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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. 66: Vanderbilt

The last time there was this much hype surrounding the Commodores it was the Roaring Twenties, and Don McGugin was closing out the back end of his illustrious three-decade turn as the winningest coach in school history. Perhaps I exaggerate — though not by much, I swear. Those ear-to-ear smiles you see are grounded in optimism, and optimism of a sort never seen in the program’s modern era; not only is Vanderbilt fresh off a bowl berth, the fifth in school history, but last year’s trip came in James Franklin’s debut season. This is optimism squared: normal, everyday optimism – albeit optimism not often seen in Nashville – doubled by the idea that Vanderbilt’s best days lie ahead. Add in what many believe to be the finest recruiting class in program history and you have what some might call SEC-level optimism, a fairly unknown sight at one of the conference’s original members.

Conference
SEC, East

Location
Nashville, Tenn.

Nickname
Commodores

Returning starters
16 (9 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 110

2011 record
(6-7, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 56

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    South Carolina
  • Sept. 8
    at Northwestern
  • Sept. 15
    Presbyterian
  • Sept. 22
    at Georgia
  • Oct. 6
    at Missouri
  • Oct. 13
    Florida
  • Oct. 20
    Auburn
  • Oct. 27
    UMass
  • Nov. 3
    at Kentucky
  • Nov. 10
    at Mississippi
  • Nov. 17
    Tennessee
  • Nov. 24
    at Wake Forest

Last year’s prediction

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. Now that I’ve been nasty, can I get in on the fun? 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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell It’s hard to imagine a finer start for Franklin, who became the first Vanderbilt coach since Frank Pancoast to win at least six games in his debut season with the program. Along the way, the Commodores went a perfect 4-0 in non-conference play, beating Connecticut and Wake Forest, among others, and notched a huge win over Kentucky in November to put them in line for a bowl berth. The offense took a significant step forward from mid-October on — a period coinciding with a quarterback change — while the defense stiffened over the season’s last four games. There’s work to be done, of course, and every year, without fail, will test Vanderbilt’s ability to reach bowl play. The hope is that Franklin and Vanderbilt have the sort of staying power needed to continue navigating through the SEC. With one year down, there’s little reason to assume that the Commodores can’t continue developing into an annual bowl participant.

High point A 41-7 win over Wake Forest to end the regular season clinched Vanderbilt’s bowl berth. In all, five of the Commodores’ six wins came by at least 23 points; the lone outlier was a 24-21 win at home over Connecticut in September.

Low point A series of close losses in SEC play. Tennessee won, 27-21, in overtime. Florida escaped with a 26-21 victory in the Swamp. Vanderbilt led by 14 points at halftime and 11 points in the fourth quarter but lost to Arkansas, 31-28; worse yet, the Commodores could have forced overtime but missed a short field goal near the end of regulation.

Tidbit Rivals.com ranked Vanderbilt’s 2012 class – Franklin’s first full class – as the 29th-best in the nation and the eighth-best in the SEC. That the eighth-best class in the SEC still ranks among the top 30 in the F.B.S. says much about the league’s recruiting machine, of course. Franklin’s 22-player class featured three four-star recruits and 19 three-star recruits. In comparison, Vanderbilt had signed only three four-star recruits over the previous decade, according to Rivals.com, and only once, back in 2002, had finished higher than last in the overall conference recruiting rankings.

Tidbit (improvement edition) The only major statistical category that didn’t see improvement between 2010 and 2011 was kickoff returns: Vanderbilt averaged 21.9 yards per return, down from 22.4 yards per return in 2010. The Commodores were improved – sometimes drastically so – in every remaining meaningful category. The offense scored 9.8 more points and 13 more rushing touchdowns and gained 41.0 more total yards, 25.8 more rushing yards and 15.2 more passing yards than in 2010. The defense allowed 9.6 fewer points, 96.4 fewer total yards and 13 fewer rushing touchdowns. This is just a small slice. It’s no exaggeration: Vanderbilt was improved across the board.

Tidbit (14 wins edition) Vanderbilt has never reached bowl play in back-to-back years, as you might have heard. The program has also never won more than 14 games over back-to-back years during the modern era. The Commodores have reached that mark three times: from 1974-75, spanning Steve Sloan’s final year and Fred Pancoast’s first; from 1947-48, under Red Sanders; and from 1941-42, again under Sanders, who left the program to serve in the military during World War II. Not to get too off topic, but you should know of Sanders for two reasons. One is his standing as the finest head coach in the modern history of two programs – U.C.L.A. joining Vanderbilt. The second is his coinage of one of the most legendary phrases in sports history: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” Sanders was quoted as saying in a 1955 article in Sports Illustrated. It was Sanders who said it first, not Vince Lombardi.

Former players in the N.F.L.

