Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bowling School: 2007 season forecast

Coach Bobby Johnson has got that
Coach Bobby Johnson has got that "eerie" feeling, too. Photo by

On VandyMania right now there is a good article discussing how “that eerie feeling is back” for Vanderbilt football. With a combination of factors – talent, experience, schedule – this looks like it might be the first time in my lifetime that Vandy wins more games than it loses. Really.

The last time the Vandy bowl buzz was this acute was 2004 – Jay Cutler’s junior year and a schedule which featured Navy, Rutgers, Eastern Kentucky, and Mississippi State.

And who knows – if Freshman All-American Greg Johnson hadn't transferred we could easily have won four more games that season (you may remember losses to Ole Miss, Navy, and Rutgers by three; plus a one point loss to Kentucky after leading 14-0 at the end of the 3rd quarter that convinced guys like Matt Tant to leave).

But we didn’t have a kicker, we didn’t finish games, and we won twice.

So here we are again – dynamic junior quarterback, soft schedule, and hope on West End.

Much has changed in the last few years. For one thing, the team has experience finishing games with wins at Wake Forest, at Arkansas, at Tennessee, and at Georgia to boast about. The talent level is up, the depth is up, the confidence is up, and the coaching staff has shown itself willing to adapt.

To me, Vanderbilt has pulled itself out of the gutter and into the middle class of the SEC (see my post to that effect below). There are some clear wins on the schedule, some clear losses, and it’s those all important ‘swing’ games that will make the difference between Liberty Bowls and "wait ‘til next year."

The following are my feelings on each game – it’s certainly not scientific or authoritative. I love the numbers, but for me college football is too volatile (and too compelling!) for thorough technical analysis.

Richmond Spiders. Well, it sure likes like an easy win on paper. Those ‘FCS’ teams can be feisty though – just look at Richmond over Duke, Montana State over Colorado, or UC Davis over Stanford in 2005. However, Vandy will be at full health (save for Patrick Benoist) and Vanderbilt Stadium should be crowded -- a good combination. It is clearly the easiest game on the schedule.

The most interesting part of the game will probably be the chance for everyone to see Vandy at full speed for the first time since last November. Things I’m interested to see answered:

What’s the balance for Chris Nickson’s passing and Chris Nickson’s running? How will Jennings and Stamper look after injury redshirts last season? Which, if any, of the freshman will play (John Stokes and Jamie Graham)? How do we distribute carries in the backfield between Cassen, Jennings, Hawkins, and Gaston Miller? Prediction: 98% chance of winning.

Alabama Crimson Tide. Like Arkansas in ’06, Ole Miss in ’05, Carolina in ’04, and Ole Miss in ’03, the SEC home opener is a winnable game that could pay tremendous dividends. A win would translate to tremendous confidence and a palpable 'buzz' in Nashville. A loss, especially one after we had a chance to win, will slip the Black & Gold faithful into the “same ol’ Vandy” lament.

Last year, Vanderbilt lost by three to the Tide and was driving before a Nickson interception ended the threat. Saban and Major Applewhite are in, which should be good for confidence and fan support, but this is largely the same team we played to 13-10 last year. It should be a great game with an electric atmosphere -- I'm really looking forward to it... Prediction: 50% chance of winning.

Ole Miss Rebels. A great game every season, but Vanderbilt is the clear favorite. That said, we were favored last year before displaying our SOV creativity (and Mackenzi Adams) in route to a disappointing loss.

Despite the great recruiting classes, Ole Miss is a program in disarray (and Brent Schaeffer at WR). Things may be different with Jevan Snead next season, but this season should be all Vandy. Prediction: 75% chance of winning.

Eastern Michigan Eagles. What I know about Eastern Michigan: (1) they play in the MAC and share a division with Central Michigan and Western Michigan, (2) the school is in Ypsilanti, (3) they won one game last season against Toledo, which is on the front of today for allegedly fixing games.
Prediction: 95% chance of winning.

at #18 Auburn Tigers. I think this might be Nickson’s first “Mr. Hyde” game of the season. A fresh, powerful team that we have no experience against seems like a bad combination. Auburn and LSU are the class of the West, and I would have a hard time envisioning a win against either at this point.
Prediction: 15% chance of winning.

#13 Georgia Bulldogs. I have a theory that the worst game of any Vanderbilt season is the weekend before Fall Break. As any Vandy student can tell you, the week before Fall Break is essentially mid-term week and everyone gets all stressed and frazzled before delighting in the four day weekend.
Just look at the last five years:

10/07/06 -- Loss at Ole Miss, 17-10
10/15/05 -- Loss to Georgia, 34-17
10/09/04 -- Loss to Rutgers, 37-34
10/11/03 -- Loss to Navy, 37-27
10/12/02 -- Loss to MTSU, 21-20

Not only are those all losses, but some of the worst losses of the Bobby J era. That, coupled with Georgia’s thirst for revenge makes me a doubter. Prediction: 15% chance of winning.

at Carolina Gamecocks. In the Bobby J era, the average margin of defeat for Carolina games in Nashville is 16 points; for Carolina games in Columbia, 9 points.

