Vanderbilt’s offense is selfish.
In terms of football, that’s a good thing.
The Commodores rank among the top 20 in the FBS (they’re 18th, to be exact) in time of possession and have had the ball more than their opponents in each of their first four games.
The last time the Commodores had the edge in four consecutive games was the final four contests of 2013. Then, they won all four, including the BBVA Compass Bowl, and finished the season 9-4.
Victories have not come nearly as often with this season’s hoggish performances but such possession proficiency does have its benefits.
"You can tell in the third and fourth quarter that defenders are starting to get tired,” tight end Steven Scheu said. “When you see that, you kind of know that you have them where you want them, and we are definitely improving in that aspect."
Vanderbilt has had the edge in possession time in 12 of this season’s 16 quarters. In every contest there has been one in which it has the ball for more than 10 minutes. Three times that quarter was the first and the other (Western Kentucky) it was the second.
A year ago they won time of possession just four times – period – in 12 games.
NINE-TENTHS OF THE LAW
A quarter-by-quarter look at Vanderbilt’s time of possession in each of its first four games:
It’s not hard to figure why the Commodores have held the ball so much longer than last season.
Under first-year coordinator Andy Ludwig, they have averaged 22 first downs and 8.3 third-down conversions per contest. A year ago, those numbers were 16.1 and 3.8, respectively. They already have 33 third-down conversions and at their current pace they will surpass their 2014 total (46) before the end of their sixth game.
“There are no moral victories for us,” coach Derek Mason said. “This team wants to win ball games, and we're going to put ourselves in position to win ball games.”
Having the ball is a good place to start.
Trent Sherfield has caught enough passes – particularly the last two weeks -- to catch the attention of those who administer one of college football’s top individual honors.
The Vanderbilt sophomore was one of 13 players added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list Tuesday. The original watch list included 50 players.
Middle Tennessee State’s Ed’Marques Batties also was among the additions.
Sherfield and Batties will have their own personal battle Saturday when the Commodores play the Blue Raiders at Murfreesboro (6 p.m., CBS Sports Network) in MTSU’s homecoming contest.
Sherfield leads the Southeastern Conference in receptions (28) and is second in receiving yards (402). He is one of 17 FBS players with more than 400 receiving yards and is 12th in total receptions.
He has had 23 catches for 295 yards in the last two games.
“You just have to keep working and just try to maintain that top position,” Sherfield said last week. “I’m not really too worried about the stats. I’m just coming out here and trying to play and dominate every chance I get.”
The last Vanderbilt receiver to make the list was Jordan Matthews in 2013. Matthews ended up a semifinalist.
Batties is third in Conference USA with 30 catches and is second with 446 receiving yards. His seven receiving touchdowns are second in the FBS.
“Ed'Marques Batties … is unbelievable,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “A talented receiver, game-breaker, explosive who can make some plays.”
The Biletnikoff Award honors the country’s top pass catcher (wide receiver, tight end or running back). The Tallahassee Touchdown Club Foundation administers the award, which will be presented Dec. 10 during ESPN's The Home Depot College Awards.
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)
Middle Tennessee does not have much time to dwell on its tough, last-minute loss at Illinois.
Up next is Vanderbilt in a matchup that has been a long time coming. The Commodores will make their first trip to Murfreesboro since 1920.
“There have been a lot of rumors that this game is going to be sold out and we're finally going to have a real electric crowd here in Murfreesboro and that will be great,” Blue Raiders safety Kevin Byard said. “… It's going to be a great experience. We have played a lot of big schools this year, but we went into every single game expecting to win those games.
“We don't go into games expecting to lose no matter who the opponent is. It's just another game and we're going to go into it expecting to win.”
Since Floyd Stadium was expanded in 1998 as part of the football program’s transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Blue Raiders have not played to a full house.
Saturday’s contest (6 p.m., CBS Sports Network) will be the first in a four-game series in which each team will host the other twice from now through 2018. So if this one does not fill every seat another opportunity awaits in 2017.
"This is the first time we have played Vanderbilt in 10 years,” coach Rick Stockstill said. “I always say that it takes time to build these games up. I know our staff and our players feel excited that we get a chance to play and SEC team.”
Middle Tennessee has won the previous three games in the series but overall is 3-12 against Vanderbilt. The last three meetings have been close contests.