11 TE Brandon Barden (Tennessee), WR Earl Bennett (Chicago), QB Jay Cutler (Chicago), LB Tim Fugger (Indianapolis), LB Jonathan Goff (Washington), CB Casey Heyward (Green Bay), CB Myron Lewis (Tampa Bay), CB D.J. Moore (Chicago), S Sean Richardson (Green Bay), OT Thomas Welch (Philadelphia), OG Chris Williams (Chicago).

Arbitrary top five list

Football players whose last name begins with Van-
1. QB Norm Van Brocklin.
2. C Jeff Van Note.
3. DE Kyle Vandenbosch.
4. RB Mark van Eghen.
5. OT Keith Van Horn.

Coaching

James Franklin (East Stroudsburg ’95), 6-7 after his first season. To say that he surpassed expectations doesn’t do it justice: Franklin not only won at Vanderbilt but won from the start, making him the rarest of the rare – a rookie coach who came out with both guns blazing. He became available to Vanderbilt after two helpful occurrences: one, then-Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said no, forcing the university to return to the drawing board; and two, Maryland opted not to name Franklin as Ralph Friedgen’s successor, opting instead for Randy Edsall. How’s that going for Maryland through one season? Though only 39 when he was hired, Franklin had 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 passing 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 in 2010 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. Check, check and check. His work in 2011 was nothing short of astounding – and outstanding.

Tidbit (coaching edition) The more Vanderbilt wins the more attractive Franklin’s assistants will become to programs looking for coaching upgrades. You saw this even after one season, as the Commodores must replace two former assistants who left for a promotion elsewhere: defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff was named Mississippi’s co-defensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Chris Beatty joined Tim Beckman as the co-offensive coordinator at Illinois. Franklin will replace McGriff with George Barlow, the former New Mexico assistant who stepped in as the Lobos’ head coach following Mike Locksley’s dismissal last October. Beatty will be replaced by Josh Gattis, the former Wake Forest safety – a two-time all-A.C.C. pick, in 2005 and 2006 – who spent last fall in the same position at Western Michigan.

Players to watch

In my opinion, former Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels would need to put together one heck of an August to wrestle the starting quarterback job away from Jordan Rodgers. Not just a strong fall; Carta-Samuels should need to blow Franklin’s socks off to push Rodgers into a secondary role. The reasoning is simple: Rodgers achieved enough last fall, when he broke into the starting lineup midway through the season, to be ensured another run at the center of this offense in 2012. This is Rodgers’ team, as he proved down the stretch, and taking the keys away just as the getting is good simply doesn’t make sense for this program.

Having said that, Franklin has given little indication that Rodgers’ grasp on the starting role is slipping away – he’s simply illustrated his desire to see Carta-Samuels develop, even if he’s praised the way the former transfer has fit into this system. What you know about Carta-Samuels is that he’s produced when given the opportunity, albeit at Wyoming, and would give the Commodores a massive upgrade at the backup position.

Rodgers, a former JUCO transfer – like his brother, Aaron – was inserted into the lineup in time for Alabama on Oct. 8, with that game followed by Georgia, and there are certainly easier ways for a first-year transfer to break into a starting role. Throwing Rodgers to the wolves against the Crimson Tide looms as Franklin’s most noticeable rookie mistake, which says something about how well his debut campaign played out.

What he brings to the table is an ability to get the ball down field, with his running ability outside the pocket serving as icing on the cake. For the first time in years, the Commodores can present a competent passing game with the ability to stretch the field against defenses in the SEC. Rodgers threw for at least 186 yards in four consecutive conference games, led by a season-high 297 yards in a narrow loss to Florida in Gainesville. He moves the chains; he can make plays outside the pocket; he can hurt teams with his legs. Rodgers is a gamer – a tired label, perhaps, but it fits. He gives Vanderbilt the best chance to win games in the SEC.

But Rodgers isn’t the star of this offense – not by a long shot. That would be senior running back Zac Stacy, who rushed for 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago; both totals set new school records. Stacy is indispensable: he rushed for at least 135 yards in each of Vanderbilt’s last four wins and a combined 225 yards in the narrow defeats to Georgia and Arkansas. Stacy is compact, but this size belies a surprising blend of speed and athleticism; his wide skill set makes him a clear all-conference pick even in a league heavy on running back talent.

Yet it wouldn’t surprise me if Stacy’s numbers do take a slight step back in 2012 – though he should leave with the most career rushing yards in school history. Why? Because Vanderbilt doesn’t merely return sophomore Jerron Seymour (258 yards, 5 scores), but also junior Warren Norman, the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2008. Norman, who missed all of last season, might not reclaim a major role in this offense, but he’ll be a valuable third-down back thanks to ability as a receiver. The Commodores also welcome in true freshman Brian Kimbrew, so the competition for touches behind Stacy will be heated.

