Key Match-up: Vanderbilt Offense Versus Texas A&M Defense
When the Vanderbilt Commodores offense takes the field for the first time in 2020 on Saturday in College Station against the No.109 ranked Texas A&M Aggies, it will do so with a new, unproven signal-caller leading the way.
Though not an unfamiliar situation for Vanderbilt and head coach Derek Mason, having opened 2019 against Georgia at home with a first-time starter as a Commodore, last season's starter Riley Neal, was experienced in the college game, having transferred from Ball State.
This time around, Mason also has two transfer quarterbacks who have played at the college level, though in JUCO, and neither has taken a snap at the D-I level. Mason also has two talented true freshmen competing for the spot who would take their very first college snap at any level if they are called upon Saturday.
It's an unenviable position where Mason and offensive coordinator Todd Fitch sit as they prepare to face the No.10 ranked team in the country. However, there is some room for optimism.
The Aggies return five of six starters from a season ago on their defensive line and linebackers on the 4-2-5 alignment of defensive coordinator Mike Elko. While experienced, this group was not dominant a season ago.
This group finished 2019 ranked 9th in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 22.5 points per game. That number was good enough for 37th nationally, however.
The Aggies allowed 130.7 yards rushing and 209.5 yards per game passing for 340.2 yards per contest. Those numbers were good for 5th, 7th, and 8th in the conference, respectively. All ranked inside the top-50 nationally as well.
So to say they were a good defense in 2019 wouldn't be a surprise.
Enter 2020, where the front six are an experienced bunch led by senior defensive end Michael Clemmons and fellow senior linebacker Buddy Johnson and having a solid depth rotation behind the starters.
However, perhaps their best defensive player is a sophomore. DeMarvin Leal is a 6'4" 290 wrecking ball on the defensive line with as much upside to his game as any player in the conference. While there could be some debate about Leal being the most talented player for the Aggies defense, he will be one the Commodores must account for, or he will create havoc for their offense.
They will face a Vanderbilt offensive line that is an unknown commodity, but one that will be thrown to the fire immediately.
How well that offensive line can protect whoever wins the quarterback competition and open holes for a deep Commodore backfield will be a determining factor in the outcome.
This is no shocking revelation, as most games in the SEC are won and lost in the trenches. Still, for Vanderbilt and their reworked offensive line with an unproven and inexperienced quarterback taking the reigns, it will be magnified times two in this season opener.
The Commodores are heavy underdogs, but should the offensive line perform above expectations, Vanderbilt, with an experienced and veteran defensive unit, could stick around and make the Aggies work harder than anticipated.