2012 Vanderbilt Preview – Strong Enough
Vanderbilt QB Jordan Rodgers
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Can Vanderbilt really come up with a great year in the SEC by playing it straight?
Head coach: James Franklin
2nd year: 6-7
Off. 19, Def. 20, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 21
Ten Best Vanderbilt Players
1. DT Rob Lohr, Sr.
2. RB Zac Stacy, Sr.
3. LB Chase Garnham, Jr.
4. LB Archibald Barnes, Sr.
5. WR Jordan Matthews, Jr.
6. QB Jordan Rodgers, Sr.
7. WR Chris Boyd, Soph.
8. OG Ryan Seymour, Sr.
9. DE Walker May, Jr.
10. DT Colt Nichter, Sr.
Aug. 30 South Carolina
Sep. 8 at Northwestern
Sep. 15 Presbyterian
Sep. 22 at Georgia
Sep. 29 OPEN DATE
Oct. 6 at Missouri
Oct. 13 Florida
Oct. 20 Auburn
Oct. 27 UMass
Nov. 3 at Kentucky
Nov. 10 at Ole Miss
Nov. 17 Tennessee
Nov. 24 at Wake Forest
Despite having fewer top recruits and less top-shelf talents than everyone else in the SEC, and even with several built-in reasons to struggle that come from being Vanderbilt, the team might be able to win this year simply by being good.
Head coach James Franklin said from the moment he took over the job last season that there wouldn't be any excuses. The Commodores were going to win football games and they were going to be a factor in the SEC. Period.
However, they weren't going to do anything funky. They weren't going to go to a triple-option offense and they weren't going to come up with some sort of different defensive style to become the team that no one wants to prepare for. That worked well last year with a defense that did its part against several mediocre SEC offenses, while the offense made some nice strides forward in a stepping-stone season.
Okay, so the best win of the six might have road blowout of Wake Forest, but Vandy had Georgia in trouble in a 33-28 loss. It was a missed kick away from forcing overtime against Arkansas, lost to Florida by five, and lost to Tennessee in overtime. Five of the seven losses came by a touchdown or less with chances to be had in each of those games, and now this year's team should be able to capitalize on more of the opportunities.
The program's success has usually come from the defense, with the offense along for the ride in a let's-not-screw-this-up sort of way. However, this year there might be some real, live firepower thanks to a promising receiving corps led by Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, two big players who picked up their production over the second half of last year. The stable of running backs is deep and talented, welcoming back Zac Stacy, who set the single-season school record with 1,193 yards last year. The line is as good and as tough as it has been in several years, and Jordan Rodgers and Austyn Carta-Samuels form an outstanding quarterback tandem that gives the coaching staff options.
The defense might lose some phenomenal talents, but the starting 11 should be able to hold up. Depth is a problem in the back seven, and the line needs some big seasons from several players, but it should be a good enough D to be able to come up with just enough good performances against the mediocre teams to get by.
Missing Arkansas, LSU and Alabama from the West will be a huge help, and getting South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee at home is almost all anyone in the West could ask for, but even with a good team returning it's going to take a few upsets to go bowling again thanks to a tougher schedule. However, it's not totally wrong to think that this Commodore team could end up being the favorites in some of the bigger matchups as the season goes on.
No, Vanderbilt won't win the SEC East any time soon, or maybe ever, but that doesn't mean the program can't come up with a great year by shooting for the impossible. Franklin is a true believer who's doing his best to sell his players and fans that yes, it really might be possible to be Vanderbilt and be great at football.
What to watch for on offense: Can the quarterback play be steady and efficient? Zac Stacy, Warren Norman and the running backs should be excellent. The line has the potential to be rock-solid with a slew of good veterans and lots of versatile options. Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd are SEC-quality receives who should make the passing game go. It's all there in place for the Commodores to come up with its best offensive season in a long, long time, but it'll only happen if Jordan Rodgers can be more consistent. The former JUCO transfer was supposed to make a big impact right away, and he did becoming the team's passing leader with 1,524 yards and nine touchdowns. However, he threw ten picks and only completed 50% of his passes and finished up the season completing just 4-of-14 passes before getting pulled in the bowl loss to Cincinnati. Wyoming transfer Austin Carta-Samuels might be considered the main man for next year, but if he might be thrown into the mix if Rodgers doesn't bring the production each and every week.
