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SEC Season Preview: Vanderbilt

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the 2017 Vanderbilt Commodores.

Head Coach: Derek Mason – fourth year at Vanderbilt; third year overall (13-24 overall, 5-19 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Andy Ludwig (third season)

Defensive Coordinator: Mason (third season)

2016 Record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC); lost to. N.C. State in Independence Bowl

Returning Starters: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense)

2017 Schedule

Sept. 2 – at Middle Tennessee (8 p.m. ET, CBSSN)
Sept. 9 – ALABAMA A&M (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alt.)
Sept. 16 – KANSAS STATE (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Sept. 23 – ALABAMA

Sept. 30 – at Florida

Oct. 7 – GEORGIA
Oct. 14 – at Ole Miss
Oct. 28 – at South Carolina

Nov. 4 – WESTERN KENTUCKY
Nov. 11 – KENTUCKY
Nov. 18 – MISSOURI

Nov. 25 – at Tennessee

What We Know

-The defense should again be salty. Vanderbilt could start as many as nine seniors, allowing Derek Mason to expand the playbook with so many players with three years in his system. The head coach and defensive coordinator said last month that he expects to utilize around 28 different structures, which is double from that of a year ago. There’s no Zach Cunningham, as the All-American linebacker is now a Houston Texan, but the Commodores still should improve on paper despite the loss of their star.

-Ralph Webb remains way under the radar. Webb has a good chance to finish his career as the SEC’s No. 2 all-time leading rusher, trailing only the great Herschel Walker. Averaging 5.1 yards per carry and scoring 13 touchdowns behind an average at best offensive line in the SEC is and impressive season, and Webb should be fresher this season with the emergence of Khari Blasingame, a big, 235-pound junior who scored 10 times last season. The schedule is tough, but matching last year’s 4.3 yards per carry is feasible.

-The receiving corps is the best it’s been under Mason. The top eight receivers from 2016 (including Webb) all return, led but senior C.J. Duncan, who is now two years removed a medical redshirt season. Duncan led the team in receptions and yards last year, but should be more explosive this season. There’s a nice tight end duo with Jared Pinkney and Nathan Marcus, and senior Caleb Scott emerged as a big-play threat last year with a staggering 19.2 yards per catch average.

What We Don’t Know

-Can Kyle Shurmur win a game on his own if he has to? Shurmur was great in the upset of Tennessee, but the Vols defense was so banged up by that time that they were a shadow of the unit they were thought to be. For the season, Shurmur completed less than 55 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. He improved as the year went on after some poor outings at midseason, but finished with a 19-of-46 dud in the bowl loss to N.C. State.

-Will the red zone play be as good as it was a year ago? The Commodores found the end zone in 70 percent of their red zone trips – second-most in the SEC. Defensively, only 47 percent of opponents’ offensive drives inside the 20-yard line ended with six points. A plus-23 red zone touchdown margin is hard to repeat, but it’s what won the Commodores games against Georgia and Western Kentucky when they were outgained by 250 and 107 yards respectively. It’s now a trend with the defense, but it may very well be a one-year blip for the offense. If it is, a bowl bid could be a struggle.

-Can Vanderbilt survive the first half of the season? After a dangerous opener at little brother Middle Tennessee, the Commodores get a cupcake against Alabama A&M. Then comes a murderous stretch of Kansas State, Alabama, Florida and Georgia. That feels like an 0-4 stretch. The good news? The Commodores rallied from 2-4 last year to finish 6-6. The next five games after that stretch are all very winnable, but what shape will the team be in both mentally and physically by the time the leaves are changing colors?

X-Factor

LB Emmanuel Smith – Smith has the unenviable task of replacing Cunningham at inside linebacker – the most decorated defensive player in school history. At 225 pounds, he’s undersized, even by today’s slimmed down measurable standards for linebackers. The run defense wasn’t as good statistically as it was perceived with Cunningham’s presence, so there’s room to grow. With run-heavy offenses in that rugged first half of the season, Smith will have to take a sizable leap after making just six tackles as a junior.

Ranking The Units

1.   Running Backs
2.   Linebackers
3.   Defensive Backs
4.   Defensive Line
5.   Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
6.   Quarterbacks
7.   Offensive Line

Season Prediction

Last season, Vanderbilt went 2-1 against the SEC East bluebloods and 0-3 against the less prestigious programs. That will flip this season, as Georgia and Tennessee get their revenge, while the Commodores do the same to Kentucky and South Carolina. The swing game will again come against Ole Miss. A huge home win got Vanderbilt to .500 last season, but this year’s game comes the week after the four-game gauntlet mentioned above. Advantage, Rebels. Despite a 5-7 finish, there’s a good chance of a second straight bowl bid thanks to the team’s success in the classroom. 

Overall Record: 5-7
SEC Record: 2-6
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: Birmingham Bowl vs. Tulsa

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.