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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Vanderbilt (6-7, 2-6)

Vanderbilt might want Danny O’Brien, but do the Commodores need O’Brien? Well, maybe. But the program isn’t in as dire need of a quarterback as the situation might suggest: O’Brien might be the answer to the program’s pro-style dreams, but it’s not as if the team doesn’t have another option at the position. If all else fails, James Franklin can simply turn to Jordan Rodgers, the former junior college transfer who saved Vanderbilt’s season after being inserted into the starting lineup in early October. It was that personnel decision, moving Rodgers into a major role in place of Larry Smith, that provided the catapult for Vanderbilt’s late-season climb into bowl play.

But it was not necessarily a smooth transition. Rodgers 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.

The lessons learned against Alabama, where Rodgers struggled, and against Georgia, where he struggled as a passer but hurt the Bulldogs with his feet, paved the way for his eventual turn as Vanderbilt’s best passing quarterback since Chris Nickson threw for more than 2,000 yards in 2006. The Commodores closed last season with three wins in six games, including two by a combined 64 points in November, and Rodgers’ ability to move the chains played an enormous role in the team’s second bowl berth since 1983.

What he brings to the table is an ability to get the ball down field, with the running ability outside the pocket serving as icing on the cake. For the first time in years, the Commodores could present a competent passing game that could 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.

The main issue with O’Brien’s impending — or potential — move to Vanderbilt is that it doesn’t pay the proper respect to the work Rodgers did down the stretch last fall, nor does it appreciate the fact that Rodgers, with another year under his belt, might be the best option for the Commodores’ offense in 2012. Clearly, Rodgers is good enough to lead Vanderbilt into bowl play; having already achieved that feat, there’s little reason to think he can’t do so again as a second-year starter.

Could Vanderbilt use O’Brien? At worst, the Commodores could use the competition he’d bring to the table. In addition, O’Brien would arrive with a firm grasp of Franklin’s offense, thanks to the two seasons he spent in Maryland while Franklin served as Ralph Friedgen’s offensive coordinator. There’s every reason to think that O’Brien could step right in and claim the starting role.

But talk of O’Brien immediately bolting for Vanderbilt has been premature. While the program is clearly on his short list — Maryland’s complaint alleges that Franklin and O’Brien were talking prior to the latter’s official transfer announcement — Maryland’s former starter will openly evaluate his options, which include B.C.S. conference programs from coast to coast.

Penn State. Wisconsin. South Florida. Stanford, though this seems far-fetched. And yes, Vanderbilt. In short, while the Commodores may lead the race for O’Brien’s services at the turn, the program may enter this fall with the status quo at the position: Rodgers under center.

Season grade: A+ 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 Rodgers’ move to starting status — 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.

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 The series of close losses in SEC play. Tennessee won, 27-21, in overtime. As noted earlier, Florida escaped with a 26-21 victory in the Swamp. Vanderbilt led by 14 points in 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.

Offensive M.V.P. It’s not Rodgers, as much as his presence in the starting lineup has been touted as Vanderbilt’s in-season turning point. While Rodgers was an October addition, running back Zac Stacy, whose 1,193 yards on the ground was good for third in the SEC, was the year-long backbone of Vanderbilt’s offense. His season took off after the Oct. 8 loss at Alabama; Stacy rushed for 929 over his last eight games, breaking the 100-yard mark against Army, Arkansas, Kentucky and Wake Forest. It’s not a coincidence that Stacy’s numbers perked up once he was teamed with an able-bodied passer at quarterback.

Defensive M.V.P. Only the defensive backfields in place at Alabama and L.S.U. could keep cornerback Casey Hayward off the all-SEC first-team; despite posting seven interceptions, including two against South Carolina, Hayward had to settle for second-team recognition. He was joined by linebacker Chris Marve, who concluded his college career in fitting fashion: leading the team in tackles. Marve did so twice over his four years in Nashville, and never finished worse than second on the team in stops. While both Hayward and Marve earned all-conference accolades, defensive end Tim Rugger, the team leader in tackles for loss and sacks, was the odd man out.

Stock watch 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 three-decade turn as the finest coach in school history. Perhaps I exaggerate — though not by much, I swear. The most pleasing season in decades has continued through the offseason, as Franklin recently closed the books on what many believe to be the finest recruiting class in program history. That incoming talent will provide a sizable boost to Vanderbilt’s depth, which should help the Commodores overcome any lingering issues heading into 2012: offensive line play, holes along the back seven and speed and explosiveness at the offensive skill positions. Even with concerns to address, it’s an exciting time for the Commodores.

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