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SEC Season Preview: Vanderbilt

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the Vanderbilt Commodores, ahead of the 2018 season.

Head Coach: Derek Mason – fifth year at Vanderbilt and overall (18-31 overall, 6-26 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Andy Ludwig (fourth season)

Defensive Coordinator: Jason Tarver (first season)

2017 Record: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)

Returning Starters: 11 (7 offense, 4 defense)

 

2018 Schedule

Sept. 1 – MIDDLE TENNESSEE (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alt.)

Sept. 8 – NEVADA (Noon ET, SEC Network)

Sept. 15 – at Notre Dame (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Sept. 22 – SOUTH CAROLINA

Sept. 29 – TENNESSEE STATE

Oct. 6 – at Georgia

Oct. 13 – FLORIDA

Oct. 20 – at Kentucky

Oct. 27 – at Arkansas

Nov. 10 – at Missouri

Nov. 17 – OLE MISS

Nov. 24 – TENNESSEE

 

What We Know

-The Vanderbilt offense should be . . . exciting? Perhaps. Even without school all-time rushing leader Ralph Webb, the Commodores have a chance to threaten the 30 points per game mark last reached during James Franklin’s final two seasons in Nashville. Speaking of 30, Kyle Shurmur has started 30 games for the Commodores under center and finished his junior season with a respectable 2.6 TD-INT ratio. Junior wideout Kalija Lipscomb is a big-play threat, with 22 percent of his 2017 receptions going for touchdowns. The Commodores finished last year on a high note, gashing Tennessee for more than 500 yards and 42 points in a blowout win in Knoxville.

-The offensive line should be a rare strength. Vanderbilt took a huge step forward in pass blocking last season, allowing just 19 sacks, down from 32 in 2016. All five starters return, with the goal being to maintain the respectable passing game numbers while getting the yards per carry average back above 4.0 for just the second time in the Derek Mason era. Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn joins burly senior Khari Blasingame for what should be a solid backfield tandem.

-Vanderbilt has two dangerous pass rushers. Charles Wright and Dare Odeyingbo combined for 13.5 sacks last season, exactly half of the total produced by the Commodores. New coordinator Jason Tarver brings some fresh ideas to the program after Mason directed the defense himself the past three seasons, but the former Stanford colleagues aren’t philosophically much different. The Commodores need their pass rush to work to overcome holes elsewhere on a defense that was statistically the worst in SEC history last season (43.3 points per game).

What We Don’t Know

-Is there going to be a run defense? Allowing 919 rushing yards in SEC play would be a very good season, but Vanderbilt allowed that many to just Alabama and Georgia last season. It wasn’t just the two Goliaths that had their way with the Commodores, as five other SEC opponents had more than 190 yards on the ground. There’s a reload at defensive tackle with Jonathan Wynn and Nifae Lealao moving on, so there isn’t a ton of promise here. The silver lining? There’s no Alabama on the schedule until 2022.

-Can a secondary with less experience show increased production? It’s possible, even with three of five starters in their heavily-used nickel defense out the door. Junior cornerback Joejuan Williams is a rising star after a sophomore season that featured 10 pass breakups, and Mason went the graduate transfer route to add in Alim Muhammad from Holy Cross to potentially play opposite Williams. LaDarius Wiley is a fourth-year player at free safety, but the strong safety and nickel positions are wide open.

-Can this team avoid 2017’s snowball effect? It took a month for Vanderbilt to recover from the Alabama humiliation last season. There’s potential for some early blows again this season, with dates in the first half of the season against Notre Dame, South Carolina, and Georgia. Even if the ‘Dores get punched in the mouth, there’s a great chance for a strong close to the season, with no teams that won more than seven games in 2017 on the second-half slate. Having a short-term memory is critical this season if the Commodores hope to get back to the postseason.

Ranking The Units

1. Quarterbacks

2. Offensive Line

3. Running Backs

4. Receivers

5. Defensive Line

6. Linebackers

7. Defensive Backs

Quick Hitters

Swing Game: Nov. 24 vs. Tennessee

Trap Game: Sept. 8 vs. Nevada

Offensive MVP: QB Kyle Shurmur

Defensive MVP: CB Joejuan Williams

Floor: 3-9

Ceiling: 7-5

Season Prediction

Mason’s job is in no jeopardy after signing a contract extension 15 months ago that locks him in through the 2021 season. This season probably won’t have anyone calling for his head, as the Commodores will tread water, finishing 5-7 again, but beating big brother Tennessee for the fifth time in seven years. Shurmur will prove to be deciding factor in the team’s two SEC wins over the Vols and Kentucky, and he’ll position himself to be a mid-round NFL Draft pick with a fine senior season.

Overall Record: 5-7

SEC Record: 2-6

Final CFP Ranking: NR

Bowl: None

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.