In 2001 Middle Tennessee won 37-28 at Vanderbilt Stadium. That was the first meeting between the two schools since 1956. In 2002 Middle Tennessee came out on top 21-20 after scoring on a last minute drive. The most recent meeting, in 2005, Middle Tennessee blocked a last-minute field goal and topped then unbeaten Vanderbilt (4-0) 17-15.
“Everybody always says that the SEC is the best conference in the country,” Byard said. “Anytime we get a chance to play those guys it's special. It means something to us this week I can promise you that. It's an SEC team so of course you always want to beat an SEC team. I'm not really going to look into that too much. I didn't look too much at the Alabama game like that."
Vanderbilt did more than just make things interesting.
There were chances Saturday night for the Commodores to take control at Ole Miss. It was tied midway through the third quarter after Vanderbilt scored on its first two second-half possessions. Then a blocked punt and a missed field goal – among other things – allowed the Rebels to pull away and defeat Vanderbilt 27-16.
A look at some of the notable performers and moments from a promising, but ultimately disappointing performance:
VANDERBILT PLAYER OF THE GAME
Zach Cunningham, sophomore, linebacker
He led the defense with 11 tackles, including 1 ½ tackles for loss and one sack.
Three times he made tackles on first-and-goal from the 1 or 2-yard line. In one case, Ole Miss eventually got a touchdown. The others started a goal line stand that ended with the Rebels kicking a field goal.
He also had one third-down stop that forced a punt on a night when Ole Miss’ high-powered offense converted just three times in 13 attempts.
The only time he’s had more stops in a game was last year at Mississippi State, when the defense was on the field all night and could not make a stop. This was a much different performance.
• Ralph Webb, RB: He ran for a season-high 90 yards, the third time in his career he’s rushed for at least 90 against an SEC opponent. His effort included a career-best 43-yard run that led to the game-tying touchdown midway through the third quarter.
• Stephen Weatherly, OLB (pictured): He had three tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. In short: He was a general menace for the Ole Miss offense.
• Nifae Lealao, DT: He blocked a second-half Ole Miss field goal attempt that would have made it a two-score game and a little more than three minutes later it was a tie game.
The fair catch interference penalty against snapper Jacob Schultz with 3:47 to play in the first half
Vanderbilt was within a touchdown and was hanging around early when Ole Miss returner Carlos Davis allowed a punt to bounce right off his chest. Schultz went the ground and the Commodores seemingly were in business in Rebels’ territory.
Officials inexplicably threw the flag and awarded possession to Ole Miss even though Schultz was a good three yards or more – and stationary – from Davis when the ball arrived.
There’s no guarantee that Vanderbilt would have converted that opportunity into points but it should have had the chance to try – and it would have made the final minutes of the half much more interesting.
• Oren Burks’ interception 1:43 into the contest: It was the first takeaway for the Vanderbilt defense this season and the first sign that it was going to be a much tougher test for the Ole Miss offense than most anticipated.
• Tommy Openshaw’s 28-yard field goal with 3:17 left in the first quarter: It gave the Commodores a 3-0 lead, which was the first time all season Ole Miss trailed.
• Openshaw’s missed field goal with 9:28 to play: After the defense’s second interception Vanderbilt failed to produce any points. This kick (32 yards) would have made it a one-point game.
THEY SAID IT
• “To be great you have to be bigger than the moment. We just were not bigger than the moment. That is okay. We will take a look at it we fix it.” – Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, on the game.
• “I feel like anytime we get down to the red zone or the maroon zone or close to scoring and we don’t convert, it just sets you back. Our job is to score, so at any time we don’t score I feel pretty bad about it.” – quarterback Johnny McCrary, on the continued red zone struggles.
• “A lot of credit goes to Vanderbilt. They are a better team than people give them credit for.” – Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze.
This team is a lot better than it was a year ago and has come a long way since the start of the season. At 1-3 (0-2 in the SEC), it’s still a long way from bowl eligibility.
It was not that long ago that this type of result would have been deemed acceptable. No one can argue with the effort or the overall performance but Vanderbilt still does not do enough of the little things that make good football winning football, and those things are critical in games against teams as talented as Ole Miss.
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)
The first thing to look at in the University of Tennessee’s latest loss to Florida is fourth down.
