TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 08: Jordan Rodgers #11 of the Vanderbilt Commodores passes against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 8, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
fTo get an idea of just how much of an anomaly last year was for Vanderbilt, and how much the Commodores' methods of winning might have changed and might still change in the future, you only need to look at how many points Vanderbilt put up in the average game: 26.7. That might not seem like a ton, even in the defense-heavy SEC, but it represents one of the best scoring years in Vanderbilt history. It's the third-highest point average since at least 1946 and the the highest for the team since 2005. (Aside from that season, only other time the Dores have eclipsed 27 points per game since the end of World War II was in 1948, when they rang up 29.8 ppg.)
That's why this year's Vanderbilt looks a little bit different than other years; even if they simply produce points at the same rate they did last year -- which is no sure thing -- the Commodores look likely to be in more games than they've been in the past. On the other hand, the points are going to be needed unless Vanderbilt gets some huge performances from former role players on the defense, given that the three best players on that side of the ball -- who helped shave almost 10 points a game off the scoring defense average from 2010 to 2011 -- are all gone.
BIGGEST RETURN | RB Zac Stacy
On a team that saw very few true offensive stars in 2011, at least relative to its success, Stacy was not just one of the best players at Vanderbilt; he was one of the best in the SEC. Stacy topped 100 yards rushing in a game five times and only fell short of at least 50 yards once in the nine games where he got at least 10 carries.
On the year, he gained 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns on on 201 carries, an average of about 5.9 yards an attempt. And while Stacy carved up some bad defenses -- he gained 198 yards against Army and 169 against Ole Miss -- he also had some quality games against decent defenses. Stacy picked up 97 yards and a touchdown against Georgia, for example.
BIGGEST LOSS | The defense
That's not too much of an exaggeration, and it's enough to give even a James Franklin (VU) fan like myself pause. The core of Vanderbilt's defense from 2011 will be gone when the team takes the field this fall. The top three tacklers all leave campus this offseason. Linebacker Chris Marve had 91 stops, including 8.5 TFLs and three sacks. Safety Sean Richardson was second with 63 tackles and also had 6.5 TFL and a pair of sacks. DB Casey Hayward had seven picks among his 17 passes defensed to go with his 62 tackles, including 7.5 for loss.
BREAKTHROUGH POSSIBILITY | QB Jordan Rodgers
It might be a bit much to say that the season will be defined by the arm of Aaron's brother, but not too much. It's important to understand that Jordan Rodgers got a lot of plaudits last year in part because was being graded on a curve; his 50 percent completion rate is nothing to write home about, and he threw just nine touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
Those aren't All-SEC numbers. But they're encouraging signs for a first-year SEC quarterback at Vanderbilt. (And it's important to note that the Vanderbilt offensive line gave up more than two sacks a game, a mediocre number in the SEC.) If Rodgers can fix the TD and INT numbers and boost his completion percentage at the rate of growth you would expect for a second-year player with a good football pedigree, Vanderbilt should be able to offset the defensive issues enough to make it back into a bowl. If not, though, the revolution in Nashville could prove short-lived.