The 2017 season for the Vanderbilt Commodores started off well enough. They came out of the gate strong with wins over Middle Tennessee, Alabama A&M and Kansas State and were feeling good about themselves and their sparkly Top 25 ranking heading into their game against Alabama. All week long, Vandy fans were saying they wanted Bama, but then Bama came. The Crimson Tide marched into Nashville and pasted the Commodores 59-0. Vandy went on to lose its next five games, finished up 1-7 in the SEC, and failed to reach a bowl game.
Derek Mason enters his fifth season in charge of the ‘Dores. Though he’s going to have to replace arguably his best offensive player (Ralph Webb) and his best defensive player (Oren Burks), there is hope that Vanderbilt can return to a bowl for the fifth time since 2011.
The sportsbooks, though, aren’t nearly as optimistic of better fortunes for the Commodores. They’re the longest shots on the board to win the SEC at +45000 and feature a regular season win total of just 4.5 at 5Dimes. Keep in mind that these win total odds do not include conference championship games or bowl games.
|9/1||MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE||-0.5|
|9/15||@ NOTRE DAME||+20|
Replacing Ralph Webb in the backfield isn’t going to be easy for the Commodores. He was the talisman for the team’s running game for four seasons, and though he had a rather pedestrian 831 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground last season, he touched the ball at least 150 times more than anyone else on the offense.
Khari Blasingame is the most likely choice to take over as the featured back in Nashville, but Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn will certainly have his opportunities to tote the rock as well. Vaughn averaged 4.7 yards per carry for the Illini in his two seasons in Champaign, and he could be a bit of a sparkplug for an offense that badly needs one.
However, the success and failure of the Vanderbilt offense is going to come down to Kyle Shurmur. Shurmur had respectable stats last season, throwing for 2,823 yards and 26 touchdowns, but his splits in wins and losses were mind-boggling. In five wins in 2017, Shurmur had a TD/INT ratio of 14/0. In seven losses, his TD/INT ratio was just 12/10.
Of the three men who had at least 500 receiving yards last year, only Kalija Lipscomb returns. He led the team with 16.5 yards per reception and has some real big play ability after hauling in eight touchdowns in 2017.
Vanderbilt’s defense held its first three foes to a total of just 13 points last season, and many believed that it was a sign that the unit could hold up against Alabama. Instead of holding the Crimson Tide at bay, the Commodores ceded 677 yards and 59 points. It was the first of seven games in SEC play in which the ‘Dores allowed at least 34 points.
Though only four of the 11 starters from last season’s defense are back, things almost have to be better on the defensive side of the ball than they were last year when the Commodores allowed 6.9 yards per play against conference foes.
We know that the Commodores can develop some linebackers, but with Zach Cunningham and Burks being drafted on the second day of the NFL Draft in the last two years, there are some major holes to fill. Jordan Griffin and Charles Wright return from last season’s 3-4 linebacking corps, but neither player looks to be a standout.
Vanderbilt’s defense will only go as far as its front three takes it. Dare Odeyingbo has All-SEC talent, but he has to take a huge step forward this year to anchor that front three. The rest of the defensive line is inexperienced, and they will lean heavily on Odeyingbo.
The kicking game could be a real problem for Vanderbilt this year. The Commodores only converted three field goals last season, and they don’t figure to be all that more successful this season. Walk-on Ryley Guay is back this season, but he’s going to be pressed by true freshman Javan Rice for placekicking duties.
Parker Thome has transferred from Columbia where he was an All-Ivy League punter. He averaged 42.9 yards per punt in 2017, a mark far beyond what Sam Loy managed last year at 40.2 yards per punt.
Pick: Over 4.5 (-115, 5Dimes)
The non-conference schedule features three winnable home games in Middle Tennessee State, Nevada, and Tennessee State, and one tough road game at Notre Dame. If Vanderbilt is able to pick up wins in those three home games, the Commodores shouldn’t have much trouble winning at least five games considering their SEC slate.
