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The big 2014 Vanderbilt football guide: Starting over with a familiar blueprint

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Derek Mason has the perfect résumé for continuing Vandy's winning ways in James Franklin's absence. But while the defense has some exciting play-makers, the offense will be a question mark. (Thank heavens for a ridiculously easy non-conference slate.)

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Three years, 24 wins

James Franklin was only at Vanderbilt for three seasons. It felt like longer. Franklin won as many games as Vandy had in its previous six years. He won as many bowls as the 'Dores had in 52 years. He engineered as many top-25 finishes as Vandy ever had.

Franklin put together a sound staff, recruited like crazy, and filled reporter notebooks with obnoxiously charismatic, footbally quotes about toughness and discipline. He backed up the talk by putting one of the SEC's most disciplined teams on the field, one capable of taking advantage of every mistake its opponent made. The Commodores went 6-2 in one-possession games in the last two years, finished 2012 with seven straight wins, and finished 2013 with five.

Franklin did an incredible job of not only winning games but resetting the bar for Vandy football; the former was great in the present tense, and the latter is the key to the future. We no longer have to speculate what it might take to win in Nashville -- we've now seen precisely what it takes. We've also seen that you can recruit at a higher level than we expected. Franklin's tenure was an eye-opening experience.

One gets the impression that Vandy fans were getting a little bit tired of the constant "Franklin to ___" rumors and of Franklin's inability to tamp them down. And while he didn't seem to have any inappropriate involvement in any cover-up, there was a sexual assault scandal on his watch. His wasn't a perfect tenure, but he's still the most successful Vandy coach since Red Sanders (who also left for a bigger-name school).

And now he's gone, off securing four-star commitment after four-star commitment for Penn State. What comes next for Vanderbilt football?

2. Stealing from Stanford makes sense

I always advocated for Vandy to hire either Mike Leach or Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo because of the uniqueness and underdog favorability of the offenses they run; while acknowledging that both coaches would bring their own set of issues to the table -- Leach obviously doesn't have the best reputation among athletic directors at the moment, and Niumatalolo is a dormant volcano mixed inside a glass case of emotion on the sidelines -- but other than a slow pace, Franklin brings little uniqueness (in terms of personality/footprint) to the table, and for this job, that is a strike against him.

I wrote that three years ago. It feels like longer. I was distracted by Vandy's woeful history, and I was wooed by more extreme examples of underdog offenses. I was unconvinced that any coach in America could pull in top-30 recruiting classes at Vandy, and I was blind to the now-obvious fact that there are plenty of ways to win football games.

In recent years, Stanford (since about 2009), Vanderbilt (since 2011), and others have proven that there's a counter to the counter. While so many teams have gotten smaller and faster to adapt to the spread-offense universe, others have decided to get bigger and stronger. While so many teams have adopted a mach-speed tempo, others have found success in slowing things down.

Granted, a persual of the rosters shows us Stanford's recruited at a higher level for a longer period of time. And granted, Stanford has established a much higher level of play overall -- while Vandy was able to constantly defeat mediocre and bad teams (last two years: 0-7 vs. teams with nine or more wins, 18-1 against teams with eight or fewer), Stanford has played at a truly elite level (11-3 and 12-2, respectively). But both teams have been using versions of the same blueprint in recent years, and worse or not, Vandy's won 18 games in two years in the SEC. That wasn't supposed to be possible.

It makes sense, then, that in looking to replace its best coach in 70 years, Vanderbilt turned to The Farm.

New head coach Derek Mason has put in the hours and miles since his career as a Northern Arizona cornerback ended. He moved from Idaho State (running backs coach, 1997-98), to Bucknell (defensive backs coach, 1999-2001), to Utah (receivers and special teams coach, 2002). He spent a year at NMSU, then moved to Ohio, then spent three years with the Minnesota Vikings. He landed on Harbaugh's staff at Stanford in 2010, became defensive co-coordinator for David Shaw in 2011, then became outright D.C. in 2012.

And while he isn't the sole reason for this (other coaches played a role, as did a drastic upgrade in recruiting), it's not a total coincidence that Stanford's defense averaged a Def. F/+ ranking of 82.3 in the three years before his arrival and 9.0 after.

