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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 107: Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt could start at quarterback for the Commodores, if he had eligibility.

What needs to go right for Vanderbilt to reach bowl eligibility? Not surprisingly, quite a bit. The Commodores need to play tremendous defense, which they seem to have done on nearly a yearly basis over the last half decade. They need to beat the weaker teams on their schedule, which they did not do in 2009. They need to sneak up on teams in SEC play, which after 2008′s seven-win finish was impossible a year ago. They must be at least passable on offense; not exactly a superlative I’d use to describe that side of the ball in 2009. Make no mistake: Vanderbilt needs to play nearly perfect football to make noise in college football’s premier conference.

Conference
SEC, East

Location
Nashville, Tenn.

Nickname
Commodores

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 65

2009 record
(2-10, 0-8)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 107

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Northwestern
  • Sept. 11
    L.S.U.
  • Sept. 18
    at Mississippi
  • Oct. 2
    at Connecticut
  • Oct. 9
    Eastern Michigan
  • Oct. 16
    at Georgia
  • Oct. 23
    South Carolina
  • Oct. 30
    Arkansas
  • Nov. 6
    Florida
  • Nov. 13
    at Kentucky
  • Nov. 20
    Tennessee
  • Nov. 27
    Wake Forest

Last year’s prediction

Now, here’s another issue: like in every season, it’s difficult to look at Vanderbilt’s schedule and find six wins. Why? Part of the problem, for me at least, is the fact that Vanderbilt’s past struggles automatically seem to disqualify them from competing against teams like Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. Well, no longer. I’m not predicting an improvement from the Commodores — they’re not sneaking up on anyone this year — but I do believe the team is good enough to get to six wins. My prediction: 6-6, 3-5 in the SEC. Winning three non-conference games and beating Mississippi State is a must.

2009 recap

In a nutshell An ugly season, especially when considering Vanderbilt’s feel-good 7-6 record in 2008. Replicating such a performance was a tall order, albeit one I felt last year’s team capable of achieving. How did the Commodores go wrong? The offense was inept — far worse than the average unit of 2008 — leaving Vanderbilt far behind the eight ball against even the most pedestrian of SEC opposition. And that SEC season: particularly ugly. No wins in conference play, never scoring more than 16 points in one of the eight games, and only one loss by less than 11 points. It’s not going to happen every year for the Commodores, obviously. Yet you would have liked to have seen some consistency from last year’s team.

High point The team’s lone win over an F.B.S. opponent came at Rice, a 2-10 team in its own right. The Commodores opened up the floodgates offensively in the win, scoring a season-high 36 points and gaining more than 200 yards of offense both through the air and on the ground. Only a defense as bad as Rice’s could allow an offense as bad as Vanderbilt’s to look good.

Low point The play of the offense stymied Vanderbilt’s chances throughout the season. This was especially apparent in single-digit losses to Army and South Carolina, games which saw the Commodores come within striking distance but remain unable to convert on scoring opportunities. After a 2-2 opening month, Vanderbilt did not win a game from October on.

Tidbit Though Vanderbilt finished the season ranked 110th in the F.B.S. in total offense with 306.3 yards of offense per game, the Commodores averaged only 279 yards of offense in its 11 games against F.B.S. competition. A 620-yard performance against Western Carolina in the season opener skews Vanderbilt’s statistical output. Not that 110th is anything to hang your hat on, but if you remove the one game against F.C.S. competition from the equation, the Commodores would have finished the season 116th nationally in total offense.

Tidbit (watch your back edition) Only one other coach in the history of the program has lost at least 10 games in a season three times: Watson Brown (brother of Mack), who went 1-10 in 1986 and from 1988-89. Brown was fired after his third 10-loss finish; however, the highest win total of his five-year Vanderbilt career (1986-90) was four (1992), while Johnson has won at least five games three separate times.

Former players in the N.F.L.

14 WR Earl Bennett (Chicago), LB Marcus Buggs (Buffalo), QB Jay Cutler (Chicago), LB Curtis Gatewood (Washington), LB Jonathan Goff (New York Giants), S Ryan Hamilton (New Orleans), DT Jovan Haye (Tennessee), LB Hunter Hillenmeyer (Chicago), S Reshard Langford (Kansas City), CB Myron Lewis (Tampa Bay), CB D.J. Moore (Denver), OT Thomas Welch (New England Patriots), OT Chris Williams (Chicago), LB Jamie Winborn (Tennessee).

Arbitrary top five list

Best singles from The Commodores
1. “Brick House.”
2. “Nightshift.”
3. “Slippery When Wet.”
4. “Three Times a Lady.”
5. “Still.”

