The second half of Vanderbilt's season begins on Saturday when the Commodores host Auburn in a pivotal SEC contest at Vanderbilt Stadium. Vanderbilt is 2-4 overall, while Auburn enters the game reeling with a 1-5 record.
Vanderbilt's first half of the season included matchups with three teams currently ranked in the top 15 as well difficult road games at Northwestern and Missouri. Overall, the five FBS opponents Vanderbilt faced in the first half of the season have a combined record of 26-7. Toss in Presbyterian and the opponents have a combined record of 28-12. The six teams in the second half of the schedule are 12-26.
Given the difficulty of Vanderbilt's early-season schedule, Saturday's matchup appears to be more favorable. However, Vanderbilt is not taking anything for granted in the SEC.
"It's the SEC. You play good teams week in and week out," junior running back Wesley Tate said. "Regardless of record, if you don't come ready to play, you can get beat on any given day, so I definitely think that puts things into perspective. The teams that we have lost to are all ranked opponents and very good teams, and the teams that we are going to play are very good teams also. Maybe it's an advantage, but regardless, if you don't come ready to play, you can get beat on any given day."
A win Saturday would match Vanderbilt's SEC win total in 2011 and would also give the Commodores the edge in the all-time series with the Tigers. The series is currently even at 20 wins and 20 losses for each, with the only other meeting resulting in a tie.
Despite Auburn's record, Vanderbilt Head Coach James Franklin is well aware of how much success the program has had being two years removed from a national championships and the talent level of the players the Tigers have recruited in recent years.
"They've lost to No. 14 Clemson, No. 15 Mississippi State, No. 6 LSU," Franklin remarked. "I think they are a very talented team. When you look at their recruiting in the last four years, they've had the Nos. 9, 10, 7 and 4th-ranked recruiting class, so for us to think or anybody to think this team is not talented would be a major mistake."
Stopping the Quarterback Running Attack
So far this season, a mobile quarterback has been Vanderbilt's Kryptonite on defense. South Carolina and Northwestern each gashed Vanderbilt's defense with long quarterback runs, and on Saturday Florida's Jeff Driskel gained 171 yards on the ground.
Three of Driskel's 11 carries went for touchdowns and Franklin mentioned there was a mistake by a different player on each run. "Looking at it, one play was a cornerback that didn't keep contain, one play a linebacker didn't keep contain and one play a defensive end didn't keep contain."
The team knows it is an areas of concern and emphasis was placed on it at Sunday's practice.
"We talked about it, we practiced it yesterday during Sunday night practice," defensive end Johnell Thomas said. "We just need to fit it up better, and of course we're practicing that all week. That's what we're going to be focusing on - the quarterback run. I'm sure we've opened it up to other teams, they see where we make some mistakes there in that category, so it's just something that we're working on."
Defending the quarterback run game will be important again this weekend against Auburn. The Tigers have played three quarterbacks this season, and it is unknown who will get the start Saturday. Kiehl Frazier began the year as the starter, but he was replaced last week by Clint Moseley. Jonathan Wallace has also played as a Wildcat quarterback and is yet to attempt a pass.
"They have three guys who are all capable," Franklin said. "They are going to see that we had some issues stopping the quarterback running game, so that's going to be a big part of their game plan. Obviously, what do you think we're going to work on all week long? Quarterback running game. Those things are very important for us and I think important for them, so we'll be ready to defend it."
Spear, Fowler Rotating Extra Points Carey Spear has been Vanderbilt's go-to on kickoffs and field-goal attempts this season, but on extra points Spear has shared the duties with Ryan Fowler.
Spear has made all eight of his extra-point tries and Fowler has made all five of his.
"It is just another example of a guy that I think would be starting for a bunch of teams in this league, and wanting to keep good chemistry and wanting to find roles for guys," Franklin said of playing Fowler. "Early in the year, we thought he was going to be the starter, so we got to the point it didn't make sense for Carey to be doing all those roles and Ryan to be sitting on the side. It was a way to keep him involved."
Franklin also noted that it is important to give Fowler some opportunities to get reps should an injury occur.
Arrive Early and Be Loud
On Monday, Franklin credited the fans for their support, but also encouraged the crowd to arrive in the stadium earlier.
"When you went into that stadium early on, there was a presence there," Franklin said of Saturday's game. "I want us to have the same type of presence early in the game, our stadium full, there is an excitement, there's a buzz about what is going on. Have fun all you want all morning; 45 minutes before kickoff be in the stands ready to go."
Franklin said it is about educating the fans and that he understands there must be patience on his part, just as there has been with the staff developing the program.
