Coping with, and Conquering, Change

Vanderbilt adjusts on the fly from facing Tennessee to traveling to Missouri

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Adjusting on the fly has become the norm for Vanderbilt – and, really, everyone else – in 2020. This week presented more of the same.

The Commodores began preparations for arch-rival Tennessee on Sunday in hopes of winning that annual contest for the fourth time in five seasons at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium. Instead, Vandy is now heading to Columbia, Missouri, to play Missouri at 11 a.m. Saturday.

It’s just the latest part of an extremely unique season.

“I think at this point anything is possible and you have to be ready for all sorts of different things to happen,” Vanderbilt offensive lineman Drew Birchemier said. “Since we hadn’t really started the week yet, it wasn’t too weird for us. With everything that has happened and the fact that it hadn’t really started yet, it hasn’t been too crazy of shock.

“You just have to go with the flow – especially this year.”

Saturday would have been the final home game of the season for Vanderbilt and a chance to recognize at least 20 academic seniors for their commitment to the program. Now, the SEC and administrators from both Tennessee and Vanderbilt will hope to reschedule the game.

Commodore head coach Derek Mason said there was a bit of a letdown Monday evening in the sense that his team and staff had to switch gears from preparing to face a bitter rival at home to planning for an unexpected road trip – not to mention putting together a game plan for an entirely new opponent.

“In any other year it would probably be one of those things where you feel like the sky is falling,” Mason said. “But in 2020, it’s normal.”

Vandy, still in search of its first win of 2020, has seemingly continued to gain steam and momentum despite being on the wrong end of the scoreboard in seven straight contests. Its core group of young playmakers on offense has improved on third down, in the red zone and at protecting the ball, which has allowed Mason’s club to stay competitive in recent weeks.

But the Dores still are looking for that first game of putting a full 60 minutes together defensively, offensively and on special teams. Some of those shortcomings can be attributed to youth, player availability due to injury or COVID-19 protocols or the opponent simply playing better football.

“I think it definitely just has to go with getting these reps,” Birchmeier said of the offense’s improvement in recent weeks. “Coming in with a true freshman quarterback and a brand new offense and a weird season of playing only SEC teams and trying to figure that all out and get those reps, that’s really what has helped us progress is continuously playing together, just continuously learning the offense and continuously figuring out what to do.”

Missouri, originally scheduled to face Arkansas this weekend, is 3-1 in its past four with the lone loss coming at No. 6 Florida – the same Florida team that just beat Vanderbilt 38-17. The Tigers (3-3, 3-3 SEC) started 0-2 before racking up victories over No. 17 LSU, Kentucky and South Carolina.

The two relatively new conference rivals have met every season now since 2012 and Vandy (0-7, 0-7 SEC) currently owns bragging rights in the series after a 21-14 victory last season in Nashville.

Saturday’s matchup will feature two of college football’s better freshmen quarterbacks in Vanderbilt’s Ken Seals and Missouri’s Connor Bazelek. Seals is averaging 230 passing yards per game while Bazelek is completing 68 percent of his throws for the season.

“We’re full swing in preparation for Missouri,” Mason reiterated. “I feel really good about what we’ve been able to put together is the last 24 hours. I think it’s a plan that attacks this Missouri team, which I think is tremendously talented, tremendously improved under (Missouri head coach) Eli (Drinkwitz).”

Another change for this week for Vanderbilt – and likely most teams – will be navigating the holiday break. Typically, Mason said, the Dores would gather for a traditional Thanksgiving meal, then spend time at an assistant coach’s residence or with the family of a local student-athlete.

That won’t be the case this year in order to keep COVID-19 protocols in order.

So while these next few days will be full of more changes during a season that presented so many, Mason made sure to emphasize there are some things that remain the same during the last week of November every year.

“Be grateful for what we have – we are thankful we have a team. We do get to play a game this weekend and doing it together and being with one another,” he said.

Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for Follow him @MrChadBishop.