South Carolina is a good team -- everyone’s ‘sleeper’ in the SEC -- and has a coach who’s about 20-0 against Vanderbilt all-time. But still, doesn’t this seem winnable? Carolina travels to Tennessee the week after, Blake Mitchell seems committed to sacrificing every opportunity given to him, and it’s the weekend of Fall Break (a week when we tend to play pretty well, including the UGA win last year and Jay’s seven point loss at Carolina in ’05 when we battled late and lost). Like Alabama, this is a swing game that will say a lot about our bowl hopes. Prediction: 45% chance of winning.

Miami (Ohio) Redhawks. Quick question: in what city is Miami University? Why, Oxford, Ohio of course. The name Miami comes from the Miami River.

Anyway, after we added Miami to the schedule last spring I was immediately worried. It was just a few years ago that Ben Roethlisberger led Miami to a 13-1 record and a win over Louisville in their bowl game. They have history (“The Cradle of Coaches”), a talent-rich state, and a former Vandy guy running the Athletic Department. What's not to like.

And yet, they finished 2-10 (2-6) in a weak MAC last season with losses to Syracuse and Northwestern – BCS teams that Vandy would have been favored against last season. That said, five of those losses were by seven points or fewer. I don’t have my Phil Steele handy, but the consensus seems to be that Miami is a ‘sleeper’ in the MAC East. Furthermore, they are quite pass-happy which could pose a problem given our relative youth and lack of depth in the secondary.

I think Vandy wins the game, but it won’t be without effort. Prediction: 80% chance of winning.

at #6 Florida Gators. Why does Vanderbilt do so well against Florida? In the Urban Meyer era, we lost by seven in double overtime (shoot ‘em up, Earl!) and lost by six last season. Is it just a matter of the talent gap closing?

Like Alabama basketball, we seem to have Florida’s number and this should be a competitive game despite the talent disparity. I doubt we’ll win, but we have a chance. Prediction: 30% chance of winning.

Kentucky WilcatsLet’s all freak out for Kentucky. Yes, they have an explosive offense and their eight wins last year brings hope to the Vandy faithful. Sure, Woodson and Burton and Little return – but so does the worst defense in the conference (they allowed 60 more points than next worse, Miss State, albeit in one additional game). I can’t see them winning eight games again.

We put up 600 yards against them in Lexington last year and I bet we can in Nashville as well. I think we are a better team, and as long as our defense is healthy, and we don’t make stupid mistakes, we should win. Of course, we’ve also had the better team the last four years only to go 0-4. Prediction: 60% chance of winning.

at #15 Tennessee Vawls Vanderbilt returns to Knoxville. To be honest, I don't feel very good about this game. The Tennessee game last year was the worst of the season -- just as it was in 2002 and 2003 -- effectively killing the momentum we had in the rivalry following 2004 and, my God, 2005. There is always reason to hope, but Erik Ainge on Senior Day seems like too much. Prediction: 20% chance of winning.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Vanderbilt fans, I'd like to introduce you to your new rival. I know that the ‘manufactured rivalry’ goes against all that is great about college football, but look at Ole Miss and Vandy – you start playing a school every year and it doesn’t take long to develop a history. Alabama and Vanderbilt used to be a meaningful match-up. Now, despite the proximity of the schools, it’s another out-of-division affair no different than LSU, Arkansas, or Miss State. Rivalry can be more fluid than you think.

Everyone’s given up on Wake after their Cinderella ACC title and Orange Bowl appearance last year, marking it up to a weak ACC and dumb luck. Like Vanderbilt, Wake is a good team that has the ability to keep games close right to the end – and if they catch some breaks, can pull them out. I think it’s a good match-up and can really develop into a good post-Thanksgiving rivalry game for us. Prediction: 60% chance of winning.

So, from my vantage point, most likely wins to least likely are:

1) Richmond
2) Eastern Michigan
3) Miami (Ohio)
4) Ole Miss
5) Wake Forest
6) Kentucky
7) Alabama
8) at Carolina
9) at Florida
10) at Tennessee
11) Georgia
12) at Auburn

I can see six wins in there, can’t you?


Philip, the Equal Opportunity Cynic said...

The "eerie feeling" bothers me, too, which is why I pretty prominently discount predictions by VU partisans and highly rate third-party predictions. (But does Athlon count as a 3rd party? Hmmm.... never mind, they have us 6th.)

I think you're underestimating South Carolina and overestimating Auburn. You could almost switch the percentages, although I don't really think we're 45% to win in Auburn either. But they'll give us an easier game than USC.

Philip, the Equal Opportunity Cynic said...

Also, could you allow anonymous comments so that I don't have to post using a ridiculous dummy account? Blogger should provide some sort of spam prevention, such as Akismet. If they don't, then they're not providing much.