This year's football season starts off on a familiar note: a Thursday night game on ESPN at the Vanderbilt Commodores. Most of you will remember that we played at Vandy in week two in 2008. Carolina lost that game against an opportunistic Commodores team that forced several costly turnovers, in addition to making us pay for some self-inflicted wounds. Of course, that was a different time for Carolina. 2008 was likely Spurrier's worst team during his tenure at Carolina, and since then the program has taken several steps forward. Maybe we shouldn't be worried.
Of course, Vanderbilt, too, is a different team these days. True, the 2008 team that beat Carolina was the first Vandy squad make a bowl since 1982, and it's still the only team since then to finish with a winning record. However, Vandy fielded a decent team last year, making it back to post-season play (albeit in a loss) and playing respectable football against a handful of teams that are accustomed to dominating the Commodores. That's exactly what Vandy planned for when it signaled a new-found commitment to its football program with the hiring of James Franklin. Despite the difference in records, I think the 2011 'Dores team was better than the 2008 version. The 2008 team was a smoke-and-mirrors outfit that made a living off of turnovers and saw its fortunes dwindle when the turnovers stopped coming, while the 2011 team, at least in the second half of the season, had a respectable offense to go along with the opportunistic defense. With no less than ten offensive and eight defensive starters returning, many think this Vandy team is primed to outperform that 1982 team that won eight games. The projections are bolstered by Vandy's currently very un-Vandy-like recruiting success. Franklin hauled in the 29th ranked class in the country last year according to Rivals, and it's currently ranked 21st for the 2013 class. Needless to say, things are looking up in Nashville.
Just how good will Vandy be this year, though? Vandy is undoubtedly a realistic threat to Carolina, particularly in what will undoubtedly be a rowdy opening-game atmosphere, but how worried should we be? I decided to answer this question the old-fashioned way, by comparing recruiting rankings. On offense, Vanderbilt's projected starters averaged 2.45 stars on offense according to Rivals, and its defense averages 2.18. (I counted no rating as one star.) By contrast, Carolina averages 3.36 on offense and 3.55 on defense. Needless to say, that's a sizeable difference, and what was particularly striking while reading about some of these players was that Carolina particularly shines in this comparison on the lines, where Vanderbilt is still far behind Carolina. It's also worth noting that the difference is probably even more striking further down on the depth chart, although that may not come into play as much in this game as it will for Vandy later in the season.
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This is all to say that while Vandy is headed in the right direction, it's still, at least in regards to the raw quality of its players when they were incoming recruits (which tends to be a solid predictor of success, all other things being equal), a solid notch below Carolina. If Vandy is able to keep Franklin in town long term, that may eventually change to some degree. It's possible for Vandy to recruit well. Yes, there are intrinsic academic road blocks. However, there are also plenty of talented football players out there who are also very intelligent and know they're more likely to make their money in one of the professions rather than the NFL. For those kinds of guys, Vandy is a great choice, because the degree carries so much weight. Stanford has made a living recruiting these kinds of players. Stanford can't recruit like Southern Cal, and Vandy will never recruit as well as Alabama, or even South Carolina. However, Stanford fields decent football teams with some regularity, and Vandy can, too, if it commits to making the effort. The hiring of Franklin suggests that Vandy is now on board with good football, and eventually that's going to mean more talented teams. However, those days are not quite here for Vandy, and South Carolina fans have every reason to believe that their team will be bigger, faster, stronger, and more talented than Vandy.
That doesn't mean, of course, that we're not in danger of suffering an upset in this game. It does, though, mean that things will have to fall a certain way for Vandy to win--sluggish play from USC vs. inspired play from Vandy; poor gameplan from SOS and Ward; etc. If Carolina shows up and plays to its level of ability, it will win this game. If it plays a flawed game and Vandy is ready to take advantage, we could lose. And even worse, we'll be down in the standings and wondering what the rest of the season has in store. I seriously don't think we're going to have any real trouble in this game, though, so don't get too worried until it's necessary to do so.