By Ben Everett | Sports Editor
Baylor football takes on Vanderbilt in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl at 8 p.m. Thursday in Houston. To get ready for the matchup, The Vanderbilt Hustler Sports Editor Cutler Klein answered a few questions about the Commodores.
1. Head coach Derek Mason is in his fifth season in Nashville and this is just his second bowl appearance. What is the media consensus about his record so far?
CK: As the Commodores piled up tough loss after tough loss this season, the heat got turned up a bit on Derek Mason. There might have been some hard questions asked this offseason if Vanderbilt had not earned bowl eligibility, especially because it seemed Vanderbilt’s closest losses came because of coaching decisions by Mason and his staff. However, after the Commodores won their last two games over SEC opponents to clinch a bowl berth, most fans calmed down quite a bit and realized that Mason is a fantastic leader of young men and the right person to lead this football program. After all, he’s just the second coach in program history to lead the Commodores to multiple bowl games. By Vanderbilt standards, Mason is doing pretty well.
2. An early season loss to Notre Dame put Vandy in the national spotlight when they played the playoff-bound Fighting Irish very close. Is there confidence around the program that this team can compete with anybody?
CK: At a press conference in November, a Vanderbilt player noted that Mason told his group that they were the best 4-6 team in the country. While some may have seen that as Mason making excuses, it was actually pretty true. Vanderbilt was essentially one play from defeating Notre Dame, Kentucky and Missouri. If running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn had stayed healthy for the second half, Vanderbilt might have beaten Florida as well. The Commodores were painfully close to a nine or 10-win season. The team’s only really lopsided losses came in a letdown at home against South Carolina and a blowout on the road at Georgia. The coaches, the players and fans believe this team can compete with anybody because they have competed with anybody.
3. What would you say are the Commodores’ biggest strengths?
CK: On offense, Vanderbilt’s strengths lie with a consistent quarterback in Kyle Shurmur and a budding star at running back in Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Shurmur has been the starting quarterback for the last three and a half seasons, and will go down as perhaps the greatest Vanderbilt quarterback of all time. He’ll have the occasional errant ball, but he has been an accurate pocket passer on a consistent basis and can deliver the ball downfield. He has also demonstrated the ability to evade pressure and still deliver accurate passes off his front foot. At running back, Vaughn has shown his ability to be a home-run back with elite speed and lethal cuts. He has rushed for 1,000 yards this season despite being hurt for a total of two full games and not becoming the team’s lead back until the middle of the season.
On defense, the secondary and linebacker corps have been stellar. Joejuan Williams is an NFL-caliber prospect that leads the way at cornerback. LaDarius Wiley has been a stalwart at safety as well. The Commodores have also gotten some stellar play from unsung defensive backs like Frank Coppet and Alim Muhammad. At linebacker, Jordan Griffin has been a workhorse as one of the best solo tacklers in the SEC. Overall, this is a defense that is tough to score against if you can’t move the ball effectively on the ground.
CK: On offense, one weakness at times this season has been the play calls. At key times, Vanderbilt’s offensive imagination and creativity has gone stale, most notably in late short yardage situations at Kentucky and Missouri. They have the weapons to keep defenses on their toes, but the play calls have let them down at times. They improved significantly in that department in the last two games of the season against Ole Miss and Tennessee, but it’s always possible to see the stale calls rear their ugly head again.
On defense, Vanderbilt has struggled to stop the run at times and get off the field on third downs. Opponents would run the ball effectively on first and second down, allowing them to easily convert third-and-shorts. The Commodores had one of the worst third-down defenses in the country throughout the season. Vanderbilt managed to keep Ole Miss and Tennessee’s rushing attacks at bay late in the season, allowing them to get off the field on third down. If Baylor can run the ball and get a few yards on first and second downs, they could have a good day on offense.
5. What is your game prediction and why?
CK: Vanderbilt comes into this game with momentum even after a month off. They’ll have Vaughn at 100% after being banged up in the Tennessee game, and wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb should be healthy too. If the offense is as potent as it was against Tennessee, this could be a good game for the Commodores. On defense, the secondary could be the key with Jalen Hurd absent for the Bears. If the front seven can stop the run, Vanderbilt could be looking at a solid day on defense.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 31 Baylor 17
For more Vanderbilt sports coverage follow @CutlerKlein or @VandyHustler on Twitter.