What to watch for on defense: Can the defense replace four irreplaceable parts? Gone is Tim Fugger, the team's top pass rusher. Gone is Chris Marve, the team's leading tackler and the leader of the nation's 18th ranked defense. Gone are defensive backs Sean Richardson and Casey Hayward, two big-time playmakers who were the key parts to a secondary that finished ninth in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Chase Garnham might be able to fill in Marve's stats moving from outside linebacker to the middle, but he needs to show he's ready to be the leader. Walker May has terrific pass rushing skills, but now he has to prove he can be steady at one end. Trey Wilson has good potential as a No. 1 corner and Kenny Ladler, Eric Samuels and Javon Marshall are promising safeties, but they're going to have to deal with a tougher schedule facing a few more decent passing teams.
The team will be far better if … the pass defense works. The overall stats might have looked great, but that's partly because the secondary didn't deal with too many top-shelf quarterbacks. However, the Commodores gave up 266 passing yards and four scores against Alabama and lost. They allowed 326 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia and lost. They gave up 316 yards to Arkansas, 213 yards to Florida and 236 yards to South Carolina and lost all three games. Yes, they allowed a mere 80 passing yards to Cincinnati, but they lost because they were flattened for a season-high 221 rushing yards allowed.
The schedule: James Franklin has a stronger team returning, but the schedule could be a bear unless there are a few nice upsets in September. Starting out against South Carolina at home will set the tone, and going to Northwestern and Georgia could mean a 1-3 start before getting a week off before going to Missouri. And then it'll be vital to own home field advantage.
Vandy gets three straight home games including dates with Florida and Auburn, but the finishing kick will be interesting with three road games in the final four. They're winnable, but still, going away to play Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Wake Forest, to go along with the home finale against Tennessee, won't be easy.
Best offensive player: Senior RB Zac Stacy. The hope was for Warren Norman to come back after getting hurt in 2010, but he wasn't ready yet and missed all of last season. Stacy managed to step up when needed setting the Vandy record with 1,193 yards with 14 scores averaging 5.9 yards per carry. He's not going to have to carry the offensive workload with a slew of good veteran skill players returning, and he's not going to have to handle all of the rushing workload with Norman and Wesley Tate back, but he's still going to be the key cog that things revolve around. Good things happen when he gets the ball in his hands.
Best defensive player: Senior DT Rob Lohr. It was a mild shocker that he didn't take off a year early for the NFL. Projected to be possibly a high first-round pick, and definitely no worse than a second-rounder had he left as a junior, he's a perfect pro 3-4 end who can work as an interior pass rusher or as a run plugger. The motor is always running and the heart is always there, and this year the Commodores can boast a player up front as strong and as good as any lineman in the SEC.
Key player to a successful season: Senior PK Ryan Fowler and/or junior PK Carey Spear. Down 31-28 late against Arkansas, Vanderbilt had a shot to force overtime needing Spear to hit a 27-yard chip shot with eight seconds to play. He missed. Against Tennessee Fowler missed his second quarter field goal attempts from 44 and 34 yards out. Vandy went on to lose in overtime. The team isn't good enough to not do everything right, and Fowler and Spear have to be steadier and have to show some semblance of range.
The season will be a success if … Vandy comes up with a winning season. It's not going to be easy with Presbyterian and UMass the only true layups and the seemingly easiest SEC games against Kentucky and Ole Miss on the road. Even winnable non-conference games against Northwestern and Wake Forest are away from home. There's enough talent and enough potential to come up with six wins and possibly a bowl game, but there are also enough games against teams Vandy's own size to win more.
Key game: Aug. 30 vs. South Carolina. Okay, Vanderbilt, if you want to make a big statement right away and show that you're going to make this season special then come up with a shocker in the season opener at home. The Gamecocks have won three in a row in the series since being stunned 24-17 in the 2008 early September showdown and 17-6 in 2007. If there's going to be a massive upset, it needs to happen early on before there's time to tune-up, the Commodores have to take advantage of the hope opportunity.
2011 Fun Stats:
- Opponent 1st Quarter Scoring: 30. Opponents 2nd Quarter Scoring: 100
- 4th Down Conversions: Vanderbilt 15-of-20 (75%) – Opponents 9-of-22 (41%)
- Punt Return Average: Vanderbilt 6.3 yards – Opponents 3.9 yards
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