View from the other side: 5 questions with Vanderbilt beat writer Jeff Lockridge on Saturday’s game

Vandy coach James Franklin (AP photo)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Vanderbilt clinched its third consecutive bowl appearance last week, while Tennessee must on Saturday to keep its hopes alives.

The Vols (4-6, 1-5) play the Commodores (6-4, 3-4) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.)

We talked to Vanderbilt beat writer Jeff Lockridge of The Tennessean in Nashville to get his thoughts on this weekend’s game. Follow Jeff on Twitter for the latest on Vandy sports.

For my contribution to Jeff’s blog, click here.

Q. What does the return of Austyn Carta-Samuels mean to the Vanderbilt offense? Was there any hint of indecision about returning him to the starting role after Patton Robinette played well in the win against Florida?

Carta-Samuels’ return simply means that James Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan have their most experienced guy taking the snaps – a guy that they have confidence in handling any pass call and a guy that can complete throws at a high clip. While Carta-Samuels was a little rusty and made some minor miscues in the first half against Kentucky last week, he completed 19 of 24 passes (79.2 percent) for the game. His mobility isn’t what it was before his left-knee injury in the Georgia game – he wore a knee brace in his first start back – but that’s a trade-off Franklin will accept in exchange for his ability to read defenses and his chemistry with Jordan Matthews.

Carta-Samuels was always going to get his job back once he was medically cleared to play. It was just a matter of how soon that would be. That said, Robinette did a very nice job of managing the offense in Carta-Samuels’ absence. He led Vandy to a comeback win against Georgia and got the win at Florida, with a rocky start at Texas A&M sandwiched between the two. Robinette offers more of a dual threat with his running ability and big frame that Vandy doesn’t have otherwise. It wouldn’t stun me if the redshirt freshman comes in for a snap or two in the red zone when Franklin wants the option of a QB draw.

Q. Both Butch Jones and James Franklin seem to have downplayed the importance of this game, other than it being the next game on the schedule they need to win. How important is this game to Franklin, Vandy and the players?

Well, I’d suggest it’s a bigger game to diehard Vandy fans than anyone else. But this will always be a huge game to Franklin and Vandy players. Their whole persona is built around having a chip on their shoulder (the coaches even wear shirts with the word “chip” printed on the shoulder). Franklin sees UT as the big, public school with most of the state’s college football fans, and Vandy as the small, private, blue-collar program that is trying to reel in more fans and succeed in proving everyone wrong.

You’re never going to see Franklin publicly make one game out to be more important than the others because it would conflict with his “1-0 this week” sermons to his players and the media. However, if you want to gauge how important it is, watch the reactions of Franklin, the players and the crowd after last year’s rout of the Vols in Nashville. From pride to recruiting battles to changing Vandy’s perception in the public eye, it means something. Winning two in row with the second coming in Knoxville, to use a tennis analogy, would be like following a break of serve by holding at love. Vandy would become the hunted instead of the hunter in this rivalry.

Q. What’s Vandy’s biggest weakness, and how successful have teams been in trying to exploit it this year?

While the running game has been too inconsistent and slow starts have plagued this team in all of its losses, I’d point to Vandy’s struggles defending up-tempo offenses and mobile quarterbacks as the primary weakness. Missouri and Texas A&M, Vandy’s most recent losses, conducted clinics on how to keep the Commodores off-balance by using a lot of quick, high-percentage passes with the occasional run sprinkled in. Vandy rarely plays press coverage and is willing to surrender small chunks of yardage at a time, banking on a turnover or a sack or a tackle for loss to help get its defense off the field at some point. But guys like Connor Shaw, James Franklin (the Missouri one) and Johnny Manziel got the ball out quickly and scrambled effectively to avoid pressure while taking advantage of Vandy’s matchup issues.

Vandy did a decent job of pestering a pretty mobile quarterback in Jalen Whitlow last week, so perhaps it’s not as glaring a weakness as it once was. Getting linebackers Chase Garnham and Karl Butler back from injuries – and the emergence of Darreon Herring – have helped stabilize the linebacking corps. The status of defensive end Caleb Azubike, who was hurt at the end of the Kentucky game, will be one thing to watch for this week.

Q. Franklin will likely be mentioned among prominent names in the postseason coaching carousel. Do you think he’s back at Vandy in 2014?

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked that question … well,  I’d have a lot of nickels. I don’t have a clear answer on this. I think it depends exactly which school(s) come calling, because it’s going to have to be a sweet offer from a perennial power to lure him away. Lateral moves or small steps up have not been tempting enough the past two offseasons, and I don’t see that changing.

Is there a chance he bolts? Sure. But I can see both ways of thinking here. Perhaps he leaves if having a program in the national spotlight and contending for national titles is atop his priority list. Perhaps he leaves if he becomes convinced Vandy cannot sell out a 40,000-seat stadium on a regular basis (although lowering prices on individual-game tickets and playing bigger-name opponents outside the SEC could assist in this regard). Perhaps he leaves if he feels like he’s being hamstrung in regards to bringing in the kids he wants on the heels of this devastating rape case.

On the other hand, Franklin has the future looking pretty bright at Vandy. He’s making a lot of money – the kind of money I never thought Vandy would commit to a coach – after have his contracted reworked twice since being hired. Vandy just opened a $31 million recreation center expansion project with a plush indoor football facility, which was built at Franklin’s bidding. Vandy made sure his entire coaching staff remained intact last offseason. The recruiting budget has gone up, allowing for Franklin to take the occasional private jet or helicopter when he likes. Franklin has created a winning perception here, and yet he has virtually no pressure on him other than what is self-imposed. He, his family and his coaches all seem to really enjoy living in Nashville. So like I said, the arguments can be made both ways. But it’s no longer a situation where a good coach can’t wait to leave here.

Q. What’s your prediction for the game and why?

My gut tells me Vandy wins in Knoxville for the first time since 2005, but I’d be wary of this game if I’m a Commodores fan. UT had the bye week to rest and prepare, and as Vandy offensive lineman Wesley Johnson noted, the Vols have more to play for: bowl eligibility, revenge for last year’s embarrassment, a win for Jones in his first UT-Vandy contest, etc. In the end, I think the Vols will have trouble containing Matthews and a more confident Vandy defense will continue its turnover binge with a couple of key takeaways to decide a testy affair. Let’s say: Vandy 28-24.