Mason's got the bona fides, and one assumes he has as good a chance as anybody of either maintaining Franklin's momentum or generating even more. But as I find myself saying often, difficult jobs remain difficult. A good coach can have some success at Vandy, but it will take a great one to build off of what Franklin established.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 50
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
29-Aug Ole Miss 28 35-39 L 34.9 - 30.2 W
7-Sep Austin Peay N/A 38-3 W 31.6 - 16.8 W
14-Sep at South Carolina 10 25-35 L 27.4 - 31.9 L
21-Sep at Massachusetts 118 24-7 W 28.1 - 33.1 L
28-Sep UAB 115 52-24 W 35.6 - 24.3 W 4.3
5-Oct Missouri 14 28-51 L 33.6 - 35.9 L 2.9
19-Oct Georgia 22 31-27 W 27.5 - 11.4 W 3.1
26-Oct at Texas A&M 23 24-56 L 17.1 - 31.7 L 1.1
9-Nov at Florida 48 34-17 W 21.5 - 30.4 L 0.3
16-Nov Kentucky 97 22-6 W 17.3 - 17.4 L -2.0
23-Nov at Tennessee 72 14-10 W 21.2 - 19.1 W -1.1
30-Nov Wake Forest 81 23-21 W 27.6 - 31.6 L -5.1
4-Jan vs. Houston 46 41-24 W 24.3 - 18.5 W -1.0
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +1.4% 55 +2.6% 48 +1.9% 30
Points Per Game 30.1 55 24.6 46
Adj. Points Per Game 26.8 75 25.6 43

3. Fine until Austyn went down

Scheduling's a funny thing. Using the adjusted scores above, we see that Vanderbilt was quite likely a better team over the first half of the season. But the Commodores began the season 4-4 thanks to a load of five top-30 opponents in the first eight games. The schedule eased up down the stretch, with five teams ranked 46th or worse, and VU won five in a row while playing worse football.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 7 games): Vandy 31.2, Opponent 26.2 (plus-5.0)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (next 3 games): Opponent 26.5, Vandy 18.6 (minus-7.9)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 3 games): Vandy 24.4, Opponent 23.1 (plus-1.3)

The defense held mostly steady throughout, playing consistently above-average ball, but the team's overall quality took a hit when senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels went down. He tore his ACL against Georgia, missed the A&M and Florida games, managed to return to play three games down the stretch (at a decreased but still relatively effective level), then had surgery and missed the bowl game.

Backup Patton Robinette, then a redshirt freshman, had a chance to stake a solid claim to the starting role in 2014 and beyond, but he struggled. He completed just 52 percent of his passes, took a sack on one of every eight pass attempts, and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. He showed some big-play potential, but not quite enough to secure the starting job. (His fake jump pass against Tennessee, however, was devine.)

And with the loss of both AC-S and star receiver Jordan Matthews, the passing game is in a state of flux heading into the fall.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.01 116 IsoPPP+ 88.0 118
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 43.0% 64 Succ. Rt. + 96.5 73
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 29.9 66 Def. FP+ 99.4 66
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.6 40 Redzone S&P+ 102.0 52
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 19.6 ACTUAL 23 +3.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 94 93 74 90
RUSHING 93 104 80 99
PASSING 69 69 62 64
Standard Downs 73 53 112
Passing Downs 115 114 105
Q1 Rk 111 1st Down Rk 37
Q2 Rk 54 2nd Down Rk 98
Q3 Rk 102 3rd Down Rk 119
Q4 Rk 27

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Austyn Carta-Samuels 193 281 2268 11 9 68.7% 20 6.6% 7.1
Patton Robinette 6'4, 214 So. 3 stars (5.6) 46 88 642 4 5 52.3% 12 12.0% 6.0
Johnny McCrary 6'4, 230 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Stephen Rivers (LSU) 6'7, 236 Sr. 3 stars (5.7)
Wade Freebeck 6'5, 212 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

4. QB grab bag

Robinette has starting experience and showed at least a little bit of potential explosiveness in averaging 14.0 yards per completion. He also picked and chose his rushing spots well, gaining at least five yards on 26 of 59 non-sack carries. Johnny McCrary is an athletic former four-star recruit who had a nice spring. Stephen Rivers is a big-armed graduate transfer from LSU with strong blood lines. Wade Freebeck is a Mason recruit with size and potential.