The Volunteers’ failure to make stops on fourth down was a significant factor in the 28-27 defeat, their 11th straight loss to their SEC East rival. The Gators converted three times on two fourth-quarter scoring drives, including on the game-winning touchdown – a 63-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-14.
“Yeah, I think the whole thing is fourth down,” coach Butch Jones said Saturday. “Three critical fourth down conversations that [if] we get off the field and we win the football game. It's particularly when it is fourth-and-long – fourth-and-(14) – you have got to close the game out, you have got to get off the field and run victory formation milking the clock and the game is over.”
Actually, the Volunteers allowed the Gators to convert all five times they went for it in fourth down Saturday in Gainesville. The first was in the second quarter and turned out to be harmless. The next was in the third quarter and led to a Florida touchdown one play later.
FOURTH DOWN FOIBLES
A look at Florida’s fourth-down conversions Saturday against Tennessee:
Fourth-and-2 at the Florida 43 (6:35 remaining): Grier pass to McGee – 13 yards
Result: The next three plays were incomplete passes and Florida punted
Fourth-and 6 at the Tennessee 25 (6:12 remaining): Grier pass to Powell – 21 yards
Result: Florida scored on the next play and cut Tennessee’s lead to six (20-14)
Fourth-and-7 at the Tennessee 45 (6:25 remaining): Grier pass to McGee – 10 yards
Fourth-and-8 at the Tennessee 21 (4:20 remaining): Grier pass to Powell – 16 yards
Result: Two plays after the second conversion, Florida scored a touchdown and cut Tennessee’s lead to six again (27-21)
Fourth-and-14 from the Florida 37 (1:26 remaining): Grier pass to Callaway – 63 yards
Result: That play was the touchdown that made the difference.
This is not a Florida-only problem. Tennessee’s first four opponents have combined to convert nine out of 10 times on fourth down. Bowling Green was three-for-three and Oklahoma was one-for-two.
No team in the FBS has allowed more fourth-down conversions and only four (of 128) have allowed a higher percentage. However, those four – Texas, Syracuse, Kansas and New Mexico State – have faced 11 fourth-down plays combined. None have faced five fourth downs on the season – let alone a single game.
"Some of those fourth downs we wish to get back but you just have to keep playing ball, and that's what we're going to do,” defensive back LaDarrell McNeil said. “We are going to keep playing ball and keep moving forward."
(Photo: Getty Images)
Vanderbilt finally takes its show on the road.
After three straight home games to open the 2015 season, the Commodores (1-2, 0-1) play their first away game Saturday, the first of five in their next six contests.
This isn't just any road trip, either. They must travel to Oxford to face Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0), an early favorite to win the SEC and be the conference’s representative in this year’s College Football Playoff. Kickoff is 6 p.m. (ESPNU).
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt will win Saturday
• Confidence boost: Austin Peay was the right opponent at the right time for the Commodores last week. After two respectable performances, Vanderbilt took advantage of an overmatched opponent and took the next step in a lot of areas. Now it is up to everyone to hang on to all that positive reinforcement and do the same things against much tougher competition.
• History repeating: Other than Kentucky, there is not an SEC team Vanderbilt has been more competitive with in recent years than Ole Miss. The Commodores, in fact, have won six of the last 10 meetings and two of their four losses were by a touchdown or less, including that remarkable 39-35 defeat in the 2013 season opener. If the Commodores are going to be good, they usually show it against the Rebels.
• Alabama hangover: Ole Miss is one week removed from a highly emotional and physically challenging 43-37 victory at Alabama. It’s ranked in the top five of the two major college football polls. It is featured on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated. If ever a team was in line for a let-down, this is the one and — unlike a year ago — Vanderbilt is good enough to take advantage of a team that falls well short of its best effort.
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt won’t win Saturday
• Star power: Ole Miss has landed some of the country’s top recruits in recent years and those talent hauls have started to pay serious dividends. No player has lived up to expectations more than junior Robert Nkemdiche (pictured). The 6-foot-4, 296-pound defensive tackle has 11 tackles, 3 ½ of them for losses. He’s also blocked a field goal attempt and — for good measure — has caught a pass for 31 yards. He’s a disruptive force teams must account for on every snap.