Coaching

Bobby Johnson (Clemson ‘72), 29-66 after eight seasons at Vanderbilt. Widely thought of as a strong football coach despite his sub par record, Johnson has made Vanderbilt into a competent, competitive football program after decades of even greater futility. Last season was a disappointment, of course, yet you cannot discount the job Johnson has done in periodically scoring upsets against heavily-favored, far more talented conference opposition. Vanderbilt won 21 games from 2005-8, the best stretch for the Commodores since 1972-75, equaling the same number of wins Vanderbilt had in the previous eight seasons. Of course, the program’s steady progress was rewarded with a seven-win finish in 2008, the most victories in a season for Vanderbilt since 1982. Johnson also piloted the Commodores to a 16-14 win over Boston College in the Music City Bowl, the program’s first bowl victory since 1955. Under his watch, Vanderbilt has earned national recognition for defeating a number of heavily-favored teams, such as Arkansas and Tennessee (snapping a 22-game losing streak to the Volunteers) in 2005, Georgia in 2006, South Carolina in 2007 and Auburn in 2008. Prior to being hired in 2001, Johnson spent eight years (1994-2001) as the head coach at Furman University, where he compiled a 60-36 mark. Furman reached postseason play in four of those seasons, including each of the final three. Johnson’s assistant experience (1976-1993) is also mostly at Furman, minus two seasons spent at his alma mater, Clemson (1980, 1993); Johnson was the Clemson defensive coordinator in 1993. Those inside the game acknowledge just how impressive Johnson’s performance at Vanderbilt has been, despite the poor won-loss record.

Players to watch

Vanderbilt brings back the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year. Quick: name him. I won’t fault you if you couldn’t roll the name Warren Norman of your tongue, but the sophomore-to-be bears watching. Beyond rushing for 783 yards in 2009 — the second-most by a freshman in program history — Norman added three touchdowns on kick returns, averaging 26.2 yards per his 40 returns. Does he have the build to be a lead guy? To be honest, I’m not sure. Norman can hurt you in a number of different ways, however, and his backfield mate, fellow sophomore Zac Stacy (478 yards) can help carry the load on the ground. Plenty of potential at running back for the Commodores.

I suppose Vanderbilt also has potential at quarterback: junior Larry Smith returns after nine games in 2009, and Johnson added a intriguing junior college prospect to go with two of last season’s reserves. Returning a starter at quarterback is always nice; however, Smith needs to take great strides forward as a passer in his junior season if Vanderbilt is to show improvement on offense. Backing up Smith will be senior Jared Funk and sophomore Charlie Goro, while JUCO transfer Jordan Rodgers — younger brother of Aaron, the Green Bay quarterback — will redshirt his first season on campus. Smith is the man under center, for better or for worse.

Smith will have a few weapons to work with: receivers Udom Umoh and John Cole are back, as is tight end Brandon Barden. This trio finished one-two-three on the team in receptions last fall. Barden, a former quarterback, enters his junior season as the team’s leading career receiver with 57 grabs. He made 29 catches last fall, for 357 yards and a score, after injuries allowed the team to move him to the tight end position on a full-time basis. He’s a contender for all-SEC accolades in his junior season. Umoh and Cole are also solid options in the passing game, with Cole leading all Commodores with 36 receptions for 382 yards in 2009 and Umoh adding another 20 grabs. Vanderbilt might not have the pieces to have a terrific passing game — Smith must be more consistent in his intermediate throws — but the receiver corps isn’t awful.

Let’s keep this game going: who is the best linebacker in the F.B.S. you’ve likely never heard of? (Unless you’re a Vanderbilt fan, of course, or I’m greatly underestimating your college football knowledge.) The clear answer is junior Chris Marve, a 2009 second-team all-conference pick who last fall became the first SEC linebacker in a decade to crack 100 tackles in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Much like Aaron Curry, the former first round N.F.L. draft pick, did at Wake Forest, Marve does it all for this Vanderbilt defense, all under the radar; also like Curry, Marve has the versatility to play both in the middle and on the weak side. He’ll be counted on for even more in 2010, as the Commodores must replace a pair of important contributors at the position in Patrick Benoist and Brent Trice. Strong side linebacker John Stokes — more like Stork, as the senior comes in a 6’5 — returns after posting 44 tackles a year ago, while sophomores Tristan Daniels, Archibald Barnes and Dexter Daniels will battle for the right to start at middle linebacker.

The Vanderbilt defense has featured all-conference caliber cornerbacks over the last few seasons — D.J. Moore and Myron Lewis, the latter a 2009 starter — and this coming year should be no different: junior Casey Heyward becomes the latest to inherit the mantle after posting 58 tackles (8.5 for loss) and 2 interceptions a season ago. Another junior, Jamie Graham, moves into the starting lineup after impressing in reserve duties in 2009; Graham has the athleticism to earn snaps on defense, offense and in the return game, as he’s done thus far in his career. Eddie Foster returns as the team’s nickel back. Strong safety Sean Richardson, a junior, finished third on the team with 84 stops in 2009.