If you spend 30 seconds searching the Internet, you can find a prediction that Robinette is the front-runner, that McCrary has the upper-hand, that Rivers is clearly the guy, and that Freebeck might see the field sooner than later. In terms of pure uncertainty and unpredictability, this is one of the most noteworthy fall-camp position battles in the SEC this year.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Jerron Seymour RB 5'7, 196 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 164 716 14 4.4 4.6 32.3%
Wesley Tate RB 92 363 4 3.9 2.3 35.9%
Brian Kimbrow RB 5'8, 185 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 81 341 3 4.2 4.3 37.0%
Patton Robinette QB 6'4, 214 So. 3 stars (5.6) 59 260 7 4.4 2.9 44.1%
Austyn Carta-Samuels QB 55 235 5 4.3 2.9 40.0%
Jordan Matthews WR 6 54 0 9.0 7.2 66.7%
Derek King RB 5'11, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 5 23 0 4.6 6.5 20.0%
Ralph Webb RB 5'10, 196 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Dallas Rivers RB 6'1, 225 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)





Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Jordan Matthews WR 157 112 1477 71.3% 43.9% 61.5% 9.4 188 8.9 183.7
Jonathan Krause WR 59 42 714 71.2% 16.5% 58.3% 12.1 230 10.3 88.8
Jerron Seymour RB 5'7, 196 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 30 19 126 63.3% 8.4% 50.0% 4.2 -106 4.2 15.7
Wesley Tate RB 25 18 149 72.0% 7.0% 61.1% 6.0 -57 3.7 18.5
Jordan Cunningham WR 6'1, 175 So. 4 stars (5.8) 24 15 123 62.5% 6.7% 33.3% 5.1 -61 5.1 15.3
Kris Kentera WR 6'4, 220 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 20 10 100 50.0% 5.6% 82.4% 5.0 -39 3.8 12.4
Steven Scheu TE 6'5, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 15 9 123 60.0% 4.2% 75.0% 8.2 10 7.6 15.3
Brian Kimbrow RB 5'8, 185 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 9 5 19 55.6% 2.5% 14.3% 2.1 -46 4.3 2.4
Fitz Lassing FB 8 4 25 50.0% 2.2% 100.0% 3.1 -30 2.2 3.1
Latevius Rayford WR 6'1, 192 So. 3 stars (5.7) 3 2 29 66.7% 0.8% N/A 9.7 5 0.0 3.6
Trey Wilkins WR 5'11, 210 Sr. NR 3 2 4 66.7% 0.8% 0.0% 1.3 -20 1.1 0.5
Trent Pruitt WR 3 3 44 100.0% 0.8% 66.7% 14.7 14 15.1 5.5
DeAndre Woods WR 6'3, 215 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
C.J. Duncan WR 5'11, 195 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Gerald Perry WR 5'10, 165 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Nathan Marcus TE 6'5, 238 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Mitch Parsons TE 6'4, 250 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Trent Sherfield WR 6'0, 185 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

5. Where do the touches go?

While we're dealing with uncertainty, let's talk about Vandy's skill position lineup. The Commodores return a pair of decent, replacement-level running backs in Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow; both have shown decent play-making ability, but neither were efficient enough to account for the loss of 2012 star Zac Stacy. Seymour was the steadiest of the bunch, and Kimbrow still occasionally showed the four-star potential that made him one of Franklin's most high-profile early signees.

But if a youngster like redshirt freshman Ralph Webb or freshman Dallas Rivers wanted to go off in camp, he could almost certainly earn some carries. And one assumes that with a Stanford guy as head coach and a pro-style guy (former UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell) as offensive coordinator, there will be plenty of carries to go around.

There are also plenty of targets to be seized by whoever wants them. In Jordan Matthews, Jonathan Krause, and running back Wesley Tate, Vandy loses three players who accounted for two-thirds of last year's targets. Matthews was leaned on more than any receiver in the country; his target rate (his percentage of his team's overall targets) was the second-highest in FBS behind Boston College's Alex Amidon, but he was also targeted 49 more times than Amidon. In a slow, reasonably run-heavy system, Matthews had the eighth-most targets in the country. Losing him is like losing your No. 1 and No. 2 receivers. And losing Krause also means that the best change-of-pace deep threat is also gone.