• Where it counts: Vanderbilt clearly has struggled to convert in the red zone. Ole Miss just as clearly has not. The Rebels have been inside their opponents’ 20-yard line 15 times and scored points all 15 times (12 touchdowns, three field goals). They are one of 21 teams that has scored every time they have been in the red zone but their average of five red zone possessions per game is the highest among that group.
• Getting started: Ole Miss has outscored its opponents 58-0 in the first quarter of its first three games. Vanderbilt has yet to score a point in the first quarter. In fact, the Commodores have gone scoreless through the first 15 minutes of their last five games, dating back to last season. It’s often said you can’t win a game in the first quarter but you can lose it. Ole Miss might actually be able to win it in the first.
The bottom line
Ole Miss is the better team, has all the momentum and confidence in the world and should win this game comfortably. Last week was a step in the right direction for Vanderbilt but this is a big step up in competition. Too big a step for anyone to think the Commodores have a realistic chance at victory.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Josh Grady alternated between quarterback and wide receiver during his three years at Vanderbilt.
He might end up doing both in his fourth game for Florida.
Because Florida suspended two players this week, including quarterback Treon Harris, Grady, who transferred in May, is listed as the backup quarterback for Saturday’s game against the University of Tennessee (2:30 p.m., CBS).
“Yeah, he'd been doing it anyway in some of the packages we have, so glad he's here,” first-year coach Jim McElwain said Wednesday, according to The Gainesville Sun.
In the first three games the 6-foot-, 200-pound Florida native exclusively has played wide receiver. However, first-year coach Jim McElwain said he and his staff could find opportunities to play Grady.
“We've worked some special packages with guys back there with the quarterback that maybe aren't traditional quarterbacks,” McElwain said. “Maybe we'll see a little bit of the Gatortail this week."
Gatortail is Florida’s version of the Wildcat, and according to The Sun, Grady was the primary quarterback in that set throughout preseason camp.
Grady signed with Vanderbilt as a quarterback but after a redshirt season in 2011 he played wide receiver and Wildcat quarterback for the Commodores. He returned to quarterback prior to the 2013 season and saw limited action that fall before an injury sidelined him. He returned to wide receiver in 2014 but did not catch a pass in eight appearances.
This season he has caught one pass for 25 yards, completed the only pass he attempted for three yards and ran the ball twice for 21 yards.
Derek Mason knows he won’t have a lot of time to make calls on defense Saturday when Vanderbilt faces Ole Miss.
The head coach/defensive coordinator is equally certain, though, that he will have enough time to do what he needs to.
“I’m not going to be stuck in the same call play after play,” he said this week. “That’s the whole idea of what they do. They want to make sure you’re paralyzed in one or two calls. That’s not the way we’re built.
“They’re going to go fast and we’re going to go fast.”
Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 in the SEC) leads the NCAA in scoring through the first three weeks of the season with an average of 64 points per game. The Rebels, though, are 115th in time of possession at an average of 24:34 per game.
That amounts to an average of one play every 22 seconds of possession time.
By comparison, Vanderbilt’s offense is one of the NCAA leaders in time of possession with an average of 33:38 per contest. The Commodores have averaged one play every 25 seconds of possession time.
In terms of sorting out what to do from one snap to the net, three seconds can be an eternity.
“You understand that getting lined up is the biggest part of what tempo is about,” Mason said. “It is to get you rattled in terms of your defensive play call. What we have to do is make sure that we get our guys lined up.
“I look at last year's game [a 41-3 Ole Miss victory] and we never got lined up. When you don't get lined up you can't play football. The biggest thing we are going to do is make sure our guys get lined up.”
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)
Two numbers in particular stand out about Vanderbilt’s trip to Ole Miss for its first road game of the season: Three and five.
The Rebels are No. 3 in The Associated Press top 25 and No. 5 in the coaches poll.
“Our guys are excited,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “They are up to the challenge. These are the games you live for. These are the big games. I love nothing more than the big games.”
A look at some other notable numbers in advance of Saturday’s game between the Vanderbilt (1-2) and Ole Miss (2-0) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (6 p.m., ESPNU):
0:00 – the amount of time that Ole Miss has trailed this season. It is not as if the score has been tied for long in any of its three games either. The Rebels went ahead to stay 4:56 into their opener and 4:04 into their second game. Last week they scored 38 seconds after kickoff and held that lead for 17:30. Then they were tied for another 4:22 before they took the lead for good.
