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SEC Season Preview: Vanderbilt

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Vanderbilt will be looking to take another step forward in year three under Derek Mason.

Head Coach: Derek Mason – third year at Vanderbilt; third year overall (7-17 overall, 2-14 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Andy Ludwig (second season)

Defensive Coordinator: Mason (second season)

2015 Record: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)

Returning Starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

2016 Schedule

Sept. 1 – SOUTH CAROLINA (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Sept. 10 – MIDDLE TENNESSEE (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alt.)
Sept. 17 – at Georgia Tech (12:30 p.m. ET, FSN)
Sept. 24 – at Western Kentucky (4:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN)

Oct. 1 – FLORIDA
Oct. 8 – at Kentucky
Oct. 15 – at Georgia
Oct. 22 – TENNESSEE STATE

Nov. 5 – at Auburn
Nov. 12 – at Missouri
Nov. 19 – OLE MISS
Nov. 26 – TENNESSEE

What We Know

- The linebacking corps is going to rock. Mason has built a second level that resembles the great units he had as Stanford’s defensive coordinator in the early part of the decade. Junior Zach Cunningham was a preseason All-SEC selection, and he gets Nigel Bowden back as his running mate on the inside after Bowden missed all but two games last season. Mason raved about sophomore outside linebacker Josh Smith during the summer talking season, and star safety Oren Burks slides down to play the rover position this year. This isn’t Alabama, but it doesn’t take a backseat to anyone else in the SEC.

- Ralph Webb is a legitimate SEC tailback. The fourth-year junior doesn’t get the notoriety that is given to the likes of Nick Chubb, Leonard Fournette and Jalen Hurd, but his 96 yards per game were more than any other SEC player who returns this season besides those three. Webb isn’t the fastest or the biggest, but he’s productive inside, outside and in the passing game. He needs some help from his quarterback this season, but if the Commodores can find some sort of balance this season, Webb’s numbers could explode.

- Kyle Shurmur has to be much, much better. In five games as a true freshman, Shurmur failed to complete more than 50 percent of his passes in any game. Vanderbilt was thin at wide receiver with C.J. Duncan sitting out the season with a leg injury, giving the offense a valid excuse for its deficiencies, but an SEC offense simply can’t be that inept on a weekly basis. Shurmur was expected to redshirt last season, so he did have to play before he was ready. There’s a cautious optimism around the program that Shurmur as a freshman and Shurmur as a sophomore will be two completely different quarterbacks.

What We Don’t Know

- Can the offensive line survive another season without Andrew Jelks? The hard-luck left tackle will miss his second straight season after again suffering a knee injury during preseason camp. The Commodores have a couple options, but the most logical is to keep Will Holden on the left side, where he played last year after moving up from the right side when Jelks got hurt last August. The trickle-down effect is where this will really hurt, as right tackle will now be manned by a freshman or sophomore as opposed to a senior.

- Is the defensive line good enough to protect the linebackers? If opposing offensive linemen are effectively getting to second-level blocks, the Vanderbilt linebackers are going to struggle to finish run plays. It’s time for nose guard Nifae Lealao, the highest-rated recruit Vanderbilt had ever signed since recruiting rankings became a thing around the turn of the century, to blossom into a standout player. There’s a good amount of experience, with the only notable departure being end Caleb Azubike, but the raw ability of the defensive line isn’t quite what the Commodores have playing behind it.

- How close is this team to the top three in the SEC East? The Commodores are good enough to expect nothing worse than 2-1 against Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina, but it could take an upset of a division title contender for this team to get to the postseason. Vanderbilt was outgained by just 22 yards against Georgia last year and led Florida in the fourth quarter before falling by two. There’s still a significant talent gap, but on paper at least, it’s not wide enough that a well-played game couldn’t spring the first big upset of the Mason era.

X-Factor

Duncan – Despite the team playing four different quarterbacks in a miserable 2014 season, Duncan was one of the few bright spots as a freshman. With Vanderbilt finally having some stability under center with Shurmur, Duncan should shine in his return to the field, as long as his rehabilitated leg holds up. A thousand receiving yards is a big ask for a player on a team that barely had 2,000 in total a year ago, but Duncan could come close to that number.

Ranking The Units

1.   Linebackers

2.   Defensive Backs

3.   Running Backs

4.   Defensive Line

5.   Wide Receivers

6.   Offensive Line

7.   Quarterbacks


Season Prediction

Baby steps. There won’t be a breakthrough in terms of a winning season, but Vanderbilt will up its win total once again and could be in line for a bowl bid even at 5-7, thanks to its high Academic Progress Rate (the measure used if there are more bowl slots than .500 or better teams). An 11-game SEC road losing streak will come to an end at Missouri, but two chances for a bowl-clinching home upset to end the season will come up just short against Ole Miss and Tennessee.

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.