The Vanderbilt Commodores are entering the second season of Derek Mason's tenure in Nashville, and they are looking to bounce back from a macabre 2014 season. Vanderbilt can optimistically point to 18 returning starters (including running back Ralph Webb and several important defensive players), a new offensive coordinator, and what was one of the SEC's youngest rosters gaining another year of experience. Unfortunately, the SEC is an unforgiving environment, and success on the field is often a lagging indicator of rebuilding efforts. Winning games will be difficult. For the teams at the bottom of the SEC every single win is valuable, and for Vanderbilt no wins are more important than the following two.
September 3rd vs Western Kentucky
Vandy opens its season against the team just an hour north along I-65, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. WKU finished 2014 with an 8-5 record, mostly thanks to an offense that averaged 44 points per game. Oh, and their quarterback who threw for nearly 4,500 yards received a sixth year of eligibility. The preseason S&P+ rankings place WKU 22 spots ahead of Vanderbilt, and if WKU opens as a betting favorite few will be surprised. In short, most teams in the power five conferences would struggle with this confident Conference USA team in 2015, and Vandy faces them in the opening week in a stadium that will probably have as much red in it as black and gold.
It's important game for Vanderbilt because this is a rare opening week match-up that will serve as a litmus test for the rest of the season. If Vanderbilt's defense can keep in check an offense that returns every significant skill position, then Mason's defense will immediately announce their improvement from 2014. If the Vandy offense, now overseen by Andy Ludwig, can score points on a WKU defense that returns every significant starter outside of a defensive back, then last year's offensive woes will be forgotten.
A big opening week win can do wonders for the morale and buy-in of college players. Vanderbilt's team needs to exorcise last season so that it doesn't linger into 2015, and there'd be no better way than defeating WKU in game that many are already penciling in as a Vandy loss.
November 14th vs Kentucky
Vanderbilt hasn't won a SEC game since November 2013, and hosting the Kentucky Wildcats will probably be their best shot at ending the streak in 2015. These are two rosters that aren't all that different on paper when considering the upperclassmen. Comparing the recruiting rankings of those classes illustrates Vandy's older players have a slightly higher pedigree. Those same players have had a season to adapt to the new regime and their schemes, at least defensively. On paper, the team's personnel matches-up fairly well.
Last year, UK defeated Vanderbilt 17-7 in a game largely dictated by Vandy's offensive woes. UK's defense was below average last season, but still managed to hold the Commodores to 139 total yards. The lone Vandy score came from returning an interception 13 yards for a touchdown. A new offensive scheme could pose problems for a UK defense that lost three two year starters in the front seven.
Finally, Mark Stoops has done a solid job at UK so far, but he's yet to win a road game since arriving in Lexington. If one assumes UK is the better program at the moment, the gap isn't wide enough that UK can overcome turnovers and red zone failures in Nashville. Beating UK is imminently feasible, and this win would have ripple effects. Vandy would move up in the pecking order of the SEC, and demonstrate progress to fans and potential recruits.