Even if he started only seven games last fall, it’s clear that Rodgers has developed a nice rapport with several returning receivers. One is sophomore Chris Boyd (31 receptions for 473 yards and 8 touchdowns); a second is junior Jordan Matthews (41 for 778, 5 scores), whose terrific close to last season – 33 grabs for 661 yards over the last six games – makes him a heavy all-SEC contender heading into September. That’s your top two, and it’s a very solid pairing: Boyd and Matthews are big, strong, agile receivers who can make plays down field.

And there’s solid depth, even if the Commodores won’t dig too deep for receiving options. John Cole returns after missing most of last season due to injury. Vanderbilt will use junior Wesley Tate (22 for 187) in the slot, where he could stand to bring a little more production to the table. While smaller, junior Jonathan Krause (23 for 171) will see the field behind Matthews. And more: converted quarterback Josh Grady and redshirt freshman tight end Steven Scheu, among others. The group is led by Matthews and Boyd, who could be terrific.

At some point over the next year or two, the offense will catch up with this defense. You knew heading into Franklin’s debut season that the Commodores didn’t need a defensive overhaul; on the other hand, you know that the offense needed – and still needs – some work. Last year’s defense did a very nice job, finishing 18th nationally in yards allowed per game, but there’s still room for improvement: Vanderbilt still had its struggles against the top offenses in the SEC, teams like Georgia and Arkansas, and could use better play against the run from the front seven.

Speaking of the front seven: Vanderbilt retools without two major figures up front in end Tim Fugger and middle linebacker Chris Marve. Fugger broke out as a senior, leading the team in tackles for loss and sacks; Marve was his customarily productive self, earning all-SEC honors for the third time. The Commodores will replace Marve by moving junior Chase Garnham (51 tackles) into the middle from the strong side, where he made eight starts a year ago – missing a few games with a groin injury. The two starters on the outside will be familiar: senior Archibald Barnes (59 tackles, 2 interceptions) returns on the weak side while senior Tristan Strong moves back into the lineup on the strong side – Strong started the first four games of last season before ceding way to Barnes.

While the top three is set in stone, the opportunity is there for one of the five incoming freshmen to move into the rotation. If the season started today, you’d see at least two factoring into the two-deep. These aren’t your typical incoming freshmen, as the above note on Vanderbilt’s recruiting implies; most held offers from across the Southeast, including one, Darreon Harding, who was offered by Arkansas, Nebraska, Clemson, North Carolina, Stanford and West Virginia. He chose Vanderbilt – people need to start getting used to seeing this happen.

What Vanderbilt needs up front is a pass-rushing end to recoup Fugger’s lost production on third down. As of today, Fugger’s old spot is filled by senior Johnell Thomas (26 tackles), a five-game starter a season ago. Thomas has fluttered in and out of the lineup over the last two years, showing flashes of talent, but it’s now time for him to put a complete season together. He’ll be joined at end by junior Walker May (30 tackles, 3.0 sacks), who pushed Thomas into a secondary role midway through last season.

Tackle play will only improve – and, by and large, Vanderbilt was fortunate to land strong play along the interior a year ago. Both starters return in seniors Colt Nichter (26 tackles) and Rob Lohr (41 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 5.0 sacks). What can Lohr do for an encore? Lohr seemed lost at times after being pushed into the lineup ahead of schedule in 2010. He bounced back with an all-conference caliber junior campaign; after last year’s growth, it will be interesting to see if Lohr can take another step forward as a senior.

The biggest hole in the secondary lies at cornerback, where the Commodores need to replace yet another all-SEC pick in Casey Heyward, who finished second in the conference in interceptions in 2011. The defense won’t look far for an answer – or a replacement, at least. In addition to making noise as a return man, junior Andre Hal has been Vanderbilt’s third cornerback over the last two years; he even started twice as a freshman, though Hal returned to a reserve role last fall. Can Hal match up with the SEC’s best? I wouldn’t think so. But he’s more experienced than your typical first-year starter, which should slow down his learning curve.

He’ll be joined at cornerback by senior Trey Wilson (30 tackles, 3 interceptions), who steps into a major role following Heyward’s departure – he, not Hal, will be Vanderbilt’s stopper. Vanderbilt returns two players with starting experience at free safety, so one will move to strong safety to replace Sean Richardson. Both are juniors: Javon Marshall (32 tackles) and Kenny Ladler. While Ladler is bigger, Marshall might provide more punch – might be more intimidating – at strong safety.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Herb Hand will have more to work with than he did a season ago, which is a start. But Vanderbilt was dinged a bit by injuries during the spring, which prevented Hand from forming a true two-deep. When the Commodores return to the field in August, however, the staff should have enough pieces in place to avoid the all-hand-on-deck shuffle that plagued line play over the second half of last season. Only one starter must be replaced, right tackle Kyle Fischer, but Hand and the Commodores must still cement down starting roles up front.

The first step will be finding a permanent home for junior Wesley Johnson, an all-SEC pick last fall – earning this honor despite starting at three different positions. The Commodores will put Johnson at left tackle, where he made five starts in 2011; he should flourish with consistent snaps in one spot. Fischer’s replacement at right tackle will be sophomore Andrew Bridges, a late-season starter on the blind side who was one of the nicest surprises on last year’s offense. This pair will bookend the line.

There won’t be many moves inside. Senior Ryan Seymour is back at left guard, ahead of sophomore Joe Townsend. Senior Josh Jelesky, a converted defensive tackle, returns at right guard. The lone new starter up front is sophomore center Spencer Pulley, last year’s backup at the position. The starting group has two all-conference candidates in Seymour and Johnson, not to mention improved depth. While a few youngsters – linemen like Townsend and Jake Bernstein, for example – aren’t ready for prime time, they are serviceable reserves heading into September.

Game(s) to watch

Another 4-0 mark during non-conference play would lead to a second consecutive bowl berth. This year’s non-conference slate is slightly more difficult, however. As in 2011, the Commodores will face Wake Forest on the road and play an F.C.S. team and a very beatable F.B.S. opponent – Massachusetts, compared to Army – at home. However, the Commodores do need to travel to Northwestern early; that’s a big game for both teams. The SEC slate is ridiculous, as expected. What hurts Vanderbilt is the fact that Mississippi and Kentucky come on the road and not at home, as was the case a year ago. The big question: Can Vanderbilt win three games during SEC play? Doing so would involve at least one upset. Is Vanderbilt ready to knock off Georgia or shake off decades of ineptitude against Tennessee?

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s every reason to think that Vanderbilt will make a second straight bowl game. Let that sink in: Vanderbilt has never, ever made successive bowl trips, so another six-win regular season would be a college football first. And you know what? It’ll make history, but it won’t surprise. Outside of four potential trouble spots, this team stands as an improvement upon last year’s version. The concerns: the offensive line needs to cement down a starting five and stay healthy; the defensive line needs to get consistent pressure off the edge from its starting ends; Garnham must fill Marve’s shoes at middle linebacker; and Wilson must become the new stopper at cornerback. Yeah, teams like Alabama and L.S.U. have fewer issues; the Commodores aren’t those teams, aren’t a real SEC contender, but are absolutely a team that could take three games during conference play. So why do I think that this program won’t take another step forward in 2012 – moving to seven or eight wins during the regular season? Well, for starters, another six wins would be absolutely outstanding: Vanderbilt isn’t sneaking up on anyone this fall, and the schedule – with those two winnable SEC games on the road – is again daunting from September through November. Less tangibly, I think that Vanderbilt won’t be in a position to really break through until these two recruiting classes – this winter’s and next winter’s – have at least one full season to develop in this system.

The point I’m trying to make is that Vanderbilt shouldn’t be disappointed in a six-win season. Elsewhere, that’s treading water; in Nashville, that’s progress – that’s progress with an exclamation point, as it would land the Commodores back in bowl play. However, it’s important that the program get to six wins. Once is a fluke, but twice indicates a trend. The Commodores get there with three wins during non-conference play and three wins against the SEC. Once Franklin adds another recruiting class or two into the mix, six wins might be the program’s baseline for success.

Dream season Vanderbilt starts with a win over South Carolina, shaking up the SEC East. While the Commodores don’t take home the East, losing the head-to-head tiebreaker to Georgia, Franklin does net a two-win improvement during the regular season. Vanderbilt hasn’t won eight games in a season since 1982.

Nightmare season The Commodores go 2-2 during non-conference play and only 1-7 against the SEC, beating only Kentucky on the road in November.

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 covers the school’s three main sports, with special emphasis — based on what I’ve seen — on the baseball program. Anchor of Gold is easily the hardest-working Vanderbilt blog, with daily updates about all university sports.

Vanderbilt’s all-name nominee C Spencer Pulley.

Word Count

Through 59 teams 226,445.

Up Next

Who is No. 65? The ticket center on the campus of tomorrow’s university is named after a former starting guard – both on offense and defense; he played both ways – who helped lead the program to its first bowl bid.

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Comments

  1. David says:

    Southern Mississippi is next. Pat Ferlise was a two-way guard on USM’s 1952 Sun Bowl team.

  2. The key to Vandy’s season, as you mention, is the fact that they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. That makes a big difference.

    Just looking at their schedule, it appears as though they could be underdogs in nearly SEC game (depending on how Kentucky and Mississippi are doing at the time they play), and it isn’t unreasonable to think they could start out 1-6 before the UMASS game.

    A six win season would be a tremendous step forward for Vanderbilt.

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