Vanderbilt is fortunate enough to draw the two worst teams in the SEC West in Arkansas and Ole Miss. Additionally, the last five games on their schedule are all winnable, meaning that this team won’t get discouraged and pack it in. The over is a very good bet here.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
Derek Mason does not have an easy job. The tough academic standards at Vanderbilt limit the players that he can get into the program and he also has a lot of teams to fight with locally, including a couple of Conference USA programs that are on the schedule this year. Granted, James Franklin didn’t have an easy job, either, but the Commodores still managed two nine-win seasons on his watch before he went to Happy Valley. Mason hasn’t been able to achieve that kind of success.
Vanderbilt certainly doesn’t play a sexy brand of football, but an offense that did just enough and a defense that everything it could was enough to get the Commodores back to a bowl game. For their efforts, they were crushed by North Carolina State in the Independence Bowl, but it ended a brief two-year bowl drought and reaffirmed what Mason could do if given enough time to build something in Nashville.
Judging by the season win total odds at 5Dimes Sportsbook, a repeat trip to a bowl game would be a really impressive feat for the Commodores. The current odds have Vanderbilt’s win total at 6, but the under is way down at -160, which basically makes the total more like 5.5 flat. Keep in mind that the number does not include conference championships or bowl games. It only applies to the regular season.
|Date||Opponent||Projected Line||Expected Wins|
|9/2||@ Middle Tennessee||PK||0.5|
|10/28||@ South Carolina||+7||0.30|
Total Expected Wins: 4.62
Ralph Webb is the shining star of this offense. He’ll find his way into the lineup on Sundays somewhere after this season. Webb has already set the program record in rushing yards with 3,347 and could be looking at his third straight 1,000+-yard season. Webb rushed for 912 his freshman year. Backup running back Khari Blasingame was actually recruited as a linebacker, so he is a terrific option in short yardage. These two combined for 23 rushing touchdowns last season. That is the unquestioned strength of this offense. The offensive line does have to replace a couple of key starters and looks to be much younger than last season, so that could be a little bit of a problem in terms of replicating last year’s production.
Kyle Shurmur completed 54.4 percent of his passes, but did throw more interceptions than touchdown tosses. He got better as the season went along, but redshirt freshman Deuce Wallace and true freshman Jacob Free could be knocking on the door for playing time. There isn’t a ton of creativity in Andy Ludwig’s offense, which makes Vanderbilt kind of easy to defend and one-dimensional at times. The wide receivers are experienced and Webb helps out tremendously in the passing game, but this is likely to be the conference’s worst offense.
The Vanderbilt defense has benefitted from the run-heavy approach with Webb and Blasingame, but Mason was the defensive coordinator at Stanford prior to taking this job, so he knows what he’s doing. This is his fourth year at the helm and therefore his fourth season of bringing in recruits that fit what he wants to do. He serves as his own defensive coordinator and that has been a move that has paid dividends. Again, there’s nothing flashy or overly exciting about the defense, but it tends to be pretty solid in the face of athletic disadvantages week after week.
Somebody will have to step up in a hurry on this defense. Zach Cunningham was the lifeblood of the Commodores’ D. Cunningham had 125 tackles last season, including 16.5 tackles for loss. He’ll play on Sundays with the Houston Texans. That huge force in the center of this defense is a big loss because Vanderbilt allowed 4.7 yards per carry last season and was the conference’s worst in defending the pass. Vanderbilt only had five interceptions. Some of them stemmed from a lack of pass rushers, as the Commodores managed just 15 sacks. With Cunningham out and a bend, but don’t break, defensive style, regression could certainly be coming.
The Commodores have a really tough schedule thanks to geographic rivalries. They’ll go to Murfreesboro to take on Middle Tennessee State in Week 1 and host Western Kentucky on November 4. Kansas State is also on the schedule this season. The Commodores draw Alabama from the SEC West and get them at home, while having to go to Oxford to take on Ole Miss. From September 23 to October 7, the Commodores play Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, which means they’ll likely see the two division winners in a span of three weeks.
Win Total Pick: Under 6
This looks to be my strongest win total pick of the SEC. The Commodores have a bona fide stud in Ralph Webb, but there isn’t a whole lot else going with this program. Unlike other SEC teams, that have at least two, and usually three, easy non-conference games, Vanderbilt doesn’t. Those games, save for Alabama A&M, will be wars. That doesn’t even account for the conference schedule. Kentucky and Missouri should both be improved teams as well. This looks like a tough year in Nashville.