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Opponent Q&A: Vanderbilt

Gathering some intel on the ‘Dores.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

A battle of two desperate teams is set for Saturday, so we checked in with Tom Stephenson of sister site Anchor of Gold to see how Vanderbilt fans are feeling ahead of this matchup that couldn’t feel more critical.

As the Derek Mason era stretches on, what’s the general feeling in Nashville about his tenure and his job security? Is there a sense that 2020 will be a mulligan for him, or is anything on the table with a new athletic director in town?

Most of us are actually wondering how he’s still the coach after he went 3-9 in the sixth year of a tenure whose best year saw the team go 6-6 and play in a second-tier bowl game. And Vanderbilt’s stated reasoning for retaining him after last season didn’t even make sense, because while the university could stand to support the football program more than it does, having facilities that aren’t up-to-date doesn’t explain why the team is losing 34-10 to UNLV. That said — I suspect that the only way Derek Mason is not the coach in 2021 is if Vanderbilt finds a way to terminate him with cause, because the real reason that he’s still the coach is that Vanderbilt didn’t want to pay his buyout and doesn’t have the activist boosters (as some other SEC schools do) who will independently come up with the money to pay the buyout. (But, the possibility of termination with cause isn’t just idle speculation; if you look hard enough you can find some articles from this summer that paint the Vanderbilt football program in a very bad light.)

True freshman quarterback Ken Seals has seen a trial by fire in his first two starts against Texas A&M and LSU. Given that it’s difficult to judge his performance against the caliber of those opponents, what’s been standing out about his game so far?

Seals hasn’t been asked to do much yet, but the thing that’s been standing out so far is his leadership. What got me (and a lot of Vanderbilt fans) sold on Seals came in the Texas A&M game, when he threw an interception that was the result of a receiver running the wrong route, and shortly afterwards the camera panned over to the true freshman quarterback giving said receiver an earful on the sideline. He’s got enough arm strength to make all the throws asked of him and decent mobility, but the fact that he appears to have already won over the team is a very good sign.

No matter the season or their record, the Commodores always seem to have a handful of skill guys who could start anywhere in the SEC. Who do Gamecock fans need to watch out for?

I don’t know if they’d start anywhere in the SEC, but Vanderbilt does have a pair of promising receivers in Amir Abdur-Rahman, who makes for a nice big target for Seals in the passing game, and Cam Johnson, a former four-star recruit who’s a burner. Ja’Veon Marlow isn’t Ke’Shawn Vaughn but he’s a capable running back.

What would you say Vandy’s biggest areas of strength and weakness are to this point?

Interestingly, the biggest strength and weakness are both in the trenches. Vanderbilt’s defensive line is an underrated unit, with a big end (Dayo Odeyingbo) who will probably play on Sundays, and there’s a bunch of size and depth that isn’t normally seen at Vanderbilt — that promising sophomore Daevion Davis can’t crack the starting lineup is a testament to the depth here. The offensive line, on the other hand, is a big problem area for a rather obvious reason: it got hit with a bunch of opt-outs. Four guys, at least three of whom probably would have started for the Commodores, opted out of playing this season due to COVID-19 concerns — and that was after star tackle Devin Cochran transferred to Georgia Tech in the offseason. So this offensive line is a patchwork of career backups, FCS grad transfers, and a converted defensive lineman, and the results so far have been predictable.

Finally, care to make a prediction?

The last time Vandy beat South Carolina, I was a law student at Vanderbilt... and, uh, I graduated in 2009. I think when you put Will Muschamp and Derek Mason together you’re going to get a low-scoring slugfest, and I will predict a 24-14 Gamecock win.