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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. 110: Vanderbilt

Love is in the air in Nashville. It’s been love at first sight – well, scratch that. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, seeing that Vanderbilt first fell head over heels with Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn only to be rebuffed, at which point the university cast its gaze upon Maryland’s James Franklin. In Franklin, Vanderbilt found a suitor who returned that love and affection – it was love, and the honeymoon period is in full swing. Will the love continue in September, when the Commodores again face overwhelming odds as perennial underdogs? That’s the big test; in September, we’ll see if this relationship is either mere infatuation or a marriage built to last.

SEC, East

Nasvhille, Tenn.


Returning starters
19 (11 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 107

2010 record
(2-10, 1-7)

Last year’s

No. 105

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
  • Sept. 10
  • Sept. 17
  • Sept. 24
    at South Carolina
  • Oct. 8
    at Alabama
  • Oct. 15
  • Oct. 22
  • Oct. 29
  • Nov. 5
    at Florida
  • Nov. 12
  • Nov. 19
    at Tennessee
  • Nov. 26
    at Wake Forest

Last year’s prediction

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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The deck was stacked against these Commodores from the start. Bobby Johnson resigned in mid-July, mere weeks away from his ninth season in charge, taking with him any sense of momentum accumulated during the spring and early summer. Robbie Caldwell stepped up in his stead, trying to make the best of a bad situation, but the damage had been done: there was no chance that Vanderbilt – already only a borderline bowl contender at best – was going to right the ship following such a shock, with such a short time until September. So, as expected, Vanderbilt struggled. Two wins, only one of which came over SEC competition. Seven straight losses to finish the season, all by 14 points or more, including one against just-as-inept Wake Forest to end the year. Not a great team, not a great year. Johnson’s permanent successor inherits a rough deal, but compared to last summer, Franklin’s walking into a dream scenario.

High point A 28-14 win over Mississippi on Sept. 18. It was Vanderbilt’s lone SEC win on the year, which was notable for one reason: the Commodores went winless in conference play in 2009. A win three weeks later over Eastern Michigan pushed the Commodores to 2-3, 1-1 in the SEC.

Low point Nothing comes easy to Vanderbilt; beating Tennessee comes hardest of all. The Commodores have topped the Volunteers only once 1983, with last year’s defeat at home giving U.T. a 72-27-5 lead in the all-time series.

Tidbit In the modern era of college football, only three Vanderbilt coaches have posted a winning record in their first season on campus: E.H. Alley and Doby Bartling went 5-0 and 3-0-1, respectively, during the war-ravaged SEC landscape of 1943-44; and Fred Pancoast went 7-4 in 1975 on the heels of Steve Sloan’s successful two-year stint with the Commodores. The last seven coaches since Pancoast have combined to win 16 games in their debut campaigns, with much of that total coming during Gerry DiNardo’s 5-6 finish in 1991. DiNardo remains the only Vanderbilt coach since 1953 to serve at least four seasons and win at least 43 percent of his games.

Former players in the N.F.L.

12 WR Earl Bennett (Chicago), QB Jay Cutler (Chicago), LB Curtis Gatewood (Arizona), LB Jonathan Goff (New York Giants), DT Jovan Haye (Tennessee), S Reshard Langford (Tennessee), CB Myron Lewis (Tampa Bay), CB D.J. Moore (Chicago), C Bradley Vierling (Jacksonville), OT Thomas Welch (Minnesota), OT Chris Williams (Chicago), LB Jamie Winborn (Tennessee).

Arbitrary top five list

Musicians born in Nashville
1. Duane Allman.
2. Gregg Allman.
3. Hank Williams III.
4. Del Wood.
5. Young Buck.


