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SEC Preview: Vanderbilt

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith previews the 2020 Vanderbilt Commodores.

Head Coach: Derek Mason; seventh season at Vanderbilt and overall (27-47 overall, 10-38 SEC)
Offensive Coordinator: Todd Fitch (first season)
Defensive Coordinator: Ted Roof (first season)
2019 Recap: 3-9 (1-7 SEC)
Quarterback play was the biggest question mark heading into last season for Vanderbilt, and unfortunately for the Commodores, it was never answered over the course of 12 games. The offense wasted some of the best skill position talent the school has ever seen, finishing near the bottom of the nation in efficiency, big-play production, and red zone success. All four quarterbacks from 2019 either graduated or left the team after the season, which is all the evidence needed to show how much of a disaster last season went. Defensively, the team regressed as well, but there’s much more promise on that side of the ball. A lot of young players saw significant time last year, and Derek Mason can still coach up a defense despite his shortcomings as a head coach.

2020 Schedule
Sept. 26 – at Texas A&M (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alternate)
Oct. 3 – LSU (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 17 – at Missouri (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 24 – Idle
Oct. 31 – OLE MISS (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Nov. 7 – at Mississippi State
Nov. 14 – at Kentucky
Nov. 21 – FLORIDA
Dec. 5 – at Georgia

Under Center
Vanderbilt played four different quarterbacks in 2019. They’ll have four quarterbacks competing for playing time in 2020. How many quarterbacks are part of both quartets? That’s right – zero. The quarterback room has completely turned over from last season, which isn’t a bad thing for an offense that managed fewer than five yards per play. Early-enrolling freshmen Ken Seals and transfer Jeremy Moussa had a leg up in the competition, but spring practice being shut down early limited their advantage of being on campus a semester early (the Commodores did complete the most spring practices of any SEC team).

The two summer newcomers are junior college transfer Danny Clark and freshman Mike Wright, who will have a bigger opportunity to earn the job than they probably expected in January. Mason won’t reveal his hand, so this could be a gameday surprise, especially if they plan to play multiple quarterbacks plan. None of these players are likely to be the second coming of Jay Cutler, particularly in their first seasons, so expect another struggle on offense, even with new coordinator Todd Fitch bringing some fresh energy after a good run at Louisiana Tech.

In The Trenches
The Commodores were hit hard by COVID-related opt-outs. The offensive line lost three players competing for starting roles late in the summer, including returning starter Cole Clemens. This unit wasn’t terrible in pass protection last year, allowing only 28 sacks, but the ground game produced only 11 touchdowns, fewest in the SEC. Left tackle Tyler Steen and center Grant Miller provide some stability, but all other positions appear to be wide open.

The front seven is the strength of this team by a significant margin. The Commodores project to start five seniors in the front seven, while there is good depth as well with the additions of some notable transfers. Inside linebacker and 2019 leading tackler Dimitri Moore had opted out of the season, but changed his mind and will now play. Dayo Odeyingbo and Drew Birchmeier are solid players at end and tackle respectively.

On The Edge
Gone are the team’s trio of offensive skill position standouts from a year ago, whose production fell dramatically without a competent quarterback. It’s a reboot at running back and wide receiver. Sophomore wideout Cam Johnson is the most promising player of anyone at the skill positions. Running back duties seem likely to fall to sophomore Keyon Henry-Brooks, the team’s leading returning rusher with just 252 yards last season, and senior Jamauri Wakefield, who battled injuries for most of 2019.

The secondary was torched last season. There were way too many big plays allowed, and the Commodores managed an SEC-low six interceptions. The combination of more experience and a new coordinator in Ted Roof, with Mason’s hands still being all over the defense, offers at least a bit of hope for this unit. Senior safety Tae Daley actually was a playmaker last season, recording half of the team’s six interceptions alone. After opening with Kellen Mond and Texas A&M, there aren’t many proven quarterbacks on the Vanderbilt schedule over the next month or so.

Ranking The Units
1.   Defensive Line
2.   Linebackers
3.   Defensive Backs
4.   Offensive Line
5.   Receivers
6.   Running Backs
7.   Quarterbacks

Schedule Analysis
It’s tough early, really tough late, and pretty manageable in the middle. If the Commodores are going to find a win or two this season, it’s probably going to come in the four-game stretch between mid-October and mid-November. Vanderbilt will play South Carolina and Missouri, have a week off, and then face Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The ‘Dores will be underdogs in all four games, but each is winnable individually. Ending the season with Florida, Tennessee and Georgia is a cruel joke from the league office.

Season Prediction
By rule, I don’t predict teams that went winless in conference play the previous year to come up empty again. With the Commodores registering an improbable win over a collapsing Missouri team last season, I can comfortably call for an 0-10 season for Vanderbilt. It’s hard to see where the yards and points are going to come from, even if the defense does take a step forward (although the Roof hire was curious one). They’ll be competitive in three or four games, but I can’t find a win. Economics may allow Mason to survive a bagel in the win column, but this program appears close to bottoming out.

Record: 0-10
CFP Ranking: NR

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.