James Franklin has got the Vanderbilt program in something of a stir. After years in the SEC doldrums after doing nothing since the Jay Cutler years, James Franklin has brought in a new confidence into Nashville, and with it, they’ve reached a bowl in their last two seasons, and more’s the case, are laughing at Tennessee, who’s having a shameful time.

And although Vandy has definitely recruited well – an ESPN ranking of 22 for last year – there’s a dark cloud that’s been brought over the program, and that’s due to a rape that took place in late June this year that has ensared five Vanderbilt players – including four that have been booted off the team (and one who was indicted last week) – including No.2 wide receiver Chris Boyd.

But will the off-season distractions stop Vanderbilt from negotiating the schedule?

LAST SEASON

Vanderbilt had an astonishing season in 2012, going 9-4 – which included a 38-24 Music City Bowl beat-down of NC State and a six-match unbeaten run to end the year. There’s no question that this was a back-loaded schedule, which saw Vanderbilt loses the games it was meant to lose and win the ones it was meant to win – and a lot of them in very convincing fashion. From Vandy fans’ point-of-view, the game of the season had to be the game against Ole Miss, which the Commodores won 27-26 in a stormer of a game.

The heroes last season on the offense were quarterback Jordan Rodgers (2,539 yards, 15 TDs, 5 INTs), running back Zac Stacy (1,141 yards, 10 TDs), wide receiver Jordan Matthews (1,323 yards, 8 TDs).

OFFENSE

Goodbye and thank you for a great career to Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy. Rodgers is currently a free agent in the NFL and Stacy is playing for the St Louis Rams. Austyn Carter-Samuels will take on the role of starting QB (he had 208 yards and 1 TD last year), while Matthews and Boyd both return as receivers. Vanderbilt’s rushing game will depend on the partnership of Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow, who had nearly 800 yards of rushing work between them.

The biggest problem for Vanderbilt (apart from the obvious replacement of talent), is: Who’s going to replace Matthews if he gets injured and Boyd is suspended or thrown off the team for the event in June? Also, can Carta-Samuels really step up to SEC play, after spending years plying his trade with Wyoming?

DEFENSE

Defense was a real strength for Vandy last year, who ranked 5th in the SEC in yards per game (333.9) and 19th nationally. They kept the scoring down to under 19 points per game, good for 5th in the SEC and 15th. In other words, this was an above-average defense that James Franklin put together. This year they return six starters.

The group’s defensive line is ferocious, with DEs Walker May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike, who contributed 13 sacks and 10 tackles for loss between them. And at linebacker, starters Chase Gardham and Karl Butler return, and in the secondary, Andre Hal also comes back to the corner, as do free safety and leading tackler Kenny Ladler and strong safety Javon Marshall.

SCHEDULE

Aug 29 – Ole Miss 
Sept 7 – Austin Peay
Sept 14 – @ South Carolina
Sept 21 – @ UMass (in Gillette Stadium)
Sept 28 – UAB
Oct 5 – Missouri
Oct 19 – Georgia
Oct 26 – @ TAMU
Nov 9 @ Florida
Nov 16 – Kentucky
Nov 23 – @ Tennessee
Nov 30 – Wake Forest

Vandy goes into Opening Night of the college football season against Ole Miss, in a rivalry game that hasn’t had a break since 1945. And although the result is a bit of a toss-up, Vandy should roll Austin Peay, get rolled at South Carolina, and roll UMass and UAB at home and beat Missouri – if Missouri can’t solve their problems at offensive line. We expect Vanderbilt to give Georgia the same sort of test as they did in 2011 (without the fight, hopefully), but to struggle at Kyle Field against Texas A&M, as well as in The Swamