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2016 SEC Football Season Preview: Vanderbilt Commodores

The Commodores had an SEC-caliber defense in 2015. The offense? Well, ummm...

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Houston Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Record Last Year: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)

Key Returnees: QB Kyle Shurmur, RB Ralph Webb, RB/WR/KR Darrius Sims, WR Trent Sherfield, WR C.J. Duncan (injured in 2015), LT Will Holden, DE Adam Butler, DT Nifae Lealao, LB Zach Cunningham, LB Nigel Bowden, S/LB Oren Burks, CB Torren McGaster

Key Departures: QB Johnny McCrary, TE Steven Scheu, LG Jake Bernstein, C Spencer Pulley, OL Andrew Jelks (injured), DE Caleb Azubike, LB Stephen Weatherly, LB Darreon Herring, SS Andrew Williamson

Key Arrivals: WR Donaven Tennyson, S Zaire Jones, CB Joejuan Williams, P Sam Loy, C Sean Auwae-McMoore, DT Josiah Sa’o

What Happened Last Year

Vanderbilt’s defense allowed 21 ppg, 22nd in the nation, and ranked #41 in Defensive S&P+.

The Commodores also scored 15.2 ppg, 124th in the nation, and ranked #117 (of 128) in Offensive S&P+. Any questions?

After a 2014 season in which the Commodores stunk on both sides of the ball, going 3-9 and needing some luck to beat UMass and Charleston Southern, Vanderbilt at least fixed their issues on one side of the ball in 2015. The defense slipped a bit toward the end of the season, though a contributing factor was that opposing offenses frequently got a short field thanks to an undermanned offense that couldn’t move the ball and a shaky special teams unit.

That said, even with the offensive struggles, Vanderbilt wasn’t that far away from bowl eligibility, with a missed field goal making the difference in a two-point loss to Western Kentucky, a shanked punt setting up the winning score in a two-point loss to Florida, and four interceptions giving away a winnable game at South Carolina. With that defense, even having a mediocre offense could be enough for a winning season.

3 Key Players

QB Kyle Shurmur

The hope for offensive improvement starts with Shurmur, a true sophomore who took over as the team’s starting QB midway through 2015. While Shurmur only completed 42.7 percent of his passes and averaged 4.9 yards per attempt, he also only threw 3 interceptions, which was an improvement over former starter Johnny McCrary (who threw 12 interceptions to only 6 TD passes; McCrary transferred after the season.) Now, the son of NFL coach Pat Shurmur needs to make the leap from a guy who simply avoids mistakes to one who can beat teams with his arm. Vanderbilt doesn’t need him to do a ton, just enough to prevent defenses from loading up the box to stop Ralph Webb.

RT Justin Skule

Really, you could put just about any Vanderbilt offensive lineman in this spot. Outside of running back, the offense had nothing but problems in 2015, but an offensive line that ranked 99th in adjusted line yards and 93rd in sack rate wasn’t helping matters. Now, that offensive line must replace three players who started at least six games (including two who started all 12), and a fourth is moving from right guard to center. Skule is a true sophomore who’s penciled in as the starter at right tackle, and at 6’6” and 305 pounds he has the size and agility to be a plus at that position. If he makes the jump, it will go a long way toward Vanderbilt having an effective offense.

LB Zach Cunningham

Vanderbilt’s defense returns seven starters, and included in that group is the team’s star defender. Zach Cunningham led the team (by a wide margin) with 103 tackles, and also led the team with 4.5 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss, and 3 forced fumbles. Having Cunningham to wreak havoc on opposing offenses gives the rest of the defense a bit more cushion to fill holes; it’s hard to see a defense that includes Cunningham dropping off its 2015 performance.

Best Case Scenario

8-4 (4-4 SEC): Shurmur isn’t a superstar, but he provides enough of a threat in the passing game to keep defenses honest, while Ralph Webb has an All-SEC year running behind an improved offensive line. Shurmur’s ability to avoid mistakes, combined with an improved punting game behind freshman Sam Loy, leads Vanderbilt to sweep the trio of South Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri, while also winning a game they shouldn’t.

Worst Case Scenario

2-10 (0-8 SEC): The offense looks as bad as it did in 2015, while the defense suffers injuries in a couple of key spots and the Commodores’ thin depth chart rears its ugly head. Vandy has enough in the tank to squeak out a win over Middle Tennessee in Week 2, but after that things fall apart. Tennessee wins the SEC Championship and makes the College Football Playoff. Because it’s Vanderbilt, Derek Mason is given a fourth year for no apparent reason.

My Prediction

6-6 (3-5 SEC): With the defense remaining solid, the offense improves just enough to pull out some September wins in low-scoring games against the likes of South Carolina, Middle Tennessee, and Western Kentucky. Then the Commodores catch Florida napping in an 11 AM kickoff at Vanderbilt Stadium to improve to 4-1, then pick up a win at Kentucky and beat Tennessee State to become bowl-eligible. Vanderbilt’s lack of depth catches up to them in November as they drop the last four games in a tough closing kick... but given how the last two years have gone, everybody is satisfied with a trip to Shreveport to end the season.