James Franklin (East Stroudsburg ’95), entering his first season. He’s a head-coach-in-waiting no longer: once Ralph Friedgen’s successor at Maryland, Franklin was passed over for the top job following Friedgen’s dismissal after last season. Maryland’s loss was Vanderbilt’s gain, as the Commodores scooped up the former offensive coordinator after Gus Malzahn flirted with the program but ultimately opted to remain an Auburn assistant. Though only 39, Franklin has already made a name for himself at several B.C.S. conference stops. He served two separate terms at Maryland: the first came from 2000-4, when he was Friedgen’s wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. He was a star in the latter category, helping Maryland replenish a weak roster with a slew of talented prospects from the mid-Atlantic region. His five-year stint with the Terrapins led to a promotion at Kansas State; as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2006-7, Franklin earned praise for his work tutoring Josh Freeman, the school record-holder in several meaningful categories. Then it was back to Maryland, with the head-coach-in-waiting title, play-calling and quarterback duties, all of which he handled admirably. His work with then-freshman quarterback Danny O’Brien a year ago was considered the impetus behind Maryland’s offensive revival, as the team went from 2-10 to bowl play and A.C.C. contention. The reasons why Franklin was so appealing to Vanderbilt: he’s young, he can recruit, he can coach an offense and has the leadership qualities needed to motivate a team of underdogs to embrace the challenge of winning in the most adverse situation possible on the B.C.S. conference level. I hope he has a plan, however – you can get lost quick at Vanderbilt if you don’t have a plan.

Tidbit (coaching edition) A new coach means a new staff, which is the case at Vanderbilt with one exception. Franklin made the inspired decision to retain offensive line coach Herb Hand, who enters his second season with the Commodores after six years at West Virginia and three seasons at Tulsa. Hand’s very, very well regarded in the field, and would have been a contender for a number of open positions had he reached the open market. John Donovan, a colleague of Franklin at Maryland, is the offensive coordinator, though Franklin will have a big role in game-planning and play-calling. There will be co-defensive coordinators, both hired off the F.C.S. level: Bob Shoop, late of William & Mary, will work alongside Brent Pry, formerly of Georgia Southern. Shoop’s brother John is the offensive coordinator at North Carolina.

Players to watch

The entire offense is back. Every single starter, all 11 of them, with the hope being that a combination of returning experience and a new offensive outlook will yield a far better performance. Last fall, the Commodores finished last in the SEC in scoring (16.9 points per game) and total offense (298.2 yards per game) and 11th in passing (159.4 yards per game), rushing (138.8 yards per game) and sacks allowed (35). So there’s nowhere else to go but up, especially for a top-heavy offensive line.

The five linemen who ended last season in the starting lineup find themselves in the same position as we enter the summer: sophomore Wesley Johnson and junior Ryan Seymour at tackle, junior Jabo Burrow and senior Kyle Fischer at guard and sophomore Logan Stewart at center. Continuity is a wonderful thing, but it’s not as if this group was that great in 2010; it’s nice to return all five starters, but Vanderbilt front must do a better job in both blowing opponents off the line and protecting the quarterback. Depth is also an issue, one that won’t be addressed for another recruiting class or two — for example, Logan Stewart was the only scholarship center on the roster during the spring. Everyone has confidence in Hand’s coaching ability, but the line could be in very bad shape if it suffers any injuries.

Three running backs return as Vanderbilt awaits the fall arrival of a fourth option. The leading returning back is junior Warren Norman, the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year. Norman was injured eight games into last season but still led the Commodores in rushing (459 yards); unfortunately, that injury carried over into the spring, keeping Norman on the sidelines. Another junior, Zac Stacy, also missed the final three games of last season but led the way for Vanderbilt during the spring. Sophomore Wesley Tate is another option, but look for incoming freshman Jerron Seymour to get his shot at carries come the fall, though likely only in certain packages. Seymour’s only drawback is his lack of size — he goes around 5’7, 180 pounds — but the general consensus from those who followed his recruitment is that if he was a few inches taller, Seymour would have been a national recruit.

The leader in the passing game is senior tight end Brandon Barden, who enters 2011 as the team’s active leader in receptions (91), receiving yards (1,001) and touchdowns (8). He had his finest season a year ago, making 34 grabs for 425 yards en route to second-team all-SEC honors. For a passing game that struggled doing anything of consequence, Barden’s ability to get open on the intermediate level made him invaluable; if teamed with another viable option, Barden might be even more dangerous.