10 – turnovers forced by Ole Miss, which is tied for first in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The majority of those takeaways (seven) have been interceptions, another area in which the Rebels are tied for the national lead, and they have returned three of those interceptions for touchdowns. Three defensive touchdowns also is tied for first in the country.
16 – trips into the red zone by Vanderbilt’s offense. Last season it took eight games for the Commodores to make it across the opponents’ 20-yard line that many times. Last week’s seven against Austin Peay were more than in any game last season and the most in a game since Nov. 17, 2012 (Wake Forest). Now, about that red zone conversion rate … .
36.7 – penalty yards per game against Vanderbilt, which leads the Southeastern Conference and is 11th in the nation. Through the first three games of last season the Commodores averaged 65.3 penalty yards against. They might not have won every game they have played but they haven’t beaten themselves with penalties.
64.0 – points per game, Ole Miss’ scoring average through the first three games, which leads the FBS. The Rebels opened the season with the first back-to-back 50-plus point performances in program history (they actually topped 70 both times) and then scored 43 at Alabama last Saturday. Their 192 points scored are the most they had in any three-game span.
906 – Passing yards by Vanderbilt, which ranks fourth in the SEC. At this rate the Commodores will throw for 3,624 yards on the season (more if the Commodores manage to become bowl-eligible), which would be more than they had in total offense (running and passing) in 2014 and would surpass the program record of 3,299 set in 1983. Trent Sherfield’s school-record 240 yards against Austin Peay were more than the entire offense managed in all but one game last season.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Now that the University of Tennessee has lost 10 straight to Florida, the Volunteers and Gators are even.
Oh sure, Florida still has the edge in the all-time series between the Southeastern Conference rivals with 25 wins in 44 meetings.
However, the Gators’ current run of victories matches the one Tennessee put together in the early days for the longest in the history of the rivalry. The primary difference is that UT’s 10 straight wins were spread over 37 years, whereas the Gators have made winning this game an annual things for the last decade — so it only seems like forever since the Volunteers won one of these games.
As if they needed any more motivation for Saturday’s contest in Gainesville, Fla. (2:30 p.m., CBS).
"I'm here to win every game, so I don't really think about [the streak],” UT quarterback Josh Dobbs said Monday, according to the school’s athletics website. “You know, history's history. Our goal is to go out there and make new history this weekend. I play to win every game, and I'm excited to play [Florida] again.”
A look at the 10-game winning streaks Tennessee and Florida have produced against one another:
Tennessee 24, Florida 0
Florida 16, Tennessee 7
Tennessee 9, Florida 0
Florida 21, Tennessee 20
Tennessee 13, Florida 12
Florida 59, Tennessee 20
Tennessee 13, Florida 6
Florida 30, Tennessee 6
Tennessee 32, Florida 13
Florida 23, Tennessee 13
Tennessee 13, Florida 6
Florida 31, Tennessee 17
Tennessee 14, Florida 0
Florida 33, Tennessee 23
Tennessee 40, Florida 0
Florida 37, Tennessee 20
Tennessee 26, Florida 12
Florida 31, Tennessee 17
Tennessee 9, Florida 7
Florida 10, Tennessee 9
Florida’s average margin of victory in the last 10 games is 14 points (the average score is 29.1 to 15.2). Tennessee won the first 10 by an average of 10 points (15.3-5.6), which adjusting for offensive inflation in the game might be even more dominant.
Last year, the Volunteers came awfully close to ending Florida’s run at nine games. They led 9-0 at the start of the fourth quarter before allowing Florida to rally.
For what it’s worth, the Gators’ 10th straight loss to Tennessee, back in 1953, was a near miss (9-7). They scored a decisive 14-0 victory the next year — on the road, just as Tennessee will attempt to do this weekend.
“I don't really care about the win streak at all,” UT linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. “We can only focus on what we can do now. This is a new team. We've only got 12 guys that have ever been down there ... A lot of guys have never even played Florida. We're not really focused on that right now. We're just focused on being the best team that we can be."
Whether they admit or not, they no doubt would like to be good enough to beat Florida.
(Photo: Matthew S. DeMaria/Tennessee athletics)
POSTDATA: WARRANTY DEEDS