another sturdy unit in Nashville.
"That's what our players have embraced: consistency," Shoop said.

That consistency helped the Commodores also rank inside the top five of the SEC in scoring defense (18.7 points per game) and passing defense (191.8 yards per game).

Where Shoop's defenses have really impressed is in the secondary. Teams have averaged less than 200 yards a game against the Commdores for the last two seasons and there's a good chance that trend will continue.

Vandy's secondary is headlined by senior cornerback Andre Hal and senior safety Kenny Ladler, who are two of the best players in the SEC at their respective positions. Hal broke up 14 passes and grabbed two interceptions last year, while Ladler made plays all over the field and led the team with 90 tackles.

Shoop considers Hal a five-tool player with his ability to press in man coverage, play off man, play Cover 2, blitz and support the run. Shoop said Hal doesn't do anything "incredibly excellent," but "he does all the things you ask out of a corner very, very well."

"Andre's a special player.," Shoop said. "He's one of the most under-the-radar players in all of college football. Sometimes he does things that maybe the average fan or person wouldn't see because the ball doesn't get thrown his way."

Shoop also said that watching Ladler develop has been one of the most rewarding parts of his job. When he first arrived, he saw talent and confidence, but Ladler had to expand. He had to find his range, cover tight ends and learn how to make plays off the edge. Now, all of that is second nature.

"Arguably in the spring and [fall] camp, he's been maybe our most consistent player on defense," Shoop said.

Helping those guys out will be safety Javon Marshall, who tied Ladler with 60 solo tackles and should help Vandy have the SEC's best safety duo, and senior Steven Clarke, who played nickel corner last year, but has made tremendous strides opposite Hal.

What really has the staff excited is the depth that emerged along the defensive line and at linebacker this spring. Play up front might even have these guys giddy. There's quite the foundation with ends Walker May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike, but Shoop is really excited about tackles Adam Butler, who could start as a redshirt freshman, Jared Morse, who Shoop thinks eventually could be a 10-year NFL pro, and Vince Taylor, who runs a legitimate 4.9 in the 40-yard dash while carrying 305 pounds.

"We've got eight guys who I think would play for most people in the conference, which I don't think we had that in the past," coach James Franklin said.

"Even just looking at them they look different. You have to be careful because a lot of guys look the part but don't play the part. We got a lot of guys who look like SEC players and are playing like SEC players."

Speaking of different looks, in order to help the defense more, Vandy's offense threw even more at it during fall camp. To combat the uptempo offenses the Dores will see -- starting with Ole Miss in Week 1 -- Vandy's offense gave the defense two different huddles to work with and the most challenging formations to face in rapid fire drills.

That constant movement challenged the defense's composure, condition and depth, which Shoop liked.

"That's what we're aiming for," Shoop said. "We want to see who's going to be mentally tough, who's going to be physically well-conditioned, who's going to communicate and get going. I'm kind of pushing the envelope, trying to see what we can align and execute in those situations.

"Part of the things those uptempo teams aim to do is vanilla you up. We're a fairly high-pressure team so we try to get out of that and get aligned and execute the defense."

Execution hasn't been an issues thus far, and with Shoop leading the way, this unit should continue to frustrate opponents.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
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Just think, the next time you click on the SEC lunchtime links post it will be Monday of the first game week of the college football season. Ready or not, it's that time again.
  • Tennessee lost two defensive ends over the course of the preseason and spent much of the past week or so looking for their replacements. In 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jordan Williams, the Vols may have found their man to start.
  • Damiere Byrd is already the fastest player on the South Carolina roster. Now the speedy wide receiver wants to make the biggest plays in the biggest situations.
  • Matt Elam was a playmaker and an All-American at safety for the Gators last year. Marcus Maye, his replacement, worked with Elam this offseason and has impressed coaches with his work ethic so far. With the season nearly underway, Maye hopes to be the same type of presence on defense as his predecessor.
  • Vanderbilt's seniors Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall have so much familiarity with one another that they rarely need to speak. The Commodores are hoping that experience and comfort level pays off as the two form what could be a stellar safety net for the secondary.
  • It won't be easy, but Missouri's defensive linemen must replace Sheldon Richardson's disruptive presence on the Tigers' defense.
  • Arkansas struggled to defend the pass last year, finishing dead last in the SEC in passing yards allowed. Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines are hoping to change that. The two safeties expect big years.
  • Keihl Frazier surprised many when he dropped out of the quarterback race to start over in the Auburn secondary at safety. That move happened less than two weeks ago. And ready or not, he'll need to be ready to play just over a week from now when the Tigers host Washington State in their season opener.
  • Arie Kouandjio was starting at guard for all spring and most of preseason camp before an abrupt move to tackle last week. Austin Shepherd experienced the same thing, switched from tackle to guard in a position experiment by the Alabama coaching staff. Now, it appears that those experiments are over and the Tide can get to the job of establishing chemistry.
  • The Egg Bowl is months away, but Mississippi State went ahead and released its new snazzy uniform combination for the rivalry game against Ole Miss.
  • D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis are expected to start, but how do the rest of LSU's inside linebackers stack up?
In the SEC, it's all about recruiting and player development. It's the big reason why the league has won seven straight BCS championships and produced more NFL players than any other conference. The two go hand-in-hand.