If Barden leads the way, sophomore Jordan Matthews might be the group’s star. He started slow as a rookie but blossomed late, as freshmen often do, posting 14 of his 15 receptions and all four of his touchdowns over the year’s final four games. If that carries over to 2011, Matthews might be a tremendous difference-maker for this offense. He’ll join experienced targets like John Cole, Jonathan Krause and Udom Umoh to give Vanderbilt several game-tested options, but Matthews’ ability to make big plays — scoring plays — could make a substantial difference.

Most of the defense returns as well. Say one thing for Vanderbilt over the years — the recent years, at least: the offense was often putrid, but the defense nearly always came to play. This was not the case last fall, unfortunately, as Vanderbilt allowed 374 points, a program-high since the year prior to Bobby Johnson’s arrival. The two new defensive coordinators — Shoop in particular — will preach a philosophy predicated on stopping the run, which is always a good place to start. As such, it all starts with the four-man front.

The defensive line lost one starter in end Kadri Theron, but he was pushed for snaps in 2010 but his 2011 replacement, sophomore Walker May. The latter earned playing time through his ability to get pressure in the backfield. Now healthy, a bit more experienced and undoubtedly one of the more intriguing youngsters on the team, May’s a prospect to watch. If he plays up to his ability, he’ll team with senior end Tim Fugger to form a pretty potent end combination. Fugger has injury issues of his own to address, however. The threesome of T.J. Greenstone, Colt Nichter and Rob Lohr anchor the interior of the line; Greenstone’s a returning team captain, while Lohr’s four sacks led the team.

The secondary is loaded, but will once again play below expectations statistically if the front seven doesn’t get stops on first and second down. The group has enough talent where if the run defense improves to, say, sixth in the SEC, the pass defense would rank among the conference’s best. That’s due to seniors like cornerback Casey Heyward (team-leading six interceptions) and safety Sean Richardson (team-leading 98 tackles, 7.0 for loss), both of whom should earn all-SEC accolades. Joining that pair are another pair of returning starters in Eddie Foster and Kenny Ladler, as well as part-time starters like Trey Wilson and Andre Hal. There is depth and talent here unlike at any other position on the field, making the secondary the strongest group on the team.

You’d say there are issues to address at linebacker, where two starters must be replaced, but then you remember that the Commodores have Chris Marve, who will tackle anything that moves. Now a senior — time flies — Marve leads all returning SEC defenders with 306 career tackles, 80 of which came a year ago, when he lost some time due to injury. Injuries or no, Marve still earned second-team all-SEC honors for the second straight year. So he’s the defensive star, albeit one flanked by two new starters in 2011. Both have been identified: juniors Tristan Strong and Archibald Strong. Neither have played much, neither have done much, and there isn’t much depth to speak of. Marve makes this group go, but I shudder to think of Vanderbilt’s run defense if he suffers any sort of injury.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback The story remains the same: Larry Smith is the returning starter, but the coaching staff will entertain any and all competitors looking for a chance to lead this offense. Just why is that, you might ask? Because despite starting 11 games last fall, Smith cracked the 100-yard mark — not the 200-yard, or 300-yard mark, the 100-yard mark — all of five times, completed more than 50 percent of his attempts only four times, threw six touchdowns on the year and put together four of the worst quarterbacks performances in the F.B.S. to end his season. So Franklin opened up the competition in the spring to Smith, junior Jordan Rodgers and sophomore Charlie Goro, though Rodgers was limited due to injuries. Still, Smith impressed the new staff enough to remain the odds-on favorite to start come the fall, though to do so he’ll need to outplay a healthy Rodgers and three incoming freshmen. What chance does a true freshman have of leapfrogging Smith on the depth chart? Anything is possible, but the consensus is that if it’s not Smith starting come September, it will be Rodgers, a former JUCO transfer whose older brother, Aaron, can play a little football.

