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SEC Season Preview: Vanderbilt

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith takes an in-depth look at the Vanderbilt Commodores.

SEC Season Preview: Vanderbilt
Head Coach: Clark Lea – first season at Vanderbilt and overall
Offensive Coordinator: David Raih (first season)
Defensive Coordinator: Jesse Minter (first season)

2020 Recap: 0-9
2020 was a season from hell for Vanderbilt, as the Commodores were only competitive in three games and struggled to field the minimum roster size due to injuries, opt-outs and COVID protocols. The rocky year cost Derek Mason his job after seven seasons, but Vanderbilt did find a potential multi-year starter at quarterback in Ken Seals, who hung tough through adverse circumstances. Alumnus Clark Lea was tapped to lead the rebuild after three very successful seasons as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. Mason never really figured out Vanderbilt, but the hope is that Lea’s familiarity with both school and city will allow the program to maximize what it can be.

2021 Schedule
Sept. 4 – EAST TENNESSEE STATE (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
Sept. 11 – at Colorado State (10 p.m. ET, CBSSN)
Sept. 18 – STANFORD (8 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Sept. 25 – GEORGIA
Oct. 2 – CONNECTICUT
Oct. 9 – at Florida
Oct. 16 – at South Carolina
Oct. 23 – MISSISSIPPI STATE
Oct. 30 – MISSOURI
Nov. 13 – KENTUCKY
Nov. 20 – at Ole Miss
Nov. 27 – at Tennessee

Under Center
With all four quarterbacks who played for Vanderbilt in 2019 transferring prior to last season, Seals was forced into action as a true freshman after winning a battle between four different quarterbacks during the truncated 2020 offseason. For a first-year player in the SEC with few weapons around him, Seals held his own, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes, but a 12-10 TD-INT ratio needs work as a sophomore.

Clark Lea went to the NFL ranks, a common theme in the SEC this season, for his offensive coordinator. The meshing of Seals and David Raih will determine how effective this offense can be, with Seals needing to focus on reducing turnovers and completing more deep passes. If there’s a dip in completion percentage from 2020, that might not be a bad thing if it means the Commodores are stretching the field more. Seals’ classmate, sophomore Mike Wright, will be the backup.

In The Trenches
There’s nowhere to go but up for the Commodores offensive line after a miserable year run blocking. Four starters return, so this is an experienced group, and the coaching change shouldn’t require a complete overhaul of blocking schemes like is often the case. Pass protection was actually adequate last season, as 19 sacks allowed in nine game is not outlandish. If that number can be maintained with Seals holding on to the ball longer, that will be a success.

On the defensive line, concerns are severe. Derek Mason’s 3-4 defense has been scrapped for the 4-2-5 that Lea ran at Notre Dame. There was little semblance of a pass rush a year ago, and I wouldn’t expect that to change much as the new staff sorts out the pieces and tries not to overcomplicate what they want to do with their pressures. If there’s a strength in the front seven, it’s at inside linebacker, where junior Anfernee Orji returns after leading the team in tackles.

On The Edge
Keyon Henry-Brooks had some flashes in the running game last season but opted to enter the transfer portal. The top returner is junior Ja’Veon Marlow, but Temple transfer Re’Mahn Davis may end up being the top back. Four Commodores topped 300 receiving yards in 2020, and all four are back, led by junior Cam Johnson, who could be at least a No. 2 target at most other SEC schools. Lea saw the value of tight ends at Notre Dame, so keep an eye on junior Ben Bresnahan.

The Vanderbilt pass defense was a mess last season, as opposing quarterbacks completed a whopping 73 percent of their pass attempts, by far the worst of any FBS team. They also had the fewest interceptions of any team that played more than six games, picking off just two passes in nine contests. This group is starting at rock bottom, but does have a good bit of experience with two players entering their third year as starters in cornerback Allan George and safety Dashaun Jerkins.

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

Schedule Analysis
SEC Rank: 13
National Rank: 52
Playing in a weak SEC East helps ease the Commodores’ slate, as does only playing one Power Five non-conference opponent. A road trip to Colorado State in Week 2 for a late kickoff seems like a potential pivotal moment for this team if it can win in Fort Collins. The rotating game is Mississippi State at home, which should be considered winnable after the Bulldogs won by only seven points last season in Starkville. A month at home in late October and early November will provide the best opportunity for wins with Mississippi State, Missouri and Kentucky all coming to Nashville with an idle week thrown in there as well.

Season Prediction
I almost never call for a team to go winless in the SEC two years in a row, but this roster is in such poor shape that I can’t find a win, particularly with games against fellow rebooting teams South Carolina and Tennessee both on the road. Going 3-1 in the non-conference would be a success, but I can’t even call for that with the Commodores drawing a late-night kickoff in an altitude game at Colorado State in Week 2.

Seals can play in this conference, but there’s just not enough around him for this offense to have any consistency. Vanderbilt will face some sleepy opponents, and focusing on fundamentals could keep them in some games longer than it should be. Show some fire, limit silly mistakes missed tackles and pre-snap penalties, and that’ll be a positive first season for Lea. The wins are at least another year away, however.

Record: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)
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.