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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Vanderbilt

A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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What’s Changed. Okay, so Vanderbilt never has any talent, right? Check the 25-year bowl drought and the C-USA-worthy recruiting rankings below for proof. Which makes it much tougher when the Commodores do lose good players, and from last year’s team, they lost a lot: first team all-SEC picks Chris Williams and Earl Bennett from the offense, both draft picks of the Bears in April, and second-teamer/two-time team tackle leader Jonathan Goff, a fifth-rounder to the Giants. Bennett and Goff, both three stars, were major recruits by Vandy standards, by virtue of being rated at all in classes of mostly anonymous kids assigned two stars for signing with a D-I school. That is, they’re extremely difficult to replace with anything like the same level of play, only good enough for three conference wins in two years, anyway. That goes quadruple for Bennett, who caught more passes in three years than any receiver in SEC history. But we’re talking quality and quantity here: the defense technically returns seven starters, but five of them of them are in the secondary – the school is counting the nickelback in that number – leaving a slightly undersized defensive lineman (Steven Stone) and a very undersized middle linebacker with "limited duty" under his belt (218-pound Patrick Benoist) to hold down the front seven. Vandy had by far its best season under Bobby Johnson against the run and in rushing the passer last year, and seems destined to drop right back to its usual low standing by both measures.

That’s optimistic compared to the potential fate of the offensive line, comprised entirely of fouth-year juniors with nary a start between them going into the year. The 2007 line was a miraculously intact group, the same set of five starters in the same positions for all twelve games, one of whom went in the first round to the NFL, and still couldn’t push the offense as a whole into the top hundred. How does that improve under five new guys?

What’s the Same. Pick a quarterback, any quarterback:

The least you should know about Vanderbilt...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 5-7 (2-6 SEC; 6th/East)
2003-07: 18-40 (8-32 SEC)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*-
2004-08: 66 • 87 • 60 • 67 • 90
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (8 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
D.J. Moore became a scout favorite and a quarterback nightmare in a hurry: he grabbed five of his SEC-best six picks in the first seven games, and nobody wanted to throw his way anymore. He’s a nifty kick returner, too, and an odd reverse guy out of the slot on offense (87 yards on four carries), prompting the school’s propaganda department to wonder: "truly, have you ever witnessed a more complete Commodore [than] D.J. in 2007?" As few people out there have witnessed any memorable Commodores at all over the years, we’ll have to take their word for it.
In the Beginning
So overwhelmed was he with sympathy for the newly freed negro, the destitute sharecropper, the ruined cotton baron and the carpetbagger impulse for messianic reform, New York shipping and rail magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt put up $1 million in 1873 – or $17,118,272.71 in modern terms – to endow the methodist-affiliated university despite having never been to the South. It was the only money he ever gave away, leaving him with the equivalent of a mere $167.3 billion and the satisfaction of having smashed the Fulton-Livingston steamship monopoly. He died four years later having never visited.
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* According to Rivals.

Well, not any quarterback – Vandy’s pretty much stuck with Chris Nickson and Mackenzi Adams, both pretty unimpressive overall despite Bennett’s presence. I have an aversion to any guy whose name ends with an ‘i’ myself, but Adams seems to be the favorite after relieving Nickson against Georgia last October, avoiding a killer turnover while the defense did its thing there and leading the upset of then-ranked South Carolina in his first start the next week. The offense scored 20-plus points behind Adams in each of the last three league games, which is really, like Cutler territory where the Commodores are concerned (they rarely average even 17 against SEC defenses over the last decade); they lost all three of those games, but Adams threw five touchdowns with no picks against Tennessee and Kentucky. His last start was a dud against Wake Forest, but nothing like the back-to-back flops against Auburn and Georgia that cost Nickson the job – the junior was 7 of 21 for 44 yards in those games, after a dismal effort against Alabama (5-18, 67 yards) and a four-INT afternoon against Eastern Michigan the previous three weeks. If not for a pretty good night against Ole Miss, Nickson probably would have been bounced even earlier than the Georgia game.

