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LSU vs. Vanderbilt: What To Watch For

Tigers hit the road to open conference play against winless Vanderbilt.

Northwestern State v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Road trip you say?

Tigers are hitting the road to open Southeastern Conference play against our old enemy...ROBBER BARONS.

Or the Vanderbilt Commodores, 0-2 in ugly fashion so far. LSU has another chance to impress, and more importantly, another chance to get better.

What To Watch For On Saturday

Life on the Margins

Vanderbilt football’s lot in life has changed quite a bit over the last 10 years. After some 30 years firmly in the SEC’s basement, James Franklin found a way to get the Commodores to three straight bowl games and even won nine games twice. Derek Mason hasn’t quite hit those heights in five seasons, but he has at least found a way to stabilize things in recent years. You can generally count on his Vandy teams to hover in that four-to-six win .500ish range, based on how their schedule breaks, injury luck and a couple bounces in tight games. They’re not good enough to threaten a top-shelf team, but they can sneak up on plenty of other teams, and are far from the easy out most regarded them as for a couple decades.

Even in those tougher days, you could almost always count on the ‘Dores to have one or two All-SEC caliber players. From Jamie Duncan and Corey Chavous in the 1990s to Jay Cutler, Earl Bennett or D.J. Moore in the 2000s. This year’s squad comes with three in tight end Jared Pinkney, receiver Kalija Lipscomb and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Pinkney is probably the SEC’s top tight end, and could start for anyone in the league, and Vaughn and Lipscomb would play for most teams, LSU included.

That isn’t to say LSU can’t out-talent this team at the other 18 positions on the field, but it’s important to make sure you do that. Keep a team like this at arm’s length. Because in a tight game that comes down to a handful of plays, Vandy has a handful of players talented enough to get things done.

On the Road

The old saying is that “defense travels,” because offenses can struggle in a hostile environment, loud noise, etc... I wouldn’t say that holds up very often now, and it’s definitely not true of Vanderbilt.

That said, Vandy offers an interesting variable for this particular LSU team due to the fact that LSU has become a pass-first offense.

Good defense is generally much more about talent than scheme. On offense you can get results with one or two great players. Defense you need talent at just about every level, inside-out, front to back. Most good coordinators hang their hats on just keeping things simple enough so that the players are reacting quickly and playing smart and aggressive. There are only a handful of truly great schemers, and some of those really make their bones scheming against the pass.

Mason is on that short list. He’s not afraid to change up his coverages, or how he disguises them, to disrupt the opposing quarterback. QB drops back and is caught by something unexpected, or that he’s never seen on film. Mason runs an aggressive style of 3-4 that had major success at Stanford, and has been effective at times for Vandy for that very reason. He’s not afraid to challenge his players with complex schemes. Probably helps having kids smart enough to attend Stanford and Vanderbilt.

With that in mind, LSU’s best bet to counter this is to try and avoid obvious passing situations as often as possible. Take what’s available, stay on schedule, and push the ball down the field on its own terms.

Of course, that’s been a major strength of LSU’s offense to date, with Joe Burrow seeing just five third-down passing situations of six yards or longer.

Business Trip

The reality is paper and practice hasn’t quite worked for this Vanderbilt team so far. They’re 0-2, been outscored more than two to one and currently allowing 7.6 yards per play on offense.

Georgia did whatever they wanted in week one, rushing for 300 yards. And then in week two Purdue was able to throw for 500 yards and five touchdowns.

Vandy’s been able to get teams off the field on third down (allowing just a 33 percent conversion rate), but they allow so many big plays it’s rarely an issue — 40 plays from scrimmage of 10 yards or more in just two games and 15 of more than 15 yards.

There’s no obvious reason LSU should have any problem doing exactly what they’ve done to date with the ball in their hands. Run your offense, utilize this talented receiving corps, score quickly, and make the game even more one-dimensional by forcing the Vanderbilt offense to try and keep up.

LSU’s defense is still working some things out, and will be a little short-handed again without Rashard Lawrence or Glen Logan (K’Lavon Chaisson’s status seems up in the air as of press time), but luckily they’re facing one of the worst offensive fronts in the SEC. Vanderbilt currently ranks:

  • 103rd in Line Yards;
  • 107th in Opportunity Rate;
  • 77th in Sack Rate; and
  • 107th in Passing Downs Sack Rate.

This is a group that doesn’t block particularly well versus the run (they average just 3.2 yards per carry) and can’t protect the quarterback in passing situations. Even solid skill talent (grad transfer quarterback Riley Neal isn’t bad either) can’t make much happen without blocking.

We saw Dave Aranda adjust his defense in some ways that work last week against Northwestern State. So does he come out with more of the same, or keep tinkering, much as he has through the first three games? It’s felt like Aranda’s been trying to figure some things out with this group. And sure, in theory it would seem like LSU can overmatch Vandy and Utah State in two weeks before the meat of the schedule arrives, but if this defense is ever going to start playing some big-time football, it has to have a starting point.