Many thanks to Christian for this ever informative Q&A. Enjoy folks!
1. With Derek Mason in his second year as head coach, what kind of strides have you seen thus far for this team from last year? At this point, do you think he's the right man for the job to build consistency in the SEC?
Mason's biggest advancement for 2015 has been the performance of his defense. He was sold as a defensive mastermind after consistently shutting down Oregon in his three years as DC (or co-DC) at Stanford, but his first season in Nashville was a disappointment. An extremely young unit gave up 33.3 points per game in 2014 - a mark that tied them with, sigh, Kansas. This season he's had much more success as his starters mature and this team continues to adjust to the shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense. This year they've cut opponents' scoring to 18.4 points per game and have given a still-developing offense a chance to win games against SEC opponents.
He hasn't proven that he's "the man" just yet, but he has moved this team in the right direction after a disastrous 3-9 season last year. Vanderbilt is clearly a better team than they were in 2014 and they have tremendous potential to grow into a bowl eligible program thanks to the strength that Mason has helped build after losing a cache of meaningful players from a 9-4 2013 team. He deserves a third year, at the very least, and has begun to silence some of the doubts that began to grow after a borderline unwatchable 2014 campaign.
2. What were realistic expectations for the Commodores coming into this season? Is a bowl trip necessary for Mason to solidify himself as the man?
Fans wanted improvement beyond anything else. Last year's team beat UMass and Charleston Southern by a total of four points and were beaten by double digits in all but one of last season's nine losses. A bowl game would be nice, but the 'Dores have a relatively challenging out-of-conference schedule (Houston, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee) that puts an extra impetus on SEC wins. That might be easier this season due to the current state of the East, but Mason can gain a lot of support - and a lot of confidence - with a five win campaign, especially if it features a conference win over Tennessee in Knoxville. The defense has risen up to exceed last year's low expectations. The offense? Well, we're still figuring that out.
3. Clearly this has been an interesting week for USC football, do you now expect Vanderbilt to leave Columbia with a victory given less attention has been on this game for USC players and coaches?
I thought it was possible even before the HBC stepped down thanks to USC's instability at quarterback and Vanderbilt's newfound competence against Ole Miss (just, uh, ignore that MTSU result outside of the final six minutes). The Commodores will need to fix their offensive woes - and a suddenly-clicking Ralph Webb could be the answer - but I think Vanderbilt would have a strong upset bid rolling into Columbia even if Spurrier were still on the sideline.
4. The Vandy defense has been solid thus far, what has been the biggest factor in earning success on that side of the ball for the Commodores?
There have been several factors, including a couple of get-everywhere defenders in Zach Cunningham and Oren Burks. Cunningham is a player who you'll see making a lot of tackles in the open field, while free safety Oren Burks is a rangy player who is strong in coverage but also brings linebacking experience into the Vandy secondary. However, I'd point to an underrated front line as the key to Vanderbilt's defensive success so far. Adam Butler, Caleb Azubike, Jay Woods, and Nifae Lealao bring a lot of size and athleticism into the trenches, and their combination of pocket-disrupting pressure and blocker-occupying run defense has been the foundation of this team's strong defensive start to 2015.
5. Off that, who is the anchor is the Vandy defense?
Through five weeks, it's Cunningham. He has stepped up in a major way as a redshirt sophomore and looks like an All-SEC player at middle linebacker.
6. Offensively, what've you liked from Johnny McCrary so far? And, who are the biggest playmakers on that side of the ball for the 'Dores?
There are two Johnny McCrarys - regular game Johnny, who has a big arm but fails to see the field well and makes drive-killing errors, and two-minute Johnny, who thrives (mostly) with the clock winding down and his team needing points. McCrary operates a very tight two-minute drill and finds a way to simplify the game en route to optimism-building touchdowns and field goals, but there's a definite Jekyll & Hyde process with the Commodores' sophomore quarterback. The talent is there, and when he's healthy his mobility adds a new dimension to this team's offense. Unfortunately, his penchant for throwing red zone interceptions has hamstrung this team and kept them from making a major statement in 2015.
As far as playmakers go, I already mentioned tailback Ralph Webb, but a big day from the sophomore would really open up this team's offense. He came alive last week with 155 yards and a touchdown against Middle Tennessee, but that was only the first game of the season where he's averaged more than four yards per carry (thanks in part to instability on the right side of his offensive line). An efficient Webb will give McCrary much more room to throw, and that could be the spark this team's offense needs to upset the Gamecocks. His primary target will be Trent Sherfield, a former defensive back prospect who did almost nothing as a freshman and then rewrote the Vanderbilt receiving record books this season as a sophomore (granted, it was against a high school varsity team dressed in Austin Peay's uniforms, but still). South Carolina will have to focus on stopping Sherfield, an explosive athlete with tremendous yards-after-catch capabilities. With emerging TE receiving threat DeAndre Woods grounded for the year (ACL) (:() that could mean plenty of double-teams for Sherfield on Saturday - and a potential breakout game for sophomore Caleb Scott, who ascended into the starting lineup this week.
7. And a prediction and score.
Hooo boy. I don't think it will be a high-scoring affair, but I think it will be a fun game. Vanderbilt 20, South Carolina 17.