AUBURN, Ala. — When it comes to cross-divisional games, Vanderbilt is a thorn in Auburn’s side. The Commodores are far from the most accomplished football program in the SEC, but they hold the all-time series lead against the Tigers and have won their last two meetings.
In the last two matchups between Auburn and Vanderbilt, the Commodores won a pair of low-scoring affairs that spelled the beginning of the end for head coaches Tommy Tuberville and Gene Chizik. In 2008, Vanderbilt was a ranked team. In 2012, a bowl-bound Vanderbilt piled even more misery on a struggling Auburn.
The 2016 meeting between the two programs doesn’t have that same kind of feel. But if Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-3 SEC) has a path to upsetting No. 9 Auburn (6-2, 4-1 SEC) in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, it’s another low-scoring contest thanks to its stellar defense.
In order to get a better look at what’s coming down to the Plains from Nashville this weekend, An Opposing View turned to Zac Ellis. Before he became a writer and digital media editor for Vanderbilt’s official team website, Ellis covered college football and basketball for Sports Illustrated.
For a Vanderbilt perspective on game day, make sure to follow @ZacEllisVU on Twitter. While you’re at it, check out his story on the Commodores’ mindset after back-to-back wins over Georgia and Tennessee State. Now, let’s preview the Vanderbilt roster with five questions for Ellis.
This will be a matchup of the two top rushers in the SEC. What are Ralph Webb’s strengths as a running back?
“Perhaps Webb’s best attribute is his durability. He has 164 carries this season – tops among SEC rushers – and has a school-record 663 carries in his career. But that workload hasn’t limited Webb’s effectiveness; he has started all 32 games of his Vanderbilt career.
“Plus, in a Commodore offense that runs nearly 60 percent of the time, Webb makes the most of each carry. He’s a stocky downhill runner who averages 5.2 yards per carry and has more rushing touchdowns in eight games (six) than he had all of last season (five).”
The other big name that Auburn fans are well aware of from this Vanderbilt roster is linebacker Zach Cunningham. What makes him one of the best in the SEC?
“Zach just has a knack for getting to the ball. We saw this in Vanderbilt’s 17-16 win at Georgia, in which Cunningham stuffed Isaiah McKenzie on a key fourth-and-one to seal the upset. (The linebacker had a career-high 19 tackles in that game.) But Cunningham also breaks into opponents’ backfield with regularity; he ranks second in the SEC with 13.5 tackles for loss.
“What’s funny is, Cunningham is a quiet, humble guy around the football facility. You’d never know he leads the league in total tackles (85) entering November.”
Vanderbilt beat Georgia on the road this season. The Commodores have also had a few tight road games with Ole Miss and Florida in recent years. How does Derek Mason get his team to play like this in hostile environments?
“It’s cliché, but I truly think Mason does a phenomenal job of convincing his team it can contend with anyone. Players like to repeat the mantra of ‘playing within ourselves,’ meaning they focus on themselves more than their opponent. Toss in Mason’s proven ability as a defensive play-caller, and Vanderbilt has remained competitive against top-tier opponents in the last two seasons.
“The win over Georgia was Vanderbilt’s first SEC road win under Mason, and like most of the coach’s tenure, defense delivered that victory. In fact, Vanderbilt’s defense has stepped up in SEC play this year. The Commodores rank third in the league in total defense (4.61 yards per play) and second in scoring defense (15.5) in SEC games this season. No matter your opponent, those numbers can keep you in any game.”
A lot of Auburn games this season have come down to who gets the advantage in the trenches. How would you grade Vanderbilt’s offensive and defensive lines so far this season?
“Neither line has played as well as it has wanted to this season. On offense, Vanderbilt has given up 17 sacks on the year, which has made quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s job difficult at times. On defense, the line has played well on rushing downs but also struggled to get to the opposing quarterback; the Commodores’ nine total sacks rank last in the SEC.
“Vanderbilt has had a bye week to prepare for Auburn in the trenches, but any way you slice it, the ‘Dores face a challenge up front on Saturday.”
What’s the formula for a Commodores upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday?
“Two factors are key for me: starting fast and stopping the run. The Commodores did both against Georgia. A 95-yard return by Darrius Sims on the opening kickoff set up a touchdown run by Ralph Webb, which gave Vanderbilt an early 7-0 lead.
“Plus, Mason’s defense limited Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to just 81 yards on 29 carries, or 2.8 yards-per-carry. That negated an otherwise effective outing by quarterback Jason Eason.
“Vanderbilt will need a few more points to keep up with Auburn, but a similar formula could keep the Tigers at bay on the Plains.”