Leading returning wideouts Jordan Cunningham and Kris Kentera (a converted tight end) combined for a woeful 5.1 yards per target in about three targets per game last year. Cunningham is a former four-star recruit, and two more four-star freshmen (wideout Trent Sherfield and tight end Mitch Parsons) enter the mix this fall.

But it's certainly safe to say that any and all candidates are welcome to step forward and earn playing time, especially if Stanford head coach David Shaw's "if you practice well, you see the field, even if you're on the third string" ethos rubbed off on Mason (as it appears to have).

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 90 2.76 2.7 36.4% 75.9% 18.0% 81.2 4.8% 8.5%
Rank 101 89 112 95 22 48 94 70 88
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Wesley Johnson LT 51 1st All-SEC
Joe Townsend C 6'4, 312 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 22
Jake Bernstein LG 6'4, 306 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 20
Spencer Pulley RG 6'4, 300 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 17
Andrew Bridges RT 6'6, 285 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 17
Andrew Jelks LT 6'6, 305 So. 4 stars (5.8) 9
Chase White LG 7
Will Holden LG 6'7, 310 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0
Kevin McCoy RG 6'5, 295 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0
Blake Fromang RT 6'7, 295 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Barrett Gouger C 6'4, 305 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Sean Dowling LT 6'5, 288 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Delando Crooks LG 6'5, 312 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Cole Hardin RG 6'4, 305 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Bailey Granier LT 6'6, 345 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)

6. An experienced, unsuccessful line

There is instability at both quarterback and wideout this fall, but at least the line's experienced. Vandy returns five players with starting experience (87 career starts), four of whom have at least 17 career starts. This unit was great in short-yardage situations last year and kept run defenders out of the backfield for the most part.

As you see from the numbers of above, however, they did not create many second-level opportunities for their backs. Though if you watched Vandy a decent amount last year, you came away wondering if that was because of the backs or the line. (I lean toward the backs, which really isn't any more encouraging.)

Regardless, there is experience in the run game, for (mostly) better and (maybe a little) worse. And Dorrell and company will absolutely lean on the run game if they can get away with it.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.04 14 IsoPPP+ 113.1 12
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 43.2% 74 Succ. Rt. + 94.1 82
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 33.3 7 Off. FP+ 106.5 5
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.0 53 Redzone S&P+ 105.8 39
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 34.3 ACTUAL 30.0 -4.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 23 47 82 46
RUSHING 42 88 100 70
PASSING 23 26 53 23
Standard Downs 51 79 19
Passing Downs 49 71 27
Q1 Rk 64 1st Down Rk 60
Q2 Rk 27 2nd Down Rk 68
Q3 Rk 80 3rd Down Rk 31
Q4 Rk 29

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 99.7 2.69 4.11 42.1% 70.2% 20.1% 105.4 4.0% 8.6%
Rank 61 34 123 97 84 48 50 75 29
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Walker May DE 13 31.5 4.5% 9.0 4.0 0 1 1 0
Adam Butler DE 6'5, 305 So. 3 stars (5.7) 12 20.5 2.9% 6.0 0.0 0 2 1 0
Jared Morse NT 13 18.5 2.6% 3.5 1.0 0 4 0 0
Barron Dixon NT 6'4, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 17.0 2.4% 4.0 2.5 0 2 0 0
Vince Taylor NT 6'1, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 14.0 2.0% 0.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Torey Agee DE 6'4, 280 So. 3 stars (5.5) 8 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jay Woods DE 6'3, 280 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Nifae Lealao NT 6'5, 314 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)
Sekou Clark DE 6'3, 260 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Riley Tindol DE 6'5, 275 Fr. 2 stars (5.3)







7. The predictable transition

Mason's brought Stanford ILBs coach David Kotulski with him to Nashville to serve as defensive coordinator. Kotulski has both D.C. experience (from 1990 to 2011, he was coordinator at Saint Mary's, Bucknell, Utah State, Holy Cross, and Lehigh) and, over the last two years, plenty of exposure to the Stanford 3-4 that Mason will attempt to deploy. There are some fine, defensive minds on this staff, but one figures it might take at least a year to get all the right pieces in the right places. Or, at least, enough pieces in the right places.

