The most recent installments of the on-again, off-again series between Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State changed the nature of the regional rivalry.
The Blue Raiders’ victories in the last three matchups (2001, 2002 and 2005) make the intrigue of Saturday’s game at Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro (6 p.m., CBS Sports Network) less an opportunity for them to show what they can do against an SEC opponent than it is a chance for the Commodores to show they won’t screw it up.
This is the first of four straight years in which these teams will play, which means it’s Vanderbilt’s chance to restore a sense of normalcy to the proceedings.
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt will win Saturday
• Turnover time: The defense forced its first turnovers of the season with a pair of interceptions last Saturday at Ole Miss. Coaches and players like to say it because it’s true — takeaways tend to come in bunches. Now that the Commodores have gotten a couple, there is reason to think that more will follow in this game and others. Once players know they can make those sorts of plays, they tend to make them much more often.
• Go-to guy: Wide receiver Trent Sherfield has emerged as the primary target in the offense. After a record-setting performance against Austin Peay, he had a solid but unspectacular performance (seven receptions, 55 yards) against much stiffer competition at Ole Miss. MTSU falls somewhere between those two defenses on the talent scale, so there’s reason to think Sherfield will have some catches — and maybe even a big play or two.
• First rate on third down: Vanderbilt’s offense was 10-for-22 on third down against Ole Miss and the defense allowed three conversions in 13 attempts. Vanderbilt is second in the SEC in both third-down offense and defense and the defense is among the top 10 in the FBS. MTSU has relied on long drives this season and Vanderbilt can stop such drives with stops on third down.
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt won’t win Saturday
• Father and son: MTSU coach Rick Stockstill made the somewhat surprising decision to go with his son Brent, a redshirt-freshman, as his starting quarterback this season. It is a move that has paid off for the Blue Raiders, who have one of the highest-scoring and most efficient offenses in the country. The younger Stockstill has completed roughly 70 percent of his passes and has spread the ball around to a bunch of different receivers.
• History lesson: None of the current players on either side had anything to do with it, but the Blue Raiders have won the last three meetings in the series. MTSU coaches need only to open up the history books or pull out some old game film to prove to their players it’s possible. Vanderbilt coaches can — and should — do the same to make sure their players, who already lost to one Conference USA team this season, are on high alert.
• Slow starters: Surprisingly for a team that has won just once in four games, Vanderbilt has scored first three times. The problem is that in each of those cases, the first points have come three at a time (field goals). MTSU has scored more than 70 points twice this season with some help from an opportunistic defense that can score in its own right. If the Commodores fall behind in this one, there's a chance they never catch up.
The bottom line
Vanderbilt has improved enough since the opener that it should win this game — provided it does not take a step backward.
The offense has not committed a turnover in the past two games. That has to continue because the Western Kentucky game showed what an equalizer — or a difference maker — those giveaways can be.
The defense has shown it can match up with prolific, up-tempo offenses. Ole Miss had a comparable scheme to MTSU but with better personnel, so last week’s game should serve as a good warm-up for this one.
There’s no doubt the Commodores have made significant strides in their second season under Derek Mason. Any chance for the results to reflect that improvement, though, will vanish if they don’t win this game.
Diane Neighbors will retire from Vanderbilt University after having worked 25 years at the school, most recently as director of the Vanderbilt Child and Family Center. The retirement (slated officially for Sept. 30) will come as Neighbors concludes her two terms as Nashville vice mayor.
Read more here.
Vanderbilt Law School graduate Darren Robbins has made a gift to the social justice program at the school, which will now carry the name of the late George Barrett. Barrett — pictured here with Rita Geier, with whom he worked for more than three decades on desegregating Tennessee's state universities — was a 1957 VU Law graduate who was a partner at Barrett Johnston until his death at 86 a year ago.
As a result of this gift, the Social Justice Program, which is co-directed by professors Terry Maroney and Daniel Sharfstein, will support students and graduates pursuing social justice careers. It will provide competitive one-year public interest fellowships to Vanderbilt Law School graduates each year, fund a number of students doing public interest legal work in the summer, and serve as the hub of social justice activities at the law school, including programming throughout the school year and an annual public lecture.
Read much more on this news here.
Vanderbilt University has tapped John M. Sloop as associate provost for digital learning.
According to a release, Sloop (pictured) will oversee the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning and will focus on the development and implementation of school-based educational technology initiatives. In addition, he will provide oversight of campus partnerships and experimentation with Coursera and Blackboard, among other digital platforms.
Sloop joined the VU faculty in 1995 as assistant professor of communication studies and was later promoted to professor in 2000. He served during the 2014-15 academic year as the interim dean of the VU College of Arts and Science.
“We believe educational technologies are transforming how we teach, learn and conduct research and that innovation in this burgeoning area is critical to our continued evolution as a university,” said Cynthia Cyrus, vice provost for learning and residential affairs. “John’s proven leadership, honed during his years as senior associate dean and then interim dean of the College of Arts and Science, will be of great benefit to our efforts in this area, and I’m grateful for his willingness to take on this new role.”
Read more here.
This is not a chicken-and-egg scenario.
Vanderbilt Chancellor Nick Zeppos believes the school needs a new football stadium, one with modern amenities and appeal. He also expects the football program, about to begin its second year under coach Derek Mason, to be better.
In this case, one definitely will come first.
“I tend to view things in kind of a sequential way to get the program and the facilities right,” Zeppos said in a lengthy appearance on 94.9 FM (The Game2) Wednesday morning. “And the first thing for me always is, ‘What is the fan experience on the field and in the stands?’
“So we’ve got to get right what is happening on that field.”
After three straight bowl appearances and back-to-back nine-win seasons under James Franklin, the Commodores slipped to 3-9 in 2014, Mason’s first season.
Presumably, therefore, whatever momentum there was for a new facility on West End has stalled somewhat. The idea of a new stadium remains very much alive, though, in the mind of the No. 1 man on campus.
“We’ve talked a lot about facilities, in particular the football facility, and I think that process continues,” Zeppos said. “I’d say it’s a very dynamic environment in terms of stadiums. When we start talking about, ‘What is the Vanderbilt football stadium of the future’ we really start thinking of the fan experience. I hate to say it, but a lot of kids want to watch six games when they’re at that game. And they want to be wired. They want to be able to experience a lot of different things.
“… It’s almost like a sports bar sort of environment that most of the fans want.”
To that end, he added that bigger is not necessarily the answer. Vanderbilt Stadium, with a capacity of 40,550, easily is the smallest in the SEC. The next smallest, at Ole Miss, can accommodate an additional 20,000-plus fans.
It’s more important, Zeppos contended, that the appeal of the place extends beyond the facility and into the surrounding area on campus and adjacent neighborhoods, all of which can be accomplished where the current stadium stands.
“I think it’s going to be more intimate, entertainment-driven and more multi-media that really focuses on the fan experience and then, particularly the way Nashville is going, building entertainment and excitement around that venue,” he said. “We just need a whole stadium-neighborhood buzz and vibrancy. That’s kind of how we’re conceiving it now.
“You can actually do some pretty exciting things on that footprint without disrupting things too much. There might be a year where we’d have to play somewhere else but I think that would be a low price to pay for a new facility.”
He did not offer any estimate of what it all might cost in actual dollars.
(Photo: Vanderbilt athletics)
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