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2021 SEC Football Season Preview: Vanderbilt Commodores

And so we begin again in Nashville...

Tennessee v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

2020 at a Glance

Record: 0-9
SRS: -11.61
SOS: 6.39

2021 Schedule

(All times are Eastern)

9/4: East Tennessee State (7 p.m., ESPN+/SECN+)
9/11: at Colorado State (9 p.m., CBS SN)
9/18: Stanford (7 p.m., ESPN)
9/25: Georgia
10/2: UConn
10/9: at Florida
10/16: at South Carolina
10/23: Mississippi State
10/30: Missouri
11/13: Kentucky
11/20: at Ole Miss
11/27: at Tennessee

Overview

And so we begin anew in Nashville again.

The 2010s weren’t too kind to the Vanderbilt Commodores. Following James Franklin’s departure to Penn State, the team hired Derek Mason and hoped to continue on the up and up. After all, Franklin’s Commodores won nine games in consecutive years and ripped off two straight bowl wins in 2012 and 2013. The only times Vandy’s ever won nine games in the program’s entire history were in 1904 and 1915. A literal “once in every 100 years” situation blossomed in the Music City, but the band hasn’t played hits like that since.

The Commodores sputtered in the years that followed. Though they made two bowl game appearances, they never won more than six games. 2020 did not play kindly to them either, as Vandy started this decade off with an abysmal 0-9 campaign. The winless season meant the end for Mason’s run at the helm unsurprisingly and, perhaps, unfortunately. It just never quite worked out for him, and the Commodores just never really got right at all.

Now they enter 2021 with new looks all around, but a familiar face is around. New head coach Clark Lea is not exactly a stranger to those at Vandy. Lea played as a running back for the Commodores from 2002-04. Granted, he had very sparing numbers, but he at the very least isn’t an unknown to the program. He was the defensive coordinator for Notre Dame the last three seasons, and in fairness to him, ND did pretty damn well for themselves in that time period. So obviously, the hope here is that he brings that type of tenacity and intensity to the program.

It will be no small feat though. This Vandy team lost a lot of the production that they had a year ago, especially on defense. They maintain some order on offense, especially at the most important position. That being said, there are still lots of summits to be climbed here, and Year 1 for Lea might be a strenuous one.

Biggest Questions

What to make of all the turnover?

We talked with Anchor of Gold’s (and former TSK writer) Tom Stephenson, asking him these questions, and here’s what he had to say:

The fun thing about all the turnover is that there aren’t that many guys who I think Vanderbilt will actually miss. That tends to happen when you have a bunch of attrition off a team that went 0-9; there’s a reason why they didn’t win a game. Vanderbilt at least knows it will have a quarterback (Ken Seals) and some decent receivers, and the offensive line should be improved simply due to opt-outs from last season returning in 2021. And Temple transfer Re’Mahn Davis should be a good replacement for Keyon Henry-Brooks at running back. He might actually be a better player.

The defense lacks playmakers (and lost its two best in Dayo Odeyingbo and Andre Mintze), but they might do better if Clark Lea can get buy-in from some of the returnees. It tells me something about Daevion Davis’s buy-in that Clark Lea brought him to SEC Media Days, and last year’s defense at least had some younger guys who looked promising. I don’t know that the overall product will be any good, but it’s hard to do worse than giving up 37.3 ppg.

How does wideout Cam Johnson progress after having a successful 2020?

New offensive coordinator David Raih comes to Vanderbilt from the Arizona Cardinals, where he worked under Kliff Kingsbury as the wide receivers coach. That should probably be a clue as to what kind of offense he’s going to run, and that feels like a situation where Johnson can thrive. The question is how much Seals and the offense will spread things around — Johnson was clearly Seals’ favorite target in 2020, but Amir Abdur-Rahman, Chris Pierce, and Ben Bresnahan got a fair number of targets last year, and rising sophomore WIll Sheppard is a breakout candidate for 2021.

Do you see Vandy picking any teams off in conference play and ending their conference losing streak?

Can I see it? Yeah, but I’m just not sure who it will be. Even in the disaster that was last season, Vanderbilt still managed to keep a couple of games close, and if the Commodores buy in to Clark Lea I can see them catching someone napping.

Projection

Christopher Novak: It’s extremely hard for me to project a team to go winless for the second consecutive year. This will probably be tough sledding, but I can’t see them tumbling into another season of futility. They will probably be pretty damn close, but I expect them to at least win their Week 1 gimme against ETSU. After that... it becomes harder to project, but again: Just can’t see them going 0-for again. I’ll at least say that. 3-9, 2-6

Tom Stephenson: I’ve said all along that 4-8 will be a solid debut for Clark Lea — that would mean beating the three non-Power 5 teams on the schedule (ETSU, Colorado State, and UConn) and then springing an upset somewhere, either beating Stanford on September 18 or pulling an upset in SEC play. Anything better than that and he should get consideration for SEC Coach of the Year, but with the current state of the program few fans will hold a rough debut against him, unless there’s a loss to one of the two cupcakes (ETSU and UConn) in there.