"To me it is more about education than anything," Franklin continued. "Educating our fans, educating everybody in what we need, and we need their help. I was listening to Coach (Steve) Spurrier in his press conference the other day talking about all the different venues and how difficult it is to play and win on the road. We've all talked about these things. We want to create that here, so I am not calling anybody out. I'm educating and I'm very appreciative of the fans, how they've been behind us since we've been here, but I want more. Just like they want more from me and our team, I want more from them."
Junior running back Wesley Tate has also been happy with how the crowds have grown larger throughout his career.
"I've definitely seen a lot of improvement as far as fans coming to the game, and we definitely appreciate it when everybody comes to the game," Tate said.
Franklin also encouraged fans to be louder when the opposing team is facing third down on offense.
"Third down, we need a home-field advantage like we face when we go into other team's stadiums. Third down the place going crazy, not one person sitting down, not one person with their mouth closed, I don't care if you are 95 or if you are four, you are screaming like crazy for the Dores.
Hayward's Impact Being Felt
During the last few seasons of Casey Hayward's Vanderbilt career, there were few corners in the league that were as instinctive. On most Saturday's, he would seemingly shutdown an entire side of the field with his coverage ability. As a senior in 2011, he finished the year with seven interceptions and 10 pass breakups.
As a team, the Commodores totaled 19 interceptions last year. So far this year through six games, the team has two picks. Vanderbilt had an opportunity for two more interceptions against Florida, but defenders could not hold on to the pass. On Monday, Franklin was asked about the team's decline in interceptions from last year.
"The first thing is: I don't know if you guy's saw but Casey Hayward had two interceptions last night," Franklin said. "They were for us last year. He's at that level and he is still doing it. That guy was a special guy."
Franklin added that the defense is being coached the same way as last year and that interceptions are still being emphasized.
"I think that (interceptions are) the biggest difference on our team right now from last year to this year," Franklin said.
Franklin also joked that he is looking for a way to have Hayward come back play for the Commodores.
"I actually called him this afternoon and I'm trying to find a way to see if he can play for us on Saturdays and play for them on Sundays; get him a new social security number."
Memorable Last Meeting with Auburn
Vanderbilt's last meeting against Auburn will be fondly remembered as one of the signature games in the history of Vanderbilt football, not only for the end result, but also the festivities surrounding the game. After starting the season 4-0 with a dramatic win at Ole Miss, ESPN College Gameday selected Vanderbilt's game against Auburn as its marquee matchup of the day.
The popular show, featuring Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard, originated from the Vanderbilt Ingram Commons and aired nationally on ESPN. The live two-hour show provided excellent exposure for the university and added to the atmosphere inside Vanderbilt Stadium later that day.
Playing in front of a large, festive crowd, the 19th-ranked Commodores used a strong defensive performance and got two touchdown passes from backup quarterback Mackenzi Adams to defeat No. 13 Auburn, 14-13. The Tigers jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter, but Vanderbilt scored the final two touchdowns of the game.
With the win, Vanderbilt moved to 5-0 for the first time since 1943.
We are halfway through the season and Vanderbilt is ranked favorably in many national categories. In five statistical categories, the Commodores are ranked among the top 41 squads in America.
Statistically, Vanderbilt is best against the pass, ranking seventh nationally. The Commodores are surrendering just 148.17 yards through the air, which is good for third in the SEC, after allowing just 77 yards passing by Florida. Earlier this season, Vanderbilt also held South Carolina to less than 100 yards passing. Vanderbilt ranks 15th in the nation and fifth in the SEC in pass-efficiency defense (103.66).
Vanderbilt is ranked 38th nationally in total defense (351.67) and 41st in scoring defense (22.33). In the SEC, Vanderbilt ranks sixth in total defense and seventh in scoring defense. For those asking what the best defense is in the country, you don't need to look further than the SEC. Alabama leads most every statistical category.
Compared to other SEC teams, Vanderbilt also ranks favorably in first downs allowed at 17.7 per game, which is fourth in the league and in time of possession, which also ranks fourth (30:19).
On special teams, the Commodores are ranked 11th in net punting (41.31). Vanderbilt's average is good for fourth in the SEC.
Individually, Jordan Matthews stacks up well among the best in the nation in receptions per game and receiving yards per game. Matthews ranks 13th in receiving yards per game (102.83) and 14th in receptions per gam (7.17). His receptions per game leads the league and his average in receiving yards is second to Arkansas' Cobi Hamilton. Matthews is also fourth in the SEC in punt returns (12.1) and all-purpose yardage (120.0)
Punter Richard Kent ranks 11th nationally and fourth in the SEC in punting average at 45.06. Kicker Carey Spear is tied for 14th nationally with an average of 1.67 field goals per game. His average is second in the SEC.
Quarterback Jordan Rodgers is sixth in the SEC in passing yardage (213.6). Defensively, Kenny Ladler is ninth in the league in tackles.