The scrubs are out of the way and real teams are all that’s left until January, which means it’s time for the return of K-State Q&A. Today’s guest is Tom Stephenson, your benevolent despot’s buddy and counterpart at SB Nation’s Vanderbilt site, Anchor of Gold.
Jon: Saturday's game features two programs who have both suffered a lot over the last century. Obviously, we all know about K-State's turnaround, which has resulted in an point which really illustrates Vanderbilt's struggles: Bill Snyder has as many career wins in 25 seasons as Vanderbilt has wins against current SEC teams... ever. But things have improved in Nashville the last decade or so. How would you describe the building effort in Nashville? Is there a visible plan to make Commodore football relevant, or has it all rested on the guy wearing the headset?
Tom: The easy answer is that the talent level is way up compared to where it's been in the past. I'm only slightly exaggerating when I say that Vanderbilt in the 1990s and early 2000s (and probably the 1980s, too) was basically an FCS or low-level G5 team masquerading as an SEC team. Like frequently we'd be signing guys where we were their only FBS offer, or we'd be beating out a bunch of Sun Belt teams. Bobby Johnson did the yeoman's work of getting the talent level up to where we could be competitive, then James Franklin and now Mason built on that. Now we still occasionally have a guy the coaching staff likes who doesn't have a great offer list, but we're frequently beating out actual Power 5 teams for talent and you can see the results of that on the field.
But, yeah, I think that's almost all on the guys wearing the headsets. If you ask some of the more conspiracy-minded Vanderbilt fans, our administration hates football and is looking to silently kill the program, starting with a recently-hatched (though not official just yet) plan to move the team off-campus and share a stadium with an MLS team -- which Nashville hasn't actually been awarded, but minor details. I think it's more just benign neglect; I wouldn't say the Chancellor and the Board of Trust actively are trying to make the football program die, but supporting the program just isn't very high on their list of priorities. I'm getting a little long-winded with this answer but we've written quite a bit about this at our site.
Jon: I'm not trying to troll here, but it has to be addressed. It's no secret that of all the SEC stadiums, Vanderbilt Stadium -- first football-specific stadium in the South, I'm told! -- probably offers the least imposing home-field advantage in the SEC, and we're hearing reports that the place might be half-purple on Saturday. Does that wear on the team? On the fans that actually show up? Is Vanderbilt making any real effort to change that culture, or does the administration seem content to just let it ride?
Tom: I mean, the stadium being half fans of the opposing team is about par for the course for Vanderbilt. It is what it is; Vanderbilt's a small school (undergrad student population is around 6,000 IIRC) in a city with an NFL team and an alumni base that largely lives far away from the school, so there just isn't a big natural fan base for the team. It's honestly more like what you'd see in the Pac-12, where you get schools sharing a city with a pro team that draws most of the casual football fans, than you do somewhere like Alabama where the college team is the only game in town. I don't really know that there's anything you could do because it feels like there's a hard ceiling on what Vanderbilt can draw... even during the Franklin years you'd still see a healthy contingent of opposing fans at SEC games. And yeah, it gets annoying... not so much when it's someone like K-State, but when it's Georgia, Florida, or Tennessee?
Jon: Last weekend, a famous commentator with a television show (who shall remain nameless but who embarrasses your fine institution by claiming affiliation) stirred the pot by claiming Vanderbilt was better than five SEC West teams. Was he just trolling as usual, or do you think that's a valid position?
Tom: I'm assuming you're talking about a Fox Sports host who considers himself a Tennessee fan in spite of the fact that his degrees are George Washington and Vanderbilt, which is complete nonsense but whatever. Five is probably an exaggeration, but it's not that far off the mark -- I'd say Vanderbilt is better than Ole Miss and Arkansas, based on what I've seen of those two, and I think Mississippi State is secretly good but I'm assuming he's including them so ... sure. It really depends on what you think of Auburn and Texas A&M -- Auburn doesn't really have an offensive line and Texas A&M doesn't really have a quarterback. I could see thinking we're better than A&M just because of the quarterback situation there, but I don't think we're better than Auburn.
Jon: You're moving into year four under Derek Mason, which means the James Franklin days are all but officially put to bed (although one could argue that really happened with the disastrous 2014 season). What's he like? What sort of coaching philosophy does he espouse? Does he infuriate you, or do you think he's a solid shot-caller?
Tom: Mason was the defensive coordinator at Stanford before he came here, and he's basically copied the Stanford blueprint in a lot of ways. You see a lot of Stanford (and, by extension, Michigan) when you watch Vanderbilt: smashmouth, man-ball offense paired with a suffocating defense, and Mason focuses on the second half of that equation a lot more than, say, Harbaugh does. It's a style that would feel a lot more at home in the Big 10 than it does in the SEC, really.
My personal opinion is that Mason is a solid head coach and a much better fit for the university than James Franklin was (Franklin, well, belongs at a footbaw school like Penn State if we're being truthful.) Mason accepts the Vanderbilt culture whereas Franklin wanted to bend things to his will. From what I've heard, a lot of Franklin's guys just didn't buy in when Mason took over the program and since Franklin's goal on the recruiting trail seemed to be mostly impressing a bigger school by showing he could recruit. There was some talent on the roster when Mason took over but it was a lot of mismatched parts and it just didn't really fit what he wanted to do. Now that he's had three years to bring in his own type of player you're starting to see what Mason wants the program to look like, and the results early this season look very promising. That's a far cry from his first year when it really just looked like he didn't know what he was doing.
