The Vanderbilt Commodores football program has never won an SEC title since joining the nation’s best conference in 1932, and that likely will be the case again this upcoming season. However, for Vanderbilt fans in 2013, getting to the school’s third consecutive bowl appearance might be just as impressive as a four-hour trip to the ATL.
In Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin‘s two years at the helm, he has brought the Commodores to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history, leading last year’s team to nine wins for the first time in nearly a century for the program. Some would believe there’s no way they can capitalize on the momentum garnished by that group. But there’s every reason to believe Vanderbilt will expand on that success and put the program at the pinnacle of the rest of the SEC.
Vanderbilt returns eight starters on an offense that put up the most points for the school in a season last year since the Wilson Administration. Collecting over 275 yards on two top-15 defenses, South Carolina and Florida, at home is never a dull thought for a once horrendous program.
This season, the offense is led by a laundry list of wideouts that might be the best in the SEC based off of last year. This unit includes eventual NFL first-rounder Jordan Matthews, who had a breakout season going over the century mark in receiving yards in five out of the team’s eight league games. Matthews would have been a first round lock in last April’s NFL Draft if he would have exhausted his last year of eligibility.
New starters running back Wesley Tate and quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels could become staples in that west-coast offense. Tate must replace a back-to-back 1,000-yard back in Zac Stacy, while Carta-Samuels, the Offensive MVP in the New Mexico Bowl as a true freshman for Wyoming replaces Jordan Rodgers.
The nucleus of the team is its interior play on both sides of the ball, but the defensive secondary is solid. Savvy veteran senior cornerback Andre Hal spear-handed a 19th-ranked total defense in 2012.
A thing to consider when grading Vandy is the whole continuity of the program to start the season. Coach Franklin addressed this in Birmingham at SEC Media Days. Vanderbilt is the only team in the SEC to retain all of their coaching staff from last season. Only receivers coach Josh Gattis and defensive backs coach George Barlow weren’t on Franklin’s initial staff in 2011. A respectable reason why Vanderbilt has the ball in their court to stay on top of Kentucky and Tennessee in the East, both are breaking in total different coaching staffs.
Also, Vanderbilt will start the season with a combined 18 upperclassmen in their starting lineup on both sides of the ball. Eight out of eleven starters on the defensive side are seniors. Clearly, they will have a lot of leadership to “anchor down” this brutal SEC schedule.
More importantly than anything, Vandy has a very favorable schedule early on. If Vanderbilt squeaks by Ole Miss in Week 1, their only test through the first six weeks, comes against South Carolina on the road in Week 3. Vanderbilt has Ole Miss, Austin Peay, UAB and Missouri all at home, with UMass on the road in that span. Even with a South Carolina loss, Vanderbilt potentially would be one win from bowl eligibility after the halfway point when they face the brutal part of their schedule. They start with Georgia at Dudley Field and play back-to-back weeks on the road with Texas A&M and Florida.
The Commodores will have two weeks of preparation for the Georgia and Florida games, which both would could set up the biggest upset for Vandy in their history. Florida would be one week removed from the cocktail party in Jacksonville with Georgia, but playing in the Swamp. Franklin has wronged his critics his first two seasons at Vanderbilt with win outcomes, upsetting either three of those teams shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility. Vanderbilt could then chalk up victories the final three weeks against Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest.
Vanderbilt has never played in a New Year’s Day bowl game, but that should finally change after mimicking their 2012 win total in the 2013 regular season. I’m sure Vanderbilt potentially breaking their school win mark in a season would be an offer that the Outback and Gator Bowl committees couldn’t refuse.