Can Jordan Rogers have a big year for Vanderbilt? (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
War Eagle, everybody! It's time once again for another Auburn opponent preview. On October 20th, Auburn completes a two-game road swing with a trip to Nashville to play the Vanderbilt Commodores. By this time, the Tigers will have played Clemson in Atlanta, Mississippi State in Starkville, Louisiana Monroe, LSU, had an open date, then Arkansas, and Ole Miss in Oxford. Vanderbilt's first half schedule starts the league season off with a Thursday night home opener against South Carolina. Then the Commodores travel to Chicagoland to play Northwestern, back home to host Presbyterian, then to Athens to play Georgia. An open date follows, then the Commodores play at Missouri, then host Florida and Auburn. It's an unusual situation for both teams, having played only one cupcake each this late into October.
When comparing the two teams' offensive stats, one thing stands out. Last year for Vanderbilt was considered a surprisingly successful offensive year, while Auburn's output was regarded as disastrous. The numbers are pretty even. Auburn averaged 25.7 points per game, and 337 yards. Vanderbilt averaged 26.7 points and 339 yards. It is worth noting that Vandy produced over 31 points per game in their last seven games. This year's Vandy offense returns 9 starters, including starting senior quarterback Jordan Rogers, who helped spark the team the second half of last season. The only starters that must be replaced are right tackle Kyle Fischer and tight end Brandon Barden. Senior running back Zac Stacy tallied 1193 yards last season, but the position is a mash-unit behind him, with junior receiver Wesley Tate moving to running back during the spring to take up the slack.
Defensively the Commodores must replace 4 starters. Gone are star linebacker Chris Marve, all-SEC corner Casey Howard, and pass-rushing end Tim Fugger. Much of Vanderbilt's success last season keyed on holding opponents to only 3.6 yards per rush. Teams were not able to line up and run over Vanderbilt like in the past. To shore things up again this season, junior Chase Garnham is moving to the middle linebacker spot from outside. It's difficult to tell what the impact of player losses will be, and Vanderbilt's spring game was little help. What the Commodores did was put all starters on one team, and beat the snot out of the reserves.
Vanderbilt was in the upper half of the SEC on special teams last season, with the exception of kicking field goals. While the team had good coverage, decent return men, and ran several successful fakes, they had a tendency to miss game-winning field goals. Most of the special teams regulars return, and the Commodores expect to be solid once again.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Vanderbilt offensive line: A front four of junior Dee Ford, junior Jeffery Whitaker, sophomore Gabe Wright, and junior Corey Lemonier should be pretty special, and Auburn is at least two deep behind the starters. Commodore sophomore Andrew Bridges played right tackle this spring, but could lose the job this fall to senior Ryan Seymour, who missed spring drills with injuries. The Vanderbilt line struggled at times last season, and they are still shuffling players around on a unit that needs more depth. Junior Wesley Johnson is a solid left tackle, and right guard Josh Jelesky has experience. Sophomores Spencer Pulley and Grant Ramsey fill out the line at center and left guard. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Vanderbilt backs: Auburn should have some combination of Darren Bates, Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Jonathan Evans starting for this one. Senior running back Zac Stacy is a shifty, powerful, low-to-the-ground slasher, and he doesn't get caught for losses very often. He scored 14 touchdowns last season, and piled up 1193 yards. Wesley Tate got good reviews this spring filling in at running back, while experienced ball carriers Warren Norman and Jerron Seymour try to return from injuries. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Vanderbilt receivers: This season, Auburn has the depth to keep corners fresh. Sophomore Robensen Therezie and junior Chris Davis have the speed to match up with anyone, and there's fast, talented guys two deep behind them. Vanderbilt returns nearly their entire receiving corps. They weren't noted for break away speed last season, but any of these guys can go across the middle and outwrestle a corner for a key completion. Junior Jordan Matthews and sophomore Chris Boyd are the starters, who combined for 13 touchdowns and 72 receptions a year ago. No other wide receiver except for Wesley Tate (who's currently playing running back) caught more than 5 passes last season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Vanderbilt secondary receivers and quarterback: Right now, sophomore Erique Florence and junior Demetruce McNeil are penciled in as Auburn starters, but expect sophomore Ryan Smith to play a lot, and also walk-on Trent Fisher. Vanderbilt senior quarterback Jordan Rogers has a big arm, and good mobility. The knock on him has been his accuracy, completing only 50 percent last season. Against the reserve defense in the spring game, he was only 14 of 29, but did hit a few big plays. Vanderbilt likes to screen it to running backs, Zac Stacy had 20 catches last season. Wesley Tate will be a good set of hands either out of the backfield, or as a slot receiver. New senior starting tight Austin Monahan caught 3 balls last season. