Coach James Franklin only won two conference games in his first season in Nashville, but had Vandy much more competitive in the SEC, losing four league games by seven points or less.
The Commodores' defense was the clear strength of last year's team, finishing 18th nationally. The Commodores return seven starters, but must replace their three leading tacklers from a season ago, including All-SEC linebacker Chris Marve.
The defense still has potential to play well, led by senior defensive tackle Rob Lohr and senior linebacker Archibald Barnes to rebuild around, but will need to fill holes immediately with South Carolina scheduled as its opener.
While the defense looks for replacements, the offense returns nine starters from last season's team that earned Vanderbilt its fifth bowl trip in school history and first since 2008.
Running back Zac Stacy, who returns after being awarded second team All-SEC honors a year ago, will likely be Vanderbilt's biggest offensive threat vs. the Tigers. Auburn's defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will likely design his game plan to slow the tailback who averaged 5.94 yards a carry on his way to setting the school recording for rushing yards in a season with 1,193.
"What's amazing about Zac is as good of a player, he's a better person," Franklin said. "I can say that about a lot of our guys. Zac gets a lot of credit, but we play ultimate team football at Vanderbilt. I think anybody that watched our team last year from the beginning of the year until the end, I think our offensive line improved as much as any unit in the SEC.
"Also the fact having wideouts that people have to respect on the outside is going to help them as well. The development of our quarterback as well. I think Zac could have a great year."
Franklin added, "I couldn't be more pleased with Zac's development, how he comes to work every single day with a blue-collar mentality. I think he's got a chance to have a really, really good year for us, and we need him to."
Jordan Rodgers returns under center along with his top two targets from last season, Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. The receiving duo combined for 1,215 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2011 as juniors, but Rodgers struggled at times with his passing accuracy. For his junior season he completed just 50 percent of his throws, but the quarterback was also a threat with his running ability. He finished second on the team in rushing with 420 yards on 117 attempts.
Franklin predicts that Rodgers will be much improved this season. "I just see his work ethic that he's putting in," the coach said. "He's going to be graduating in December. He's in there watching film all the time. As we all know, he has a tremendous resource to make a phone call and ask questions. It's kind of like recruiting a coach's kid, I've always believed in that, because that player has learned more football being around it his whole life than he even realized.
"It's the same thing with Jordan. With Jordan, it's specific to the quarterback position, which I really think is going to help him. He's been so much more open. He's always been driven. He's always been competitive. But I think last year we were able to lay a foundation and this year we got a chance to build on it."
Auburn has not faced Vanderbilt since its lackluster 2008 performance vs. the Commodores in Nashville. After two first quarter touchdown passes by quarterback Chris Todd gave the Tigers a 13-0 lead, a missed extra point by then-sophomore kicker Wes Byrum would be a major factor in the defeat. The Commodores put together second and third quarter scoring drives to pull ahead and Auburn's offense, coordinated by Tony Franklin, could not respond as the Tigers suffered a stinging 14-13 loss.
Vanderbilt exceeded expectations last year. The next step forward would be to finish with a winning record in 2012. With a favorable schedule, including home games against South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Auburn, Vanderbilt looks like it has a legitimate chance to reach a bowl for a second year in a row and improve on last year's victory total.
Key Players to Replace: Linebacker Chris Marve led the 2011 team with 91 tackles while also recording 8 1/2 tackles for a loss and three sacks. Safety Sean Richardson made 63 stops, 6 1/2 for a loss and two sacks last season. Cornerback Casey Hayward intercepted a team-leading seven passes last year while adding 62 tackles and 7 1/2 tackles for a loss en route to being named a second-team All-American, Vanderbilt's first All-American in four years. Defensive end Tim Fugger finished his career with a team-leading 13 1/2 tackles for a loss and eight sacks while adding three forced fumbles and 33 tackles.
All-Star Candidates: Running back Zac Stacy (201 carries, 1,193 yards, 14 TDs); quarterback Jordan Rodgers (108-216 passing, 1,524 yards, 13 TDs, 10 INT); wide receiver Jordan Matthews (41 receptions, 778 yards, 5 TDs); wide receiver Chris Boyd (31 catches, 473 yards, 8 TDs); linebacker Archibald Barnes (59 tackles, 2 INT, 3 forced fumbles); defensive tackle Rob Lohr (41 tackles, 11 1/2 TFL, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles); cornerback Trey Wilson (30 tackles, 3 INT)
Series Results: Tied 20-20-1
Aug. 30--South Carolina at Vanderbilt
Sept. 8--Vanderbilt at Northwestern
Sept. 15--Presbyterian at Vanderbilt
Sept. 22--Vanderbilt at Georgia
Oct. 6--Vanderbilt at Missouri
Oct. 13--Florida at Vanderbilt
Oct. 20--Auburn at Vanderbilt
Oct. 27--Massachusetts at Vanderbilt
Nov. 3--Vanderbilt at Kentucky
Nov. 10--Vanderbilt at Ole Miss
Nov. 17--Tennessee at Vanderbilt
No. 24--Vanderbilt at Wake Forest
Key Games for Vanderbilt
Tennessee at Vanderbilt--If last season's 27-21 overtime loss doesn't motivate the Commodores for their 2012 matchup vs. their in-state rival, Volunteers' coach Derek Dooley's postgame speech and excessive celebration in the locker room should.
Worth Noting: Vanderbilt has never made bowl appearances two years in a row.
The Challenge For Auburn: Vanderbilt's rushing attack should be what carries the team in 2012. With Stacy and four offensive line starters back looking for an even better season than last year, Auburn's front four will face a challenge in Nashville this year. The same will be true for the Auburn offense if the Commodores find adequate replacements for their missing defensive stars from the 2011 squad.