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2018 SEC Football Season Preview: Vanderbilt Commodores

Is there any chance of a breakthrough in 2018 for the Commodores?

Vanderbilt v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

2018 SEASON PREVIEW — VANDERBILT COMMODORES

2017 Win-Loss Record: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)

2017 S&P+ Rankings: 80th (Overall), 73rd (Offense), 67th (Defense)


Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather, rinse, repeat. With only one exception, a 2016 Independence Bowl appearance, the last four seasons under Derek Mason have essentially been the same for the Vanderbilt Commodores. A sub-.500 season, a place near the bottom of the SEC East standings, and their back-to-back 9-win seasons in 2012 and 2013 fading away like a distant memory.

It was more or less the same for Vandy in 2017. What’s perhaps most frustrating is how they started things off. It looked like there was reason for hope and prosperity. The team jumped out to a 3-0 start, which was capped off by a 14-7 victory over the then-18th-ranked Kansas State Wildcats. Then they welcomed the Alabama Crimson Tide to Nashville on September 23. It was a CBS game, no less! And... well, they lost 59-0.

The wheels fell off from there. They won merely two games the rest of the way; a 31-17 victory over the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and a 42-24 rout of the Tennessee Volunteers. Besides that, they lost and lost big. 38-24 to the Florida Gators; 45-14 to the Georgia Bulldogs; 57-35 to the Ole Miss Rebels; 34-27 to the South Carolina Gamecocks; 44-21 to the Kentucky Wildcats; and 45-17 to the Missouri Tigers. It would be one thing if the losses were closer to the aforementioned Gamecocks game. But that was simply not the case, as Vandy was roughed up on more than one occasion by their peers.

It’s a wonder if things are going to be different in 2018. Time will certainly tell, but optimism is pretty hard to come by these days for the folks at Vanderbilt.


THE OFFENSE

Vanderbilt’s offense will once again be led by quarterback Kyle Shurmur. A year ago, Shurmur enjoyed what was his best season to date. He posted career-highs in completions, completion percentage, passing yards and yards per attempt. In fact, his mark of 7.4 was a full yard higher than the average he posted as a sophomore. He also saw his touchdowns shoot up from nine to 26, and merely threw 10 interceptions.

That doesn’t exactly tell the full story, though. Shurmur got off to a blistering start in the first three games. He completed a robust 71 percent of his passes (49-for-69), posted a Y/A of 10.2, and posted eight touchdowns while throwing zero interceptions. The rest of the way, however, did not go so well.

Alabama A&M v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Over the course of their next nine games, Shurmur’s completion percentage dropped by about 16 percent. His Y/A also dropped down by over three yards to 6.8. Shurmur has to execute over the course of the season. He showed off those flashes of brilliance early on, but piecing everything together will be key for this offense to succeed.

Ralph Webb is no longer around on offense. Webb graduated after a celebrated four-year career with the Commodores. In his place now are Khari Blasingame, Jamauri Wakefield and former Illinois Fighting Illini tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Vaughn might be one to watch. Although he had limited playing time in 2016, he still picked up 301 yards on 60 carries and found the end zone thrice. Blasingame and Wakefield will have to look to improve upon some dismal efforts in 2017, meanwhile.

Nebraska v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Gone are both Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan, who each graduated this past offseason. Caleb Scott also departed, leaving Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney as the top two returning pass catchers. Senior tight end Sam Dobbs is also around, as well as Donaven Tennyson. But all in all, Vanderbilt will have to rely on a lot of youth and exuberance this season for their receiver depth. Alex Stump, a transfer from the Ohio State Buckeyes, is an intriguing option in his own right. He, of course, only caught one pass in his college career, but he’s a big target who might cause some trouble.

The offensive line will be headed by the likes of Justin Skule and Bruno Reagan. Vandy’s left tackle and center both enter their senior seasons with 53 combined starts under their belts. That’s by far the most on the team, even individually speaking, as right tackle Devin Cochran is 3rd among active players with 10. Saige Young and senior Egidio DellaRipa will likely round out a line that is, for the most part, experienced, but mostly in grade only. The aforementioned DellaRipa and Young only amassed eight career starts each, and they came a season ago.


