For most of it’s time in the Southeastern Conference, the Commodores of Vanderbilt have been bottom-feeding, laughing stocks. Despite struggling in most competitive athletic events, Vandy is allowed to stay in the SEC to boost the conference’s GPA – so the joke goes, at least.
This year, however may be a little different than most.
The negative shroud around the Commodores football program dissipated some in James Franklin’s time with the program prior to his slipping off to Penn State. In taking over for Vandy, Derek Mason has done a great job in elevating his team’s play each year.
It all came to heed last season, when the team won six games and made it back to their first bowl game in four years. Though they lost that postseason match-up with North Carolina State, Vanderbilt should come back out once again in 2017 as an improved football team.
Doing this will be an uphill battle – one steeper than usual – after losing their best player to the NFL Draft in Zach Cunningham. The 6’3″ outside linebacker was the most dynamic player on the field, by far, for the ‘Dores defense. He racked up a conference-leading 125 tackles last season, including 16.5 for a loss. Additionally, he deflected a trio of passes, forced two fumbles, and recovered four.
Their defense does return the next three top tacklers, however, and has an underrated recruiting class coming to town.
Despite their class being ranked dead last in the SEC, they have filled a handful of needs with players that can come in and compete for starting positions immediately. Dimitri Moore, OLB, could be the future for the ‘Dores in filling in the gap that Cunningham left. Offensive lineman Will Holden was also selected in 2017’s NFL Draft, and one of the four three-star offensive linemen signed in 2017’s class will likely be looked to in order to fill that gap as well.
A handful of others on Vanderbilt’s fifth-ranked defense (in the conference) were also invited to NFL free agent camps, leaving a large number of gaps that may be difficult to fill. More than likely, the Commodores’ defense will take a slight step backwards in 2017, at least while they find the correct player shuffle needed to restock the cupboard.
On the other side of the ball, the offense has a long ways to go if they want to truly be able to compete in week four. Although, as Florida showed last year by having the worst-ranked offense in the SEC, the East can be won on defense alone.
They ended the year ranked just 12th in total offense, despite tying for second-to-last place in fewest turnovers.
One silver lining for the 2017 team is the return of one of the league’s most explosive running backs in Ralph Webb. The 5’10”, 200-pound senior has recorded two straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and racked up 13 touchdowns last year.
While some fans may feel they may have their quarterback in junior Kyle Shurmur, I would not be so sure. Despite starting all 13 games for them last season and throwing for just over 2400 yards, his 9:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio is something to be very much alarmed about.
Despite having no spring game, and therefore no stats to compare, do not be surprised if true-freshman Jacob Free comes in and takes the starting position. At 6’5″ and 200 pounds, the Brantley-native has a strong arm and an even stronger pocket-presence. He will not outrun guys, but he does have deceptive foot-speed which he showed on the occasional read-option in high school. Additionally, he ran a pro-style offense perfect or the way Vandy does things.
Regardless of who ends up quarterback, the biggest question mark resides with the guys catching those balls. None of their receivers managed to even surpass the 500-yard mark a year ago. While that sheds a negative light on the receiving corps, incompetent quarterback play, which may or may not have been completely to blame on the actual passer. Vandy ended the season second to last in total sacks given up – Shurmur was forced to suffer through a total of 32 sacks.
Either the aforementioned influx of offensive lineman will need to be really, really special, or someone else will need to step up if the black and gold want a fighting chance to block the elite talent of Alabama’s defensive line.
Ultimately, the questions on offense and the lost pieces on defense raise too many flags to truly believe in a close game. Most teams struggle to compete with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, however, and if the pieces fall together they could compete in the East. If the Crimson Tide come out to play with focus, it should be a steamroll as most would predict. The Commodores appear to be a much better SEC-opener than last season’s early match-up with Ole Miss.
If all goes smoothly, the Tide will come out of the match up with it’s first conference win of the season.