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2019 SEC Preview: Vanderbilt Commodores

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith breaks down everything you need to know about the 2019 Vanderbilt Commodores.

Head Coach: Derek Mason – sixth year at Vanderbilt and overall (24-38 overall, 9-31 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Gerry Gdowski (first season)

Defensive Coordinator: Jason Tarver (second season)

2018 Record: 6-6 (3-5 SEC); lost to Baylor in Texas Bowl

Returning Starters: 11 (7 offense, 4 defense)

2019 Schedule

Aug. 31 – GEORGIA (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 7 – at Purdue (Noon ET, Big Ten Network)
Sept. 21 – LSU
Sept. 28 – NORTHERN ILLINOIS

Oct. 5 – at Ole Miss
Oct. 12 – UNLV
Oct. 19 – MISSOURI

Nov. 2 – at South Carolina
Nov. 9 – at Florida
Nov. 16 – KENTUCKY
Nov. 23 – EAST TENNESSEE STATE
Nov. 30 – at Tennessee

What We Know

-If you’re ranking RB-WR-TE trios in the SEC, Vanderbilt’s might be No. 1. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb, and Jared Pinkney all could have left a year early for the NFL, but all chose to return to Nashville despite the loss of four-year starting quarterback Kyle Shurmur. All were second team preseason All-SEC selections, with Vaughn the most glaring omission from the first team after rushing for more than 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior. Lipscomb and Pinkney combined for nearly 1,700 receiving yards and 16 of Shurmur’s 24 touchdown passes in 2018. They’ll need help from the new quarterback to max out, but this level of skill position talent is unprecedented for the Commodores.

-Vanderbilt has one of the few legitimate quarterback battles in the SEC during training camp. Junior Deuce Wallace, who missed 2018 while serving a university-mandated suspension, will battle Ball State graduate transfer Riley Neal. Ironically, Neal played in Notre Dame Stadium the week before Vanderbilt did last season, so SEC environments shouldn’t faze Neal. If he is ultimately the guy for Derek Mason and first-year offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski, he steps into a great situation with the talent for him to distribute the ball to.

-This program is still on stable ground. It’s a shame Shurmur didn’t have one more year left, as this offense could have truly been special. Nevertheless, Vanderbilt has won three SEC games in two of the past three years, both leading to bowl appearances. That’s a healthy state for the Commodores to be in. Vandy fans aren’t necessarily in love with Mason, and he’s yet to produce a winning season or a bowl win, but he has arguably the toughest job in the Power Five. He’s whipped big brother in Knoxville three years in a row, and had great chances to upset 12-1 Notre Dame, 10-3 Florida, and 10-3 Kentucky last season. That should constitute success at Vanderbilt.

What We Don’t Know

-Will the secondary be able to replace two major pieces from a year ago in cornerback JoeJuan Williams and safety LaDarius Wiley? While this unit still has plenty of upperclassmen, the two departures are simply too severe to expect the pass defense to climb any higher than their No. 10 ranking in the SEC last season. As for some new names, junior Tae Daley has emerged into a reliable box player at strong safety. The Commodores also added cornerbacks Dontye Carriere-Williams from Wisconsin via junior college and Cameron Watkins from Illinois to help replace Williams after his early exit to the NFL.

-The interior of the offensive line is a bit of a mess. Like it had to do at cornerback, Mason went to the transfer portal to fill a need, landing South Alabama graduate transfer Rowan Godwin to likely start at guard. Devin Cochran is a solid tackle, but he moves from the right side to the left this year, while fellow junior Cole Clemens will slide from guard to tackle. That means Vanderbilt is not expected to have a returning starter at his 2018 position.

-Can this defensive front start to generate more pressure? Vanderbilt hasn’t reached 30 sacks since James Franklin’s second season in 2012, averaging just 22 sacks in Mason’s five years in Nashville. That’s a far cry from his “Party in the Backfield” defenses at Stanford, which had 57 and 44 sacks in his final two season in charge of the Cardinal defense. Junior end Dayo Odeyingbo anchors the front seven, but this a young, senior-deprived group. 2020 feels like the year for them to break out a bit, but there’s plenty of concern this fall.

Ranking The Units

1. Receivers
2. Running Backs
3. Linebackers
4. Defensive Line
5. Offensive Line
6. Quarterbacks
7. Defensive Backs

Schedule Analysis

National Ranking: 54
SEC Ranking: 13
Swing Game: Oct. 5 at Ole Miss
Trap Game: Sept. 28 vs. Northern Illinois

The first three games are an absolute bear. A win in any of them would be a surprise. It eases up a bit after that, with two non-conference games sandwiching a key trip to Ole Miss. That series had been dominated by the road team for much of this century, but the home team has won the last four, and the Commodores will probably need a victory in Oxford to retain bowl hopes heading into November. Flipping Arkansas for LSU stinks, but Vanderbilt does avoid playing any of its SEC opponents after they’re idle.

Season Prediction

Can the offense carry the defense? That probably depends on if Neal (or Wallace) can prevent a significant drop-off from Shurmur. Despite a likely 0-3 start, there are enough winnable games to get a bowl. I can’t see that happening, however. An upset of Kentucky will prevent a winless SEC season, but the Commodores, even with three NFL offensive skill position players, will post their worst record since 2015. Outside of his first year, Mason has exceeded expectations by a win or two, so he may very well surprise again.

Overall Record: 4-8
SEC Record: 1-7
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: None

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.