In the country music business, Nashville is one of those iconic places where people go to hit it big.
In the college football business, LSU goes to the Tennessee town not trying to make a splash, but to keep churning out the hits.
The No. 4-ranked Tigers arrived two weeks ago and 850 miles west of Vanderbilt with a 45-38 victory at Texas. That top-10 showdown victory thrust LSU into the national championship picture, made Joe Burrow a Heisman Trophy contender and had the backup singers belting out Ed Orgeron’s praises for embracing a modern, RPO/spread offense.
The Tigers go to Vandy trying not so much to climb the mountain as stay on top (Rocky top? No better than that). They’re not some young kid with a guitar and a dream belting out a tune in a honky tonk on Nashville’s Broadway, but more like a Jason Aldean looking to cash in with another big concert crowd.
Every Southeastern Conference opponent deserves respect, capable of springing an upset or at least producing upset stomach via the possibility of a “tear in your beer” said tale of a game. But LSU swapped a home game last season with Georgia (perhaps LSU’s best performance of 2018, a 36-16 victory) for a road game at Vanderbilt. That’s a trade anyone would make. Especially the Tigers, coming in flashy and fast but still with some base line issues to resolve.
As for the venue, Vanderbilt Stadium won’t be so much a hostile road venue as a place where the theme song could be Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.” Think more Grand Ole Opry than your typical Southeastern Conference meatgrinder like Tiger Stadium or The Swamp or Bryant-Denny. Georgia fans filled about two-thirds of Vandy’s cozy horseshoe-shaped home field Aug. 31 for their season opener against the Commodores.
A reunion concert by The Commodores might have drawn more Vandy fans.
LSU fans probably aren’t going to pull off quite the Georgia-like takeover, but there will be thousands of purple and gold-clad folks sweating in the stands as the Tigers try to shake off the heat (expected kickoff temps will be in the upper 80s) and the earliness of the 11 a.m. start. LSU fans are more accustomed to a second round of Bloody Marys at that hour in the long, 80-proof ramp up to a night-time kickoff than they are an actual kickoff at that hour. Still, by the time this one ends mid-afternoon Saturday, the Tigers should be heading to their tour bus, er, bus to the airport serenaded by tune from Roger Miller’s 60s country classic, “King of the Road.”
Vanderbilt has just enough offensive weapons to get LSU’s attention. Tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn is managing just 65 yards per game rushing this season but averaged an eye-popping eight yards per carry in 2018. Riley Neal is a capable quarterback, and wide receiver Chris Pierce (though he has just four catches) is averaging a respectable 75 yards per game receiving.
Vanderbilt’s defense, though, is enough to give Commodores fans a case of the achy breaky heart. Only four of 130 FBS teams surrender more passing yards per game than Vandy (332.5), and the ‘Dores are giving up a shade under 510 yards per game total. Jim Morrison and The Doors (not a country act, but just play along) probably would have given up less real estate than that per game.
That said, the Tigers have their issues to deal with. What a great time to be alive for Orgeron, who can revel in his team’s super start but can still chew on his players for the flaws they still need to fix.
LSU’s defense has been under duress with several starters missing time the past two games. But still, the production needs to be better. The secondary Coach O said is the best he’s ever been around has yet to record an interception this season. Defensive stars like Grant Delpit, Michael Divinity (who sat out two of LSU’s first three games) and K’Lavon Chaisson have yet to show the right stuff. The Tigers have eight sacks so far, but just one against the Northwestern State this past week and appear incapable of getting to the quarterback unless they bring pressure.
“The pass rush will cost us,” Orgeron said. “We're experimenting with different things. We're going to have to blitz. We're not ready to use the four-man rush now with the guys that we have.
“You’re going to see more blitzes, more creative ways to get pass rush.”
Then there is LSU’s running game. Lost in the dazzling glare shining off the Tigers’ passing game, LSU is averaging a modest 115.3 yards per game on the ground. That’s been adequate because the passing game has produced in abundance, but you would certainly think the spread formations would have opened up more running lanes by now. In fairness, the offensive line has continued to be in a state of flux similar to how it was in 2018, with absent players hampering the effort.
“It's always good to be able to win and look at the things that you must improve on,” Orgeron said, “and the guys see it. We had some experienced guys up front that didn't play very well, and they know it. I talked to them about it. They're going to be hungrier this week.
“Again, the LSU standard of performance is very high. They understand it. I think they see it before I do sometimes, which is good.”
LSU is in very little danger of losing this one — ESPN’s Football Power Index gave the Tigers a 92 percent chance of winning. But one Saturday soon the Tigers will have to pull all the pieces together for a more cohesive effort.
Then you really may see a hit factory the country music makers would envy.