Game(s) to watch

All those home games in September and October. So many, in fact, that Vanderbilt might very well exceed by mid-October my own prediction for total victories on the season. The games aren’t easy, though the Commodores should beat Elon, have a nice shot at Army and could very well knock off Connecticut.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I’m not of the mind that Franklin is going to turn things around from the start, which seems — surprisingly enough — to put me in the minority. And this is such a good thing I’m tempted to get on board: Vanderbilt has a new lease on life, thanks to Franklin’s injection of enthusiasm and resulting raised expectations, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the goodwill. But then there’s the fact that he’s not exactly inheriting Florida, 19 returning starters or no, and this is still a team that has won four games in two years, so let’s tone down the bowl talk. I don’t see it in 2011. In fact, I still see the Commodores as one of the nation’s worst B.C.S. conference teams; I also still see Vanderbilt struggling to win more than a single game in the SEC, though there is a good chance of two wins out of conference play. Now that I’ve been nasty, can I get in on the fun? Franklin’s offensive background will be of enormous benefit to a team that has struggled to score points for years. His ability to recruit has already been felt — even during a shortened recruiting cycle — and will see Vanderbilt in with recruits long uninterested, which is great. His debut staff lacks big names but indicates careful consideration of what works and what he wants to achieve. Most of all, Vanderbilt finally has a coach to rally around after a lost season. So I got that off my chest: it’s an exciting time for Vanderbilt. The best news? I get the feeling that the university is totally dedicated to making this work, meaning it seems willing to devote the time and energy — and money — needed to compete in the SEC. That’s wonderful to hear. I still think the Commodores are going to struggle in 2011.

Dream season Unexpectedly, Franklin is an immediate hit: 7-5, 4-4 in the SEC.

Nightmare season Early competitiveness means nothing during the heart of conference play, and Vanderbilt drops at least 10 games for the third consecutive season.

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. A new addition is Anchor of Gold, which also does a terrific job covering the school’s three main sports.

Word Count

Through 11 teams 28,786.

Up Next

Who is No. 109? This ranking might sound pretty good to tomorrow’s program, which has never been this high in the Countdown’s long, illustrious history.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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  1. Burnt Orange says:

    Loved the DiNardo reference. I remember when he was at Vandy he rocked the boat by claiming that ” most programs in the SEC are academically corrupt.” He also kicked a player off the team for being a few seconds late for a team meal.

    Eastern Michigan is next.

  2. M Meyer says:

    It could be Western Kentucky too, right?

  3. tulaneoutlaw says:

    My vote is Western Kentucky.

  4. wildcat6 says:

    Paul, I imagine the hardest thing about setting up these clues is making sure the clue doesn’t apply to any other school, especially in the early going.

    Any researchers on staff?

    Paul: Researchers? I wish, I wish. I’ve got a one-man operation here. I realize that Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky are both options here, so I’ll readdress it.

  5. Matt says:

    WOW, pretty surprised to see Vandy here. Your points are all sound but I think you are underestimating the actual talent level at Vandy. Relative to the SEC, yes it’s very low. I think we’ll see when they line up against UConn that in fact this Vandy roster is perhaps strong enough to make them an 8 win team in the Big East.

    Also, I assume that these rankings are based on how you think these teams will perform during the season, rather than ACTUAL quality relative to all other teams on the list. In other words, there’s no way you actually think Western Kentucky would beat Vandy on a neutral field…right?

    Paul: You’re exactly right. It’s about what each team will accomplish on the field. You can compare teams in terms of relative quality, but that would lead to a list composed of the B.C.S. in order, followed by the non-B.C.S., etc.

  6. Hokieshibe says:

    Gotta be W. Kentucky…

  7. John Irons says:

    I’m going with the Hill Toppers – and today’s picture is firmly in the lead as the best one yet.

  8. wildcat6 says:

    Thanks Paul.

    BTW can’t wait to see your interview on “Lake the Posts” tomorrow!


  9. DMK says:

    “Paul: You’re exactly right. It’s about what each team will accomplish on the field. You can compare teams in terms of relative quality, but that would lead to a list composed of the B.C.S. in order, followed by the non-B.C.S., etc.”

    So … by that logic last year Auburn was a better football team than the Carolina Panthers?

    Obviously not; Panthers would have beaten them by 7 touchdowns.

  10. Hokieshibe says:

    Matt – I’ll admit the Big East is pretty weak, but I really don’t think Vandy would be an 8-win team there, and asserting so seems like some major SEC arrogance to me. I do agree with you though, that Vandy is being underrated here. The point of these should be to rank the teams in order of their quality, not their expected win totals.