The Senior Bowl, which released its 2014 Watch List on Tuesday, further illustrated that fact, selecting nearly 20 percent (72) of its 400 candidates from the SEC. The ACC twas nearly lapped with 48 selections, followed by the Big 10 (46) and the Pac-12 (38).

And the team with the most players should come as no surprise as defending-champion Alabama had 10 make the list, including quarterback AJ McCarron and All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri tied for the second-most players taken from the SEC with six apiece.

Alabama: WR Kenny Bell, CB Deion Belue, CB John Fulton, P Cody Mandell, QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, WR Kevin Norwood, RG Anthony Steen, S Nick Perry.

Arkansas: WR Jevontee Herndon, DT Brian Jones, DE Chris Smith, C Travis Swanson, DT Robert Thomas.

Auburn: P Steven Clark, DC Chris Davis, DE Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, FB Jay Prosch, DT Jeffrey Whitaker

Florida: WR Andre Debose, DE Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonatthan Harrison, WR Soloman Patton, DC Jaylen Watkins.

Georgia: OG Chris Burnett, OG Kernarious Gates, TE Arthur Lynch, QB Aaron Murray, OB Garrison Smith.

Kentucky: IB Avery Williamson

LSU: IB Lamin Barrow, RB Alfred Blue, FB JC Copeland, FS Craig Loston, QB Zach Mettenberger

Mississippi State: DE Denico Autry, OG Gabe Jackson, RB LeDarious Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, OB Deontae Skinner, FS Nickoe Whitley

Missouri: OT Justin Britt, QB James Franklin, DC EJ Gaines, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L'Damian Washington, IB Andrew Wilson

Ole Miss: PT Tyler Campbell, IB Mike Marry, DC Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, IB DT Shackleford

South Carolina: DC Jimmy Legree, QB Connor Shaw, DE Chaz Sutton

Tennessee: OT Ju'Wuan James, DT Daniel McCuller, RB Rajon Neal, DE Jacques Smith, C James Stone

Texas A&M: LB Steven Jenkins, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews

Vanderbilt: IB Chase Garnham, DC Andre Hal, OT Wesley Johnson, FS Kenny Ladler, WR Jordan Matthews

Vanderbilt season preview

August, 4, 2013
8/04/13
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Today, we're looking at Vanderbilt, as the Commodores look to build off a historic 2013 season.

Coach: James Franklin (15-11)

2012 record: 9-4 (5-3, SEC)

Key losses: QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OT Ryan Seymour, DT Rob Lohr, LB Archibald Barnes, CB Trey Wilson

[+] EnlargeD. J. Swearinger andJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireVanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews (left) will lead an explosive Commodores offense.
Key returnees: WR Chris Boyd, WR Jordan Matthews, RB Wesley Tate, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, LB Chase Garnham, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler

Newcomer to watch: Wide receiver Jordan Cunningham was rated the No. 13 receiver in the country in the 2013 recruiting class and will have every opportunity to see solid playing time this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 vs. Ole Miss, Sept. 14 at South Carolina, Oct. 19 vs. Georgia, Oct. 26 at Texas A&M, Nov. 9 at Florida and Nov. 23 at Tennessee

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The tight end position is a major concern for the Commodores. Only three tight ends were on campus this spring, and all lacked consistency. The recent dismissal of junior college transfer Brandon Vandenburg was a big blow to the position. Redshirt sophomores Kris Kentera and Steven Scheu are the top guys at the spot, but neither has stepped up to take the position and neither has shown that he's ready to.

Forecast: The Commodores return 17 starters from a team that tied a school record for both single-season wins (nine) and SEC victories (five). Last year's team also scored more points (390) than any Vanderbilt team since 1916, and owned a top-20 defense. The Commodores have every reason to be thinking about competing for more than just another winning record in conference play, but these players are too focused to talk about or think about an SEC championship or even a bowl game.

What they can focus on is having a lot of firepower coming back on offense, including receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, who combined for 2,097 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Matthews could have easily left early for the NFL draft last year, but returns as one of the SEC's best receivers. A new quarterback will be taking snaps, with Austyn Carta-Samuels taking over, but he'll have a strong, deep offensive line that has a handful of players ready to rotate in and out each game.

The defensive line is strong, starting with ends May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike. There's more speed and experience up front than last year. There's also good depth at linebacker, starting with one of the top LBs in the league in Garnham, and quality starters in the secondary. Hal (CB) and Ladler (S) are two of the best players at their positions.

The Commodores have made tremendous strides under Franklin, and this team seems primed to take down one of the big boys in the SEC East. Vandy plays Georgia at home, while games against Florida and South Carolina are on the road. With a harmless nonconference schedule, another eight-win regular season certainly isn't out of the question for the Commodores.

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