THE DEFENSE

Defensively speaking, Vanderbilt has done pretty well over the past few years but there’s still plenty of room to grow. It doesn’t help that anemic offenses have kept them on the field. But with the potential for that to be a bit different this year, Vandy’s defense has a chance to be even more stout. The unit ranked 67th in S&P+ last season, so right around the FBS average. They will have to do a better job at limiting explosive plays and stopping the run, two of their biggest weaknesses a season ago.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It all starts up front, and unfortunately, the Commodores have a lot of replacing to do. Four of their most active defensive linemen are now gone. That quartet of course being Jonathan Wynn, Nifae Lealao, Jay Woods and Jalen Pinkney. Wynn was the most productive of the four, but luckily for the ‘Dores, their most productive lineman is back. Dare Odeyingbo will be in Nashville for his senior season, this after a very good junior year. He picked up a team-high 11 TFL and 4.5 sacks, which also ranked as a team-high, too.

Apart from him, his brother, Dayo Odeyingbo, will also be looked at on the line to make things happen. Last year as a freshman, Dayo picked up 4.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks. With more playing time, those numbers could certainly see an uptick. Cameron Tidd will likely also see a rise in reps. Who replaces Lealao will be in question, but nose tackles Josiah Sa’o and Drew Birchmeier will be the likely candidates.

The linebacker corp will be led by the ferocious Charles Wright. Wright was outstanding a season ago coming off the edge. He picked up 9.0 sacks and 10.5 TFL. He also amassed over 30 tackles, proving to be adept at rushing the passer and making tackles in the open field. The senior will certainly be called upon to wreak havoc on the edge again, but he’s not alone in that regard. Fellow senior Josh Smith is back, but he will hope to get his sack total up this season. He only piled up 2.0, which was good for second on the team. But the gap between him and Wright was obviously quite large.

Inside, the Commodores will have some holes to fill. Those gaps are open now that Oren Burks, Emmanuel Smith and, to a lesser extent, Jay Hockaday have departed. Burks was the team’s leading tackler a season ago and also had three pass breakups, one interception and quite a few stuffs, as well. Smith on the other hand also racked up a bountiful amount of tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a team-high 11 stuffs. Hockaday meanwhile played limitedly but still made a bit of an impact on the stat sheet.

He was, if nothing else, a serviceable depth piece. It’s not to say that Vandy is thin on linebackers (quite the opposite in fact). It’s just experience may be hard to come by. Based on the depth chart for their opener, Jordan Griffin, Dimitri Moore, Colin Anderson and Brayden DeVault-Smith are going to probably see the field the most.

The secondary will be a unit to watch, if only because it was completely depleted over the offseason. The Commodores will have to replace five players who played at least eight games a season ago. That includes Ryan White, Taurean Ferguson, Tre Herndon, Arnold Tarpley III and Bryce Lewis. Luckily, it doesn’t include LaDarius Wiley OR Joejuan Williams. Both of those DBs were Vandy’s most reliable and stand as they’re most experienced beside senior cornerback Donovan Sheffield.

Therein lies the issue, though. The rest of the group is chock full of sophomores and freshmen. Zaire Jones and Tae Daley played 12 games each a season ago, but they’re the only ones of the crop of youngsters who played any meaningful snaps last year. That inexperience could prove to be a problem if it bubbles out of control.


Vanderbilt Schedule

Week Team
Week Team
1 Middle Tennessee
2 Nevada
3 at Notre Dame
4 South Carolina
5 Tennessee State
6 at Georgia
7 Florida
8 at Kentucky
9 at Arkansas
10 BYE
11 at Missouri
12 Ole Miss
13 Tennessee

Vanderbilt’s opener against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders could prove to be a tricky one. VU should be favored, but beware Ty Lee, Brent Stockstill and their litany of running backs. The Nevada Wolf Pack may be a bit excitable on offense, but their defense is still very wary. A 2-0 start puts them in position to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Given that the game is in South Bend, it might be too tall a task but stranger things have happened, right?

They’ll welcome Jake Bentley and the South Carolina Gamecocks next for their SEC opener. After facing a cupcake in Tennessee State, their schedule worsens. They have four road games over their next five, with trips to Athens, Lexington, Fayetteville and Columbia (MO) lined u. Sandwiched in there is a matchup with the Florida Gators at home. This stretch will tell us absolutely everything there is to know about Vandy this season. And probably about their SEC East foes, as UF, UK, Arkansas and Mizzou could vary from either sneaky good to near the bottom of the standings.

Rounding out the schedule are two home matchups against the Ole Miss Rebels and Tennessee Volunteers. All things considered, the former seems a bit more daunting than the latter, but it really all hinges on how everything plays out for Jeremy Pruitt in his first year in Knoxville.


PROJECTION

It’s hard to reckon with their schedule and seeing anything other than the usual occurring for Vanderbilt. That brutal stretch of games from October 6-November 10 may wind up doing their season in before they really get a chance to get things going. In all, I see this being another sub.-500 season for the Commodores.

Prediction: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)