Vandy has seen the typical 4-3 to 3-4 position changes this offseason -- lots of defensive ends moving to OLB, defensive tackles moving to defensive end, and fat defensive tackles staying at defensive tackle. At first glance, size (often a concern when converting to a three-man line) doesn't appear to be problematic, especially if blue-chip tackle Nifae Lealao is ready to contribute right away.

But in terms of proven pieces, you've got sophomore Adam Butler (who is big and quick enough to potentially become a star at 3-4 end), nose tackles Barron Dixon and Vince Taylor, and ... that's it. Depth is an obvious concern.

With the conversion of a young set of ends into a young set of OLBs, there is quite a bit more depth and play-making potential at linebacker. Four-star junior Caleb Azubike was inconsistent as a sophomore but could thrive in the role of outside play-maker, Kyle Woestmann is a passing downs missile, and sophomore Stephen Weatherly showed pass-rushing potential in limited opportunities. Throw in pass-deflection master Darreon Herring at inside linebacker, and you could see one of the best pass-supporting linebacker units in the country here.

If the line holds up, the linebackers could be outstanding. But that's a pretty scary "if."

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Darreon Herring ILB 6'1, 232 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 64.0 9.1% 3.0 1.5 1 10 0 0
Karl Butler OLB 11 37.0 5.3% 9.5 1.0 0 5 0 0
Kyle Woestmann OLB 6'3, 250 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 29.5 4.2% 7.0 6.0 0 1 1 0
Jake Sealand ILB 6'2, 232 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 29.0 4.1% 2.5 0.0 0 1 1 0
Caleb Azubike OLB 6'4, 260 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 10 26.0 3.7% 10.0 4.0 0 1 0 0
Chase Garnham ILB 6 20.5 2.9% 2.0 0.0 1 0 1 0
Ja'karri Thomas ILB 6'1, 230 So. 3 stars (5.6) 13 16.5 2.4% 2.5 0.0 0 0 1 0
Stephen Weatherly OLB 6'5, 260 So. 3 stars (5.6) 12 15.0 2.1% 5.0 3.5 0 0 0 0
Kellen Williams FB 13 14.5 2.1% 1.0 0.0 0 2 1 0
Jimmy Stewart OLB 6'4, 232 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 13 12.5 1.8% 2.5 2.0 0 1 0 0
Casey Hughes OLB 6'1, 220 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 13 12.0 1.7% 2.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Larry Franklin OLB 12 9.5 1.4% 2.0 1.5 0 0 0 0
Harding Harper ILB 6'2, 240 So. 3 stars (5.6) 13 3.5 0.5% 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Nigel Bowden ILB 6'1, 245 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Jonathan Wynn OLB 6'4, 244 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Landon Stokes OLB 6'4, 235 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Charles Wright OLB 6'3, 230 Fr. 2 stars (5.3)
Hawkins Mann ILB 6'3, 230 Fr. 2 stars (5.2)

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Kenny Ladler FS 13 77.0 11.0% 1 0 5 4 5 0
Javon Marshall SS 13 63.0 9.0% 5.5 1 1 2 0 0
Andre Hal CB 12 41.0 5.8% 6.5 0 3 15 0 1
Steven Clarke CB 13 36.0 5.1% 0 0 1 6 0 0
Paris Head CB 6'0, 185 So. 3 stars (5.6) 13 18.5 2.6% 0 0 3 1 0 1
Andrew Williamson FS 6'1, 208 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 12 15.5 2.2% 1 0 2 0 0 0
Jahmel McIntosh SS 6'1, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 13.0 1.9% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Torren McGaster CB 6'0, 192 So. 3 stars (5.6) 13 12.5 1.8% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Darrius Sims CB 5'9, 182 So. 3 stars (5.7) 13 9.0 1.3% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Tre Bell CB 5'11, 172 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Jalen Banks FS 5'11, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Ryan White FS 5'9, 188 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Oren Burks SS 6'3, 212 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Taurean Ferguson CB 5'9, 185 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Emmanuel Smith SS 6'2, 205 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Bryce Lewis CB 6'0, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Tre Herndon CB 6'1, 174 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)
LaDarius Wiley CB 6'1, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)
Tre Tarpley SS 6'0, 195 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)

8. Rebuild in the back

If Vandy's linebacking corps lives up to full potential, maybe the Commodores can eke out a strong pass defense. It was a relative strength for a number of years, but a lot of the reasons -- last year's four senior starters -- are gone. Kenny Ladler was a hawk in every sense of the word (five forced fumbles, nine passes defensed), and Andre Hal was one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the country for two years. In all, last year's starters combined for 13 tackles for loss, 10 interceptions, 27 break-ups, and Ladler's five forced fumbles. That's outstanding.

