This post continues our series checking in on next season's opponents. Our goal is to have gathered useful information about each opponent prior to the beginning of the season. We've previously talked about the East Carolina Pirates, the Georgia Bulldogs, and the Navy Midshipmen. Today, we're discussing the Vanderbilt Commodores, who will visit Williams-Brice Stadium in Week Four.
Prior to the beginning of last season, Vandy coach Bobby Johnson abruptly resigned after having had some success turning Vandy into a relatively capable football program. He was replaced by Robbie Caldwell, who struggled mightily in his only season at the helm in Nashville.
A legend, but not for his success on the field. (via vucommodores)
Caldwell resigned after a 2-10 season, and Vandy hired former Maryland coach-in-waiting James Franklin as his replacement. Franklin inherits the age-old problem at Vanderbilt: how to produce winning football at an academically-oriented school that's cross-state from a national powerhouse and that competes in the strongest conference in the nation. He hopes that strong recruiting and a commitment to quality defense will help him get the Commodores out of the cellar.
Significant Personnel Losses
Vanderbilt will field a very experienced roster this year, with 21 total returning starters, including 11 on offense and 8 on defense. Most of its most significant contributors will return.
Keep reading after the jump.
Normally, a team would be happy to return all of its offensive starters. Vandy, though, returns the same players who composed an offensive unit that ranked at or near the bottom of the SEC in all offensive categories. Worst of all, Vandy averaged only 16.9 ppg last year, good for 112th in the nation. You're not going to win many games with those kinds of numbers, even if you have a decent defense.
The good news is that RBs Warren Norman and Zac Stacy are quite good, and if you have a running game, you have a chance. Franklin and OC John Donovan are installing a pro-style offense that will undoubtedly be built around this talented RB duo. The problem will be getting the passing game to be at least serviceable. Vandy has some talented receivers and TEs, and Caldwell was always known as a wise recruiter and trainer of offensive linemen. The question will be whether or not beleaguered QB Larry Smith can step up and inject enough efficiency into the passing game to allow Norman and Stacy some room to work. If Smith continues to struggle, expect Vandy to quickly look to its other QBs, including true freshman Lafonte Thourogood, who Vandy is very excited about.
As with the offense, it's unclear whether Vandy's returning talent is as much of a blessing as one might think. Vandy gave up over 30 ppg last year. It was typically ravaged on the ground, unquestionably a good sign of a helpless defense. Carolina ripped Vandy on the ground in the second half last year--without Marcus Lattimore. Even Kentucky managed to stop our running game while Lattimore was out. Vanderbilt does have some nice talent at LB--particularly Chris Marve--and secondary--particularly Casey Hayward. However, the rush defense will have to improve or Vandy will again struggle to stop quality SEC offenses.
Vandy has been something of a thorn in Carolina's side in recent years, winning two in a row against us in 2007 and 2008 and playing us relatively close the past two years. Still, one got the sense while watching last year's game that we were finally getting over whatever was holding us back against this opponent the past few years, and we pulled away for a fairly comfortable victory in the second half. Hopefully, that will again be the trend this year. In sum, all SEC games are important for Carolina, and underestimating any team--as Vandy itself has proven to us--can be disastrous. However, we should beat Vandy, and I want to see us play like we expect and want to when they come to Columbia this year.
Franklin, known as a quality recruiter at Maryland, has already had a bit of success recruiting at Vandy. He has a great opportunity to continue that success with Tennessee currently struggling. (Check out the front-page photo at this Vandy recruiting site, which shows a recruit choosing Vandy over Auburn and Tennessee. That hasn't happened many times in the past.) If he can do so, he could have some success continuing the transformation Johnson started a few years back. However, we're probably getting ahead of ourselves here. This year, Vandy, while experienced, is coming off a 2-10 season and has a brand new coaching staff, complete with new coaching and strategic philosophies. I expect Vandy to struggle again this season, and I expect a relatively easy victory when Vandy comes to town. Carolina by 2-3 TDs.