VANDERBILT FOOTBALL 2014: OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

Vandy fans are still basking in the glow of back-to-back nine win seasons, three straight bowl appearances, a 2013 National Ranking and a 16-4 record in our past twenty games (better than all our SEC brethren except Bama during this time frame.) However, many experts predict Vandy to fall in 2014. F.K. Friedman gives us five reasons Vandy will be a winner again in 2014.

Vandy fans are still basking in the glow of back-to-back nine win seasons, three straight bowl appearances, a 2013 National Ranking and a 16-4 record in our past twenty games (better than all our SEC brethren except Bama during this time frame.) While it is exhilarating to take in the view from these high elevations, we can all hear the rising chorus of experts and detractors who are expecting the Commodores to fall back to earth hard and fast this season. The logic behind such cynicism is that Vanderbilt parts not only with the “Franklin mystique,” but with a number of starters in key positions. Subtract: (1) Jordan Matthews, the all-time SEC receptions leader, (2) the entire starting secondary, (3) a starting QB, (4) a kicker who could be counted on to win games (and routinely kick touchbacks), and (5) Wesley Johnson, Vandy’s all-time starts leader – the anchor of the O-line, and it is easy to see why many opposing fans across the conference are chalking up their hypothetical “W” over Vandy this pre-season. In addition to our player departures, we are getting acquainted with a new staff and new schemes on offense and defense. The first-year staff – impressive as it is – lacks SEC exposure.

One pundit from The Bleacher Report picked Vandy to go 0-8 in SEC play. Bovada, an online sportsbook, released opening SEC Football Championship odds in July: Vandy came in at 250/1 . . . 14th out of 14 teams – with number 13 Kentucky going off at 100/1. Even the venerable Phil Steele picked Vandy to finish dead last in the SEC East.

Such blackboard material aside, it is – unquestionably – a year of many unknowns on West End. On the whole, I find more reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic. I believe we will be bowl-eligible again come December. In fact, while Vandy’s transition period admittedly raises numerous question marks, the rest of the East is fraught with uncertainty as well. This is the most unproven collection of SEC East contenders in decades – and there is no clear cut dominant team.

5 Reasons to be Optimistic:

1. We are returning outstanding players on both lines.

Ultimately, football is won in the trenches. We are going to have a very talented offensive line. Every starter likely will be a familiar name: Joe Townsend, Spencer Pulley, Jake Bernstein, Andrew Jelks, and Andrew Bridges are back (among others.) Having a solid o-line makes everyone else on offense look better. This is particularly good news for our veteran running backs, Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow.

The new 3-4 defense presents some unknowns: but we do know that Adam Butler, Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon are back. That is a strong nucleus. Former DE’s Kyle Woestmann, Caleb Azubike and Stephen Weatherly are back, too – as outside linebackers in the new scheme. Depth is uncertain, but the starting line-up is quite capable of wreaking havoc. New faces like Nigel Bowden, Nifae Lealao and Zach Cunningham, come well-advertised, too, to bolster the new 3-4 alignment.

2. Schedule.

A parting gift from James Franklin is a schedule that includes 8 “home” games and four very winnable out of conference games. Frankly, both Temple and Old Dominion will be better and more dangerous than they appear on paper. And, yes, we gave up one home game to LP Field, but let’s face it, Ole Miss is coming to Nashville for the second year in a row due to a scheduling quirk. And playing at LP Field has its perks – our players (and future recruits) have to be excited about this pro venue. Any way you slice it, our first four games are in Nashville, our out-of-conference schedule is promising, and SEC West powerhouses Bama, Auburn and LSU do not appear on it (at least in the regular season.)

3. A break-out year at running back is possible.

Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow are talented and dangerous. They will be pushed by a stable of promising young backs, including Ralph Webb and C.J. Duncan. Did I mention our o-line should be very good? Stanford (Coach Mason’s proving ground) historically has relied on a solid, smashmouth ground game. Stanford’s (and OC Dorrell’s) passing game philosophy seems to place emphasis on screens and tosses to the tight end. These latter features were areas the prior regime never really mastered. The current braintrust is likely to get the ball to our speedsters in open space, which should bode well for Seymour and Kimbrow. A young speedster who can catch may jet into instant playing time in either the backfield or the slot.

While I am excited about the potential at running back, the unknowns at wide receiver and quarterback mean opponents may stuff the box early until we prove we can pass. If we have any kind of air attack, our running game should be very good. This remains a bit of an “if,” given our unsettled passing situation. The first-string qb remains an unknown (although we are picking from quality options) – and wide receiver will bring various new faces. Still, if the passing game is even a credible threat, the running game should take care of itself.

4. Coach Derek Mason is “the answer” to the question that haunted us last year.

Pro coaches and college coaches alike flocked to Coach Mason for tutelage in stopping the spread offense. Last season, even with a bevy of NFL-caliber defenders, the hurry-up/spread mystified our defensive braintrust. Missouri dropped 51 points on us; A&M hammered out 56; Ole Miss scored 29 in the second half; SC scored touchdowns at will the first four times they touched the ball.

The prior regime was flatly unable to stop a good spread offense, but Coach Franklin did accomplish several things on defense that his successor should appreciate. By rotating defenders last season, many talented back-ups got valuable experience. While we lost a significant number of defensive starters to graduation, we are quite familiar with a number of battle-tested returnees. Doomsayers observe that we return only four starters on defense, but many new starters saw extensive action and showed real promise. For example, due to injuries, the “rookie” secondary played exclusively at crunch time in Knoxville and closed out the UT game brilliantly last November. The prior staff was also generous with red-shirts – despite some serious temptation at linebacker last year. I expect our defense to be impressive – new scheme, new starters and all.

5. The rest of the East is iffy.

Various perennial East powerhouses stagger into this season reeling from terrible campaigns in 2013. One indicator of flux is the quarterback position – across the league, starting quarterbacks from 2013 are largely departed. Patton Robinette engineered three SEC wins last year – only one returning SEC signal-caller won more SEC games in 2013 (Auburn’s Nick Marshall). We will face our share of talented opposing qbs – Mauk, Wallace, Prescott and Driskell, to name a few – but offenses around the East are largely unproven.

Several traditional giants are also in the unusual mode of trying to recover their swag following massive trainwrecks last year. Pundits assume these teams will bounce back – but some debacles leave a lasting scar. To put the East’s uncertainty in perspective: Florida stumbles in from a nightmarish 4-8 season – nursing a sobering seven game losing streak. Tennessee, likewise, closed the season on the schneid; and the Vols return no starters on either line, face a genuinely daunting out-of-conference schedule, and are 4-20 in SEC games over the past three seasons. Mizzou returns the fewest starters in the league – losing names like James Franklin, Henry Josey, Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, E.J. Gaines and Dorial Green-Beckham. Georgia loses the all-time SEC passing leader in yardage and td’s – and tries to shake a five loss campaign that was punctuated by an uninspired bowl effort. Even SC loses Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, Victor Hampton, Bruce Ellington, Jimmy Legree and Kelcy Quarles. Kentucky actually should be better this year as they return 16 starters – but they have not won a conference game since 2011.

The East is wide open in 2014 – and there is no reason Vandy cannot be right in the thick of it. At a minimum, reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.

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