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn returns Ray Guy finalist punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can't be returned. Auburn punted 72 times last season, and only allowed 10 returns for 62 yards. Clark pinned 33 of those punts, nearly half, inside the opponent's 20. Senior Commodore punter Richard Kent averaged 42.5 yards per punt, with 23 of 64 punts killed inside the 20. Junior Jonathan Krause fields punts for Vanderbilt. He had 19 returns last season for 4.1 yards per return. Auburn's Quan Bray averaged 7.4 yards per return on 13 returns. Vanderbilt held opponents to just 3.9 yards per return. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn junior kicker Cody Parkey was a weapon last season on kickoffs, hammering 38 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. Junior Carey Spear handled kickoffs last season for Vanderbilt, averaging 64.4 yards per kickoff with 10 touchbacks. Juniors Andre Hal and Steven Clarke handled the bulk of Vanderbilt's return game, averaging 23.8 and 22.1 yards per return, respectively. Auburn utilized several return guys over the course of the season. Trey Mason averaged 26.4, Onterio McCalebb averaged 30.7, and Quan Bray averaged 24.2. Auburn gave up 22.1 yards per return, and the Commodores gave up 20.1. Vanderbilt had a bit better coverage, but Auburn's a lot more dangerous kicking off and returning. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn junior Cody Parkey was 13 of 18 on field goal kicks last season, with a few key misses. Vanderbilt returns a pair of kickers who each hit 4 of 7 attempts: senior Ryan Fowler and junior Carey Spear. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Vanderbilt defensive line: Auburn's starting offensive line for A-Day from left to right was redshirt freshman Greg Robinson, senior John Sullen, sophomore Reese Dismukes, sophomore Chad Slade, and true freshman Patrick Miller. There's depth and talent behind those guys, as well. Seniors Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter return to anchor the middle in the Vanderbilt line. Lohr tends to get good penetration, and had 11.5 tackles for loss last season. At end, junior Walker May is a returning starter. Penciled in on the other side is senior Johnell Thomas. You have to give this line a lot of credit for Vanderbilt's good rushing defense last season. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. Vanderbilt linebackers: Speed back Onterio McCalebb has been a factor for 3 years in the Auburn offense, and should be again. There was a battle in the spring for the "between the tackles" back, between sophomores Tre Mason and Corey Grant. Sophomore Mike Blakely provided elusiveness in the A-Day game. Junior All-American transfer from Illinois Jay Prosch has been a one-man wrecking crew at fullback. Junior Chase Garnham and senior Archibald Barnes are returning starters at linebacker, with Garnham moving to the middle. Junior Karl Butler should take over the 3rd position. This is a capable crew, but they'll miss the departed Chris Marve. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Vanderbilt corners: Auburn senior Emory Blake is a proven weapon, but he spent much of last season banged up. A second outside receiver has yet to step up, although Auburn has talented candidates. The speedy sophomore Trovon Reed has the most explosiveness, if he can manage to stay healthy. Senior Travante Stallworth looked good in the A-Day game, and has a good bit of game experience. Vanderbilt fields a pair of senior corners, Trey Wilson and Eddie Foster. Wilson had 3 interceptions and 8 pass breakups a year ago, playing opposite all-SEC corner Casey Hayward. Foster has played sparingly to date. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Vanderbilt safeties: The Auburn quarterback is likely to be sophomore Khiel Frazier. Frazier looked good this spring, and is an athletic guy. The chief Auburn secondary receiver is senior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who has had a great Auburn career thus far. Lutz will likely be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. Junior strong safety Javon Marshall was solid last season, but missed spring drills this year. He'll be joined by joined this fall by free safety Kenny Ladler, who tallied 53 tackles a year ago. Advantage: Even.
Both of these teams like to run the ball, and there will be a spirited battle in the trenches. Midway through October, I think Auburn will be in better shape, depth-wise. Vanderbilt was very fortunate on the injury front last season, and I think one can expect some regression to the mean this year. I think Auburn has a few more break-away threats, too.
While this looks like an Auburn win on paper, most recent Tiger trips to Nashville have been harrowing. In 1991, Auburn needed a last second Jim Von Wyl field goal to pull out a 24-22 win. In 1993, the Attitude Tigers needed a goal-line stand to win 14-10. In 2001, it was a late Damon Duval field goal that won it for the Tigers, 24-21. The Tigers stomped Vandy 45-7 in 2003, but in 2008, Vanderbilt beat Auburn for the first time in more than 50 years, 14-13. Nashville's been a tough out, in recent Tiger history.
Prediction: This edition of the Tigers is able to win the time of possession, and keep Vanderbilt's tricky offense on the sideline for much of the contest. Auburn win, 24-13.