SEC PREVIEWS: Vandy trying to be competitive

Now that the Southeastern Conference has won an unprecedented five straight national football championships, the question isn't if the league can continue the streak, but which team seems the most likely to pull off the feat. Look inside as Scout.com continues its look at the SEC with this preview of Vanderbilt.

With four different teams (Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Florida twice) winning national titles in the past five years plus three Heisman Trophy winners (Tim Tebow, Mark Ingram and Cam Newton), winning the SEC championship has become the single most important factor in determining leading candidates for college football's top team and individual honors.

The Scout.com SEC publishers have tabbed Alabama as the overall favorite to win the league championship and make its way to another BCS title game. LSU drew strong support both as the second choice in the SEC West and for the overall title with South Carolina getting the nod over Georgia for the SEC East championship. All 12 teams will be previewed in their predicted order of finish over the next couple of weeks.



SEC EAST

VANDERBILT (6)

Following consecutive 2-10 seasons, Vanderbilt replaced nearly every coach on staff at the end of the 2010 season and brought in former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin to rebuild the football program. Since taking over the job in December, Franklin has preached about reforming the football culture at Vanderbilt, making appearances around Nashville and hitting the recruiting trail hard. After picking up just one conference victory over two seasons, the 2011 Commodores are looking to pick up where 2008's Music City Bowl team left off and become competitive in the SEC.

Franklin and his staff inherit a talented stable of running backs that will be the core of the offense in 2011. Junior Warren Norman, who broke the SEC freshman record for all-purpose yards in 2009, is the projected starter at running back although he has been sidelined this spring with injuries he suffered at the end of last season. Fellow junior Zac Stacy and redshirt sophomore Wesley Tate give the Commodores more experience in the backfield. Tate is fully healthy for the first time in his Vanderbilt career, and is poised to have a breakout year after an impressive spring.

Returning starter and redshirt senior Larry Smith is the favorite to start the season under center for the Commodores, though Franklin has not named a starter. Although Smith has valuable SEC experience with 21 starts under his belt, he has struggled, throwing 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions over the past two seasons. Redshirt junior Jordan Rodgers, brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, will challenge Smith for the starting job. Rodgers was unable to participate in most spring drills after undergoing surgery in November. Among three quarterback signees in the 2011 recruiting class, four-star athlete Lafonte Thourogood may also get playing time, especially in run-first packages.

Redshirt senior Kyle Fischer and redshirt sophomore Wesley Johnson headline an offensive line that returns every starter from 2010. Despite the bevy of returning starters, Franklin called the unit one of his two biggest concerns for the team heading into 2011. During the Vanderbilt spring game the offensive line players had to play for both the black and gold squads because of the large numbers of injuries sustained by linemen.

Also returning for Vanderbilt is its leading pass-catcher from 2010, redshirt senior tight end Brandon Barden. Alongside Barden, talented sophomore receivers Jonathan Krause and Jordan Matthews return, each of whom saw considerable playing time in 2010. Krause was arguably the biggest offensive threat last season, with long touchdown runs on reverses two different times. Matthews showed potential to be the Commodores' biggest playmaker at the end of last season, registering a touchdown in each of Vanderbilt's last four games to lead the receiving corps in touchdown receptions. After struggling for most of last year, the receivers appear to be one of the most capable units for the 2011 Commodores.

Although the defense returns nearly every starter, there are still plenty of questions to be answered by new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop before the team takes the field in September. With the departure of John Stokes, the linebacking corps is the biggest question mark for this year's defense. While redshirt senior Chris Marve is one of the best linebackers in the SEC, he has little supporting cast. The defense will look to another linebacker—perhaps juniors Archibald Barnes, Tristan Strong or sophomore Chase Garnham—to play an important role this season.

The secondary is the biggest strength of the Vanderbilt defense. Senior cornerback Casey Hayward received second-team All-SEC honors in 2010 while leading the conference in passes defended. In addition, his six interceptions ranked second in the conference and fifth nationally. Alongside Hayward, safeties Sean Richardson and Kenny Ladler played well and will be critical parts of the pass defense. Junior cornerback Trey Wilson turned heads this spring, and will get significant playing time. Because of the weakness at linebacker, Franklin has hinted that the defense may run some nickel packages to get more defensive backs on the field. If that is the case, Eddie Foster, Eric Samuels, and Steven Clarke will all be on the field consistently.

Redshirt junior defensive tackle Colt Nichter has stepped up this offseason, picking up two sacks in the spring game to cap an impressive spring. With returning starters T.J. Greenstone and Rob Lohr struggling with injuries this spring, Nichter was able to take repetitions with the first-team defense, and will challenge Greenstone and Lohr for their starting positions this fall. Redshirt senior Tim Fugger and redshirt sophomore Walker May are the likely starters at defensive end.

Ultimately, it will be tough for Vanderbilt to challenge the traditional SEC powers this season. That said, Franklin brings an energy to Nashville that has been missing in recent years, and the team returns nearly every starter from a year ago. With a friendly out of conference schedule, the Commodores should easily win more than two games and could pull upsets against unsuspecting conference opponents.

PREVIOUS PREVIEWS

SEC West
Alabama (1)
LSU (2)
Arkansas (3)
Mississippi State (4)
Auburn (5)
Mississippi (6)

SEC East
South Carolina (1)
Georgia (2)
Florida (3)
Tennessee (4)
Kentucky (5)

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