Jon: For our readers who turn their noses up at the SEC unless it's actually relevant to them, how good are Kyle Shurmur and Ralph Webb, and who else should we be keeping an eye on when Vandy has the ball? What do the Dores like to do on offense, scheme-wise?
Tom: Kyle Shurmur‘s not really good enough to beat you by himself (at least, I don't think he is), but he's gotten to the point that he's good enough to make you respect his ability to beat you, and it will be interesting to see what happens once opposing defenses stop going all out to stop the running game. That was a profitable strategy the last three years -- when Ralph Webb was basically the only guy on the offense who was going to do anything -- but Middle Tennessee found out two weeks ago that Shurmur is capable of making the throws. I thought for the last couple of years that Webb was grossly underrated, but the start to this season suggests that he may have been properly rated. Granted, the absence of fullback Bailey McElwain has probably played a role in his unimpressive numbers through two weeks, as did Middle's insistence on loading the box even after Shurmur started torching their defense, but that doesn't really explain why he barely averaged 4 yards per carry against freaking Alabama A&M.
Some of that could be on the offensive line, I guess, which has two first-year starters and also has two guys at new positions, and maybe that gets better as guys adjust to their new roles. As far as other guys to watch, there's tight end Jared Pinkney (of course it's a tight end) and WRs Kalija Lipscomb and Trent Sherfield, who are the big weapons in the passing game. Also look out for Khari Blasingame, a converted linebacker who's now playing RB and that should tell you everything you need to know about him.
Jon: So far, Vandy's defense has looked pretty good, although the first game of the season isn't always representative of anything and we certainly didn't learn anything interesting in Saturday's game against Alabama A&M. What does Vandy run, and who are the key guys? Any weaknesses?
Tom: Vanderbilt's base defense is a 3-4, and it's not really a typical 3-4 because when they go to the nickel package, they frequently pull one of the defensive linemen and go with a 2-4-5 look that confuses the hell out of the offense. The first two games of the season haven't really exposed any weaknesses -- granted, MTSU and Alabama A&M -- but I do think a potential weak spot is that the defensive line isn't very deep. That hasn't really been an issue yet but it could be one if K-State can sustain drives and keep the defense on the field, which is something that the first two opponents really weren't able to do.
DT Nifae Lealao was the big name on the defense entering the season, but one name that's emerged over the first two weeks of the season is LB Charles Wright, who was a backup last year but got three sacks against MTSU. DE Dare Odeyingbo is another name to know.
Jon: The key to this game will, in all likelihood, come down to line play. Who do you think has the edge there?
Tom: I honestly don't know much about K-State's line play, but I'd guess they have the edge when it's the Vanderbilt offense vs. K-State's defense. It's probably a push when it's K-State's offense vs. Vanderbilt's defense.
Jon: Never mind the tourist traps, which Nashville has in abundance. Where should K-State fans coming for the weekend make a point of heading for food, drink, and entertainment?
Tom: The bad news here is that Nashville, and particularly the area inside I-440 (which includes Vanderbilt, downtown, and most of the major landmarks) has gone full-on hipster since I graduated in 2009, so a lot of the old neighborhood spots like Sam's and Noshville Deli are now gone. There's still a Noshville in Green Hills if you feel like making the five miles or so trip out there, and it's a highly recommended spot for breakfast (and also allows you to drink at breakfast, which is an underrated thing), but there's no longer one close to campus.
The good news is that Nashville is a real city with plenty of dining/entertainment options so you should be able to find something. I would personally recommend Pizza Perfect on 21st across from the Medical Center (which has, well, pizza) and Rotier's on Church Street for cheeseburgers. As a Texan I can't in good conscience recommend eating Mexican food in Nashville, but if you're in the mood for Mexican, there is SATCO (full name: San Antonio Taco Co.) on 21st, but be forewarned that it's an undergrad hangout spot. If you must do the "Nashville Hot Chicken" thing, Hattie B's has a location on Broadway near campus. For a "newer" Nashville experience, try Pinewood Social Club downtown.
Those are my personal recommendations, but like I said, Nashville's a large city and you can find pretty much any chain restaurant you want on West End or at least somewhere close by.
Jon: Finally -- prediction time.
Tom: I was secretly dreading this game going into the season, and then the MTSU game happened, which exorcised a lot of demons for Vanderbilt -- MTSU is a team that Vanderbilt has historically had trouble with for no particular reason, and to see them just completely shut down an offense that averaged 39 ppg last season (and beat Syracuse in Week 2) made me a believer in this team.
The one thing I will say for certain is that this game is going to be a low-scoring grinder. I don't actually know what the over/under is but I'd definitely take the under. I'll call it 17-14, Vanderbilt.
Thanks to Tom for taking the time to answer our impertinent questions. Be sure to stop by Anchor of Gold for their coverage of Saturday’s game and partake of their kind hospitality. They’re good folks.