The Opponent Q&A is back in action! This week we sat down with Tom Stephenson over at our sister site, Anchor of Gold, to get an inside look at how the Commodores are feeling about the game on Saturday. His thoughtful responses are below:
What’s the mood like in Nashville after that near-miss against Notre Dame?
It’s actually really positive, perhaps surprisingly so. While the game could have been a win if not for a couple of really big mistakes, it’s tempered by the fact that we’d heard all offseason that this was a team that was going to be lucky to win an SEC game, not one that would destroy two (admittedly overmatched) opponents and have a top-10 team on the ropes at their stadium. (I’m intentionally sidestepping the question of whether Notre Dame deserves that ranking.) With that said, I know this fan base well enough to know that most of those positive vibes are going away with a tenth straight loss to South Carolina.
Related, how are Vandy fans feeling about Derek Mason these days? Is this year a bit of a make-or-break for him, or is there a willingness to continue being patient?
This weirdly hasn’t been much of a topic over the past month and a half, since the Tennessean ran an article detailing how Vanderbilt’s administration had undercut fundraising for a new football stadium (whether a new stadium is actually needed is a different conversation), followed by the Chancellor ducking questions on the subject and not really pretending to give a shit about fans. Then about a week ago, the AD retired -- which would seem to be bad news for the football coach, I guess, but Vanderbilt doesn’t actually have an AD at the moment. I guess the point is that most of the fans have begun to realize that the problems with the football program are higher up the food chain than Mason, so the perpetually angry subset of the fan base is mostly just yelling at the Chancellor right now and could care less about Mason at the moment. That could change if we go 4-8, but for now nobody is talking about this.
How important is this particular game to the rest of Vanderbilt’s season? Is this something you guys view as a measuring stick, or is it a must-win for bowl eligibility?
Looking ahead at the schedule, Vanderbilt still has to play Tennessee State, at Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Tennessee, which are probably all more beatable teams than South Carolina -- so nah, this isn’t a must-win for bowl eligibility, and I think the Notre Dame game was a pretty solid measuring stick. I think the South Carolina game is going to be where Vanderbilt figures out if the ceiling is 6-6 and a trip to Shreveport, or if we can realistically start talking about eight or nine wins (which honestly isn’t crazy if the team that showed up in South Bend was the “real” Vanderbilt.)
Kyle Shurmur, for my money, is criminally underrated. Who else should USC fans be looking out for?
On offense, Jared Pinkney has turned into an absolute monster at tight end, and Kalija Lipscomb is the top target at wide receiver. Ke’Shawn Vaughn has only been getting around ten carries a game for... some reason, but he’s capable of breaking off big runs when he finds room. On defense, Jake Bentley should probably avoid throwing at Joejuan Williams (though Notre Dame decided to test him a lot, a bold strategy that didn’t really pay off for them.)
What do you think is Vandy’s biggest strength coming into this matchup?
Vanderbilt’s offensive line has done a great job keeping Kyle Shurmur upright this year. I think he’s only been sacked once, and while the run game still isn’t great, it’s miles better than last season.
What worries you the most about this game?
Aside from the fact that we’ve lost nine in a row in the series? I worry a bit that we’re going to have a hangover from the Notre Dame game. Playing top 10 teams balls to the wall one week and then blowing winnable home games the next is what Vanderbilt does.
Finally, care to make a prediction?
The only thing I can say with certainty is that with Derek Mason and Will Muschamp involved, this is going to be a slog that would probably be unwatchable if I were a casual fan and didn’t graduate from one of the two schools involved. 20-17, South Carolina. If I stop predicting us to end the streak, maybe we will end the streak?
Thanks again to Tom taking the time to answer our questions (and for being a good sport while hanging out with us in the comments section). Keep an eye out for GABA’s responses over at Anchor of Gold!