Last year's staff was smart enough to give the backups playing time while redshirting five relatively exciting true freshmen; that was certainly a nice parting gift for the new staff. Sophomore corner Paris Head showed solid ball skills, safety Andrew Williamson picked off two passes in limited opportunities, and if two or three of the incoming freshmen and redshirt freshmen are ready for action, the secondary might not be a lost cause.

Still, it is going to be infinitely younger than last year's unit, and with youth come breakdowns. Expect inconsistency, even if there's upside.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Taylor Hudson 6'3, 220 Jr. 48 42.9 2 5 11 33.3%
Colby Cooke 6'3, 220 So. 14 45.1 2 6 8 100.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Carey Spear 73 62.7 47 3 64.4%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Carey Spear 48-48 11-13 84.6% 4-6 66.7%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Darrius Sims KR 5'9, 182 So. 25 22.8 0
Brian Kimbrow KR 5'8, 185 Jr. 12 16.0 0
Jonathan Krause PR 18 3.6 0
Trent Pruitt PR 5 4.8 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 30
Field Goal Efficiency 27
Punt Return Efficiency 50
Kick Return Efficiency 102
Punt Efficiency 17
Kickoff Efficiency 28
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 44

9. Good special teams a must

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

Stanford is 24-5 with two Pac-12 titles since Andrew Luck left Palo Alto. That's an amazing thing to say and a supreme endorsement of Mason's defense, among other things.

But it's also a sign of the power of special teams and field position; Stanford ranked eighth in Special Teams F/+ in 2012 and third in 2013. You know about Ty Montgomery and the Stanford return game, but the unit as a whole was well-rounded.

Vandy's punting game was great, and the Commodores return both punters responsible for that. Sophomore Colby Cooke was incredible late, with 12 punts for an average of 46.6 yards in the final two games. The rest of the unit is questionable, though. Carey Spear was solid in both kickoffs and field goals, and he's gone. Plus, a nondescript return game must replace both punt returners. Cooke and Hudson should mean decent field position, but Vandy might need a bit more than that.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
28-Aug Temple 95
6-Sep Ole Miss 24
13-Sep Massachusetts 126
20-Sep South Carolina 7
27-Sep at Kentucky 75
4-Oct at Georgia 10
11-Oct Charleston Southern NR
25-Oct at Missouri 22
1-Nov Old Dominion 120
8-Nov Florida 29
22-Nov at Mississippi State 26
29-Nov Tennessee 55
Five-Year F/+ Rk -1.1% (60)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 36
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 7 / 14.6
TO Luck/Game -2.9
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 10 (6, 4)

10. Win at home

On a play-for-play basis, I'm relatively confident about Vanderbilt's defense; there will be breakdowns, and I fear the line will wear down as a game progresses. But I see potential for another top-50 unit here, and holding steady while under serious transition is never a bad thing.

The offense will hold Vandy back, perhaps significantly. The running game should be competent and semi-efficient, and I assume whoever wins the QB job will be competent as well. But this offense had three play-makers last year -- Jordan Matthews, Jordan Matthews, and Jonathan Krause -- and now has no proven big-play threats.

Vandy will have to win games with field position and defense, but a decent home slate makes a fourth consecutive bowl a possibility. All four non-conference teams are underwhelming, to put it politely (though ODU could punish a shaky, young secondary), and in Ole Miss, Florida, and Tennessee, Vandy hosts three quite beatable SEC foes. (Meanwhile, Kentucky and MSU aren't exactly out of reach on the road.)

There are enough beatable opponents here to assure six wins, which would now seem a bit disappointing at VU, but I don't see Vandy as one of the SEC's better teams.