So though a lot of the depth charts say either/or – including the version published by the school – Adams has to be in the pole position. All things being equal, given that the offense still has no reliable running game and is certain to take its lumps again, the guy coming back in 2009 (Nickson is a fifth-year senior) likely takes priority, anyway, especially when he started out with much higher hopes as an incoming recruit three years ago.

Just keep an eye out for the blindside, kid.
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Always Be Coverin’. If you’re looking for a positive, it has to be the secondary, deep, intact and easily the most SEC-worthy component of the team, talent-wise: run-oriented safety Reshard Langford is a good bet for next year’s draft, as is corner D.J. Moore, who is rated really, really high by some projections, certainly high enough to consider coming out a year early if he approaches the love he earned as a sophomore – second team all-SEC by the coaches and media despite being a virtual no-name on the last place team in the division. With Moore and Myron Lewis on the other side, the pass efficiency defense fell from 94th in 2006 to 42nd, still subpar by SEC standards but the first time since 2000 it was even close to the top 50 nationally.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. Add another name to the quarterback derby after the spring: the best signal-caller in the spring game was sophomore Jared Funk, who went a measly 4-6 but hit big plays (a 37-yard pass to former quarterback Turner Wimbley, the longest play of the defense-dominated scrimmage), later on threw the first touchdown of the day, scored again on a 13-yard run and outduelled Adams and Nickson across the board.

Funk hasn’t taken a snap, but he was Rivals’ 13th-ranked quarterback in 2006 and had a lot of interest from middle-of-the-pack Big Ten schools (he metriculated south from Illinois). Depending on who you ask – Phil Steele’s aggregate ranking wasn’t nearly as high on him – that makes Funk among the most highly-sought players on the roster, and a good bet to push Adams when things start turning south at midseason.

Vanderbilt on You Tube. Aw shit, y’all, it’s Vandy Partay time up in this bitch:

Is it a ripoff? Yeah. And you’re still not even rich enough to watch it.

See Also: Highlights of last year’s upset at South Carolina and at Georgia in 2006. ... Even among the genre of college parody, this is weird. ... The pilot episode of Vanderbilt’s first cooking show. ... And, yeah, crank that Vanderbilt (from the creators of Crank That Snow Day). Best-Case: Can Vandy start 4-0? By any appeal to history, it cannot, though the Ohio-based Miami, Rice and Ole Miss are games it probably thinks it should take and South Carolina showed no life in last year’s upset, in Columbia. If it can get out of September with three wins, there’s a chance, a chance to reach .500: Mississippi State is the only realistic in-conference victim from that point, but a win in Starkville and over Duke two weeks later would move the Commodores one upset away – over Kentucky? Wake Forest? – from the elusive six-win plateau. That’s a lot of toss-up situations coming up ‘Vandy,’ which they have not before, but this team hasn’t made a bowl game since years before any player on the current roster was born. Almost since before I was born, dammit. I can concede an opportunity.

Worst-Case: Can Vandy start 0-4? Probably not, with the Miami (Ohio) and Rice games sitting there for the taking, but the Commodores are no stranger to 0-8 in the SEC, a very real possibility with the extreme inexperience on both lines. Duke is likely the second win, but nobody would bat an eye at another 2-10 disaster – there were four of them in a row here from 2001-04, so it would represent a return to form, as it were.

Non-Binding Forecast: Give ‘em a Scare or Bust. Most SEC partisans know Vandy is rarely an easy out, good for a couple close calls every year – last year, it was Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, and South Carolina bit it; Georgia bit it in 2006. If Adams hits his stride and the secondary goes into lockdown mode every now and then, the team still has a chance to be competitive. But "competitive" in this case still means "a lot of non-blowout losses." Non-conference is built for success, but the big guys – especially the offensive line, never a Vandy strength at any point in recent memory and about as green as it can be – are in no position to hold up to Auburn, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, et al. As usual, it will take a real upset to get more than one SEC win, and that still only brings the final tally to 4-8. Just another year in Nashville.