There’s good and bad news up front. On one hand, Vanderbilt looks strong up the middle due to the return of senior Adam Smotherman and junior T.J. Greenstone. While alternating snaps alongside departed starter Greg Billinger, the pair combined for 69 tackles and a pair of sacks. Behind this pair are a trio of sophomores, including Rob Lohr, who had 14 stops (1 for loss) in his debut season. On the other hand, I have some concerns about the lost production at end, where the Commodores must supplant multiple-year starters in Broderick Stewart and Steve Stone. There is good news, however, as Vanderbilt brings back three players with past starting experience. Tim Fugger made eight starts last fall, adding 21 tackles and 2 sacks. Theron Kadri (24 tackles, 3 sacks) was impressive in a reserve role. Senior Teriall Brandon might not have earned the same number of snaps as Kadri and Fugger, but he added 12 stops of his own.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line Four starters must be replaced. The most difficult to supplant will be the athletic left tackle Thomas Welch, who moved to the offensive line — and excelled — after playing tight end in his early years with the program. The Commodores also lost right tackle Reilly Lauer; unfortunately, only three experienced offensive tackles return in 2010, one of whom — junior James Williams — might not be at full strength before the season opens in September. That’s unfortunate, as Williams, if he were healthy, would be one the of leaders of this new-look offensive front. If he cannot recover in time for September, the starting roles will fall upon sophomores Ryan Seymour and Caleb Welchans. There’s more inexperience at guard, where junior Kyle Fischer and senior Chris Aaron currently lead youngsters Jabo Burrow and Justin Cabbagestalk in the battle to replace 2009 starters Ryan Custer and Eric Hensley on the interior of the line. Joey Bailey, who is currently penciled in at center, is the lone senior competing for a starting role up front.

Game(s) to watch

Plenty of chances to make noise. A win over a team like Georgia would make headlines, but Vanderbilt should look at games against Eastern Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky and Wake Forest as the most winnable games on its schedule.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell It’s never easy for Vanderbilt… and this year is no exception. The SEC is beastly, as it is every year, and the Commodores, due to last season’s struggles and the continuing questions about the validity of the offense, enter 2010 in the bottom third of the conference. The offense, as noted, is my primary concern. Vanderbilt returns a pair of talented running backs — Norman was superb last fall — yet have issues at quarterback. You can’t be one-dimensional in this conference: L.S.U., with all its talent, struggled because of its average quarterback play; Vanderbilt is even more mediocre under center. The rebuilt offensive line is also worrisome, though the last time the Commodores brought four new starters up front into a season, 2008, they won seven games. My concerns do not extend to the defense. As seem to be the case every year, Vanderbilt has a good enough defense to remain close in most of the games on its schedule. I know, I know, it’s a broken record — and one the Vanderbilt fan base must be tired of hearing. But in the SEC, and with non-conference games against Northwestern, Connecticut and Wake Forest, the Commodores don’t have what it takes to earn anything more than a one- or two-win improvement upon last fall’s win total. I’m inclined to say 3-9, with one, maybe two victories in conference play, but that’s all. I’ve been wrong on Vanderbilt before, however.

Dream season It’s not pretty, but Vanderbilt returns to bowl play with a 6-6 finish, with three wins coming in SEC play.

Nightmare season Another struggle: 2-10, 1-7 in conference play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Vanderbilt fans congregate? A couple of choices. Both Vandy Sports and Vandy Mania give you in-depth recruiting coverage and a forum for Vanderbilt sports chatter. Vanderbilt Sports Line is easily the hardest-working Vanderbilt blog, with daily updates about all university sports — though the blog is currently all baseball, all the time.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I ask you a trivia question. The first person to correctly answer the question in the comment section below — you know you can leave comments, don’t you? — earns the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his or her favorite team when that team arrives on the Countdown. (If your team has already been previewed — I’m sorry, first of all — you can write a preview of your second-favorite team, and so on.) Last year, I asked responders to write their previews in a foreign language; I’d love it if one did so again, but it’s not mandatory.

Here’s the question: Vanderbilt does not have a winning record against any SEC opponent. In fact, the Commodores have gone a combined 99-194-7 against its five East division rivals. Can you name the SEC program — in the East or the West — against which Vanderbilt has had the most success in terms of a career winning percentage?

Teams already taken: Texas Tech (Freakville).

Up Next

Who is No. 106? Our next university is located in a dry county, meaning locals can only buy or consume alcohol at private clubs with a liquor license. (Shudder.) As I wrote in last year’s preview, I’d be willing to pay up to $50,000 annually to become a member at such a private club.

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Comments

  1. Dr. Norris Camacho says:

    Vandy has the best career winning percentage against Auburn: .473.

    Paul: Winner. Big day for Dr. Camacho on Pre-Snap Read. Leave your team in the comment field below and it shall be reserved.

  2. Dr. Norris Camacho says:

    Thanks, Paul. My team is Texas A&M. Hopefully I’ll have at least a couple of weeks from now to prepare a statement.

  3. Commie says:

    What? No Easy (like Sunday morning) in the top five? How can I take anything else you say seriously?

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