  11. haven says:

    East Stroudsburg, not Strasburg….

    Sorry about the nitpick from a Pennsylvanian.

    These writeups are incredible.

    Paul: Just wait for the rest of the teams, as I continue to confuse alma maters with top M.L.B. prospects.

  12. DMK says:

    Once again we’re proving ourselves baffled by the ontology of college football ranking.

    Should the point be to guess which teams are the best or to guess who is likely to be ranked highest in a system where we remain baffled by the ontology of college football rankings?

    (1) In the first scenario we could vote (or bet real money) on which team would hypothetically win, say, a best-of-999 series. If this is how we see it, then the fact that Boise St. was ranked #2 last year is unconscionable: There is absolutely no one on Earth who could honestly say that, at the start of last year, he would have bet his house on Boise St. winning a hypothetical neutral-site best-of-999 series against tOSU, OU, Nebraska, TCU (well…), VaTech, Oregon, Iowa, etc., etc. No way.

    (2) But, if we accept the whole ranking business as some sort of circular confused attempt to argue that Boise St. gets our vote because they seems to be in a good position to get our vote, then, gosh…

    Neither the human polls nor the computer polls (i.e., human polls in disguise) really make an honest intellectual attempt to define the terms of the debate.

    But *I’m* comfortable saying that the notion that we’d rank a team high because it seems to be in a good circumstantial position the be ranked high is intellectually bankrupt in the extreme.

  13. schedule nit says:

    By the end of last season, Vandy was the worst team I’d seen since SMU’s first year back from death. Western Kentucky would have been a favorite against Vandy, yes. They could improve a ton this year and still lose 11 games. There secondary is not really that good; int #s helped by a lot of reps against backup qbs!

  14. schedule nit says:

    DMK you just let me know the next time you’ll take action on Nebraska or Iowa as a pick ‘em against Boise St!

  15. DMK says:

    @ schedule nit

    I’ll def. bet you a buck a game on Neb/Iowa over Boise in that best-of-999 series.

    We’ll watch at your place (you buy the beer).

  16. Burnt Orange says:

    I am looking foward to the Georgia- Boise St.opener in Atlanta and the resulting mayhem on here. I think Georgia returns about 17 starters and plays at “home.” Boise returns Moore at qb and most starters on defense but loses 3 o-linemen and some talented skill people. Who do you like DMK ?

  17. DMK says:


    Call me an SEC homer, but I would have liked UGA last year too.

    Another way to look at it: I could see UGA winning by 4 TDs this September, but I could never see Boise blowing UGA out. Boise’s margin for error against good teams is very, very slim.

    I cannot wait for that game. It’ll be fun.

  18. wildcat6 says:

    @schedule nit

    I’ll vouch for the fact that Vandy was fairly competitive, at least at the beginning of the season, when they were a 2-point conversion away from overtime in a 23-21 home loss to a Northwestern team that made its third straight bowl appearance in 2010.

  19. Eksynyt says:

    I guess the next team could be San Jose State too? But probly Western Kentucky or Eastern Michigan.

    And schedule nit…last year’s Vandy team was the worst you’d seen since post DP SMU? You must not have seen Washington State or Washington in 2008, then. Both of those teams would have lost to almost any team in the nation.

  20. schedule nit says:

    Not compared to Vandy at the END of last season. They were clearly playing to avoid injury and somehow knew the coaches weren’t too concerned about it. Idk, after Norman went down they just packed it up.

    Since they’re usually in the cellar anyway, maybe it’s hard to notice, but I saw it as a trainwreck and made a lot of money betting against them the end of the year. Probably would have taken any opponent against them at home until you’d gotten a decent ways into the FCS. I don’t think a team can shake off a year like that easily; I expect them to struggle more than their evident talent would suggest.

  21. [...] Bill Connelly of SB Nation’s Football Study Hall and Paul Myerberg of Pre-Snap Read both recently previewed James Franklin’s Vandy team, if you’re into that sort of thing. They are both excellent blogs that really delve deeply into all things college football (and in the case of Football Study Hall, some really cool statistics). Here’s Connelly’s piece, and here’s Myerberg’s. [...]

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