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2017 SEC Football Season Preview: Vanderbilt Commodores

Vanderbilt rallied late in the season to make a bowl game in 2016. Will that carry over into 2017?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Record Last Year

6-7 (3-5 SEC)

Key Returnees

QB Kyle Shurmur, RB Ralph Webb, WR Trent Sherfield, WR Caleb Scott, OL Bruno Reagan, OL Justin Skule, TE Jared Pinkney, FB Bailey McElwain, DT Nifae Lealao, DE Dare Odeyingbo, LB Oren Burks, CB Tre Herndon, S LaDarius Wiley

Key Departures

LB Zach Cunningham, OL Will Holden, OL Barrett Gouger, WR Darrius Sims, DT Adam Butler

Key Arrivals

CB Randall Haynie, DE Dayo Odeyingbo, S Tae Daley, LB Dimitri Moore

What Happened Last Year

From the perspective of a Vanderbilt Commodores fan, the 2016 football season was both positive and frustrating at the same time.

Going into the season, Vanderbilt figured to need to beat the three non-Power 5 teams on the schedule (Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, and Tennessee State) and take three of four against the group of South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, and Missouri. The Commodores accomplished the first, but went 0-4 against what were perceived as the most beatable Power 5 opponents on the schedule — and went bowling anyway thanks to wins over Georgia, Ole Miss, and Tennessee.

Excluding the Ole Miss and Tennessee games, Vanderbilt played eight games against Power 5 competition. In those games, the offense averaged 12.9 PPG and the team went 1-7, with the lone win being a somewhat fluky 17-16 win over Georgia in Athens.

Staring down the barrel of a gun with a 4-6 record and games against Ole Miss and Tennessee to close the regular season, the Commodores’ offense erupted for 83 points. Was that the real Vanderbilt, or was the offense that the Commodores displayed the rest of the season a better reflection of it?

There were points in support of both views. Both Ole Miss and Tennessee had defenses that were depleted, so perhaps the offensive explosion was little more than Vanderbilt picking on a couple of weak defenses. On the flipside, the Commodores’ passing game showed real improvement starting with a tuneup against FCS Tennessee State.

The good news, though, was that even when the offense was inept, the defense was strong enough to keep them in most games. Vandy lost five SEC games by a combined 33 points, and only a nine-point loss to Missouri was decided by more than a touchdown.

3 Key Players

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-North Carolina State vs Vanderbilt Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

(1) Kyle Shurmur: Shurmur clicked late in the season — he averaged 290.5 passing yards in Vanderbilt’s last four games of the regular season, and Vanderbilt averaged 29 ppg in that stretch.

In Derek Mason’s three years at Vanderbilt, the Commodores have had a pretty steady rushing attack. November 2016 is the only time in Mason’s three-year tenure that the Commodores have even had competent quarterback play, and the difference in offensive performance couldn’t be more stark.

Was that really the same team that Vanderbilt put on the field in September and October? More performances like Shurmur had last November, and this could be a legitimately strong Vanderbilt offense. More performances like September and October, and, well, Vanderbilt will struggle to move the ball.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

(2) Ralph Webb: With a full year of eligibility remaining, Webb is already Vanderbilt’s all-time leader in career rushing yards. It’s probably asking a lot for him to end his career as the SEC’s leader in that statistic — he’d need 1,913 yards this season to overtake Herschel Walker — but his status as Vanderbilt’s best ever is unassailable.

Interestingly, Webb increased his yardage total in 2016 even as he got fewer carries than he had in 2015. The former is largely a reflection on Vanderbilt’s offensive line, which did its part in 2016, while the latter is a reflection on Khari Blasingame — who shouldered a lot of the load in short-yardage situations and took some of the pressure off Webb.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

(3) Oren Burks: Burks started his career as a safety. Last year, he moved to the “Star” position — a hybrid safety/linebacker position that played to Burks’ strengths as much as anything else.

This year, Burks is strictly a linebacker, and he’s also going to be the leader of Vanderbilt’s defense with Zach Cunningham departed. While Vanderbilt should have a strong secondary, there are a lot of question marks in the front seven. If Mason can keep the defensive dropoff to a minimum, Vanderbilt could ride an improved offense to being a contender in the East.

Best Case Scenario

If Vanderbilt keeps the defensive dropoff to a minimum, while the offense clicks with an improved passing game, there honestly aren’t many games on the schedule that the Commodores can’t win. In that case, Vanderbilt can start dreaming of 9-3 (5-3 in the SEC) and being a realistic contender in the East.

Worst Case Scenario

The downside to Vanderbilt’s schedule? If the offense doesn’t click and reverts to its early 2016 form, while the defense backslides without Cunningham, there aren’t too many automatic wins over the schedule. It’s plausible that the bottom falls out and the Commodores go 3-9 -- and will be lucky to win an SEC game.


We won’t go pie-in-the-sky and predict Shurmur to have a massive breakthrough — instead, a solid defensive performance gets just enough offensive juice for a 6-6 season with a 3-5 record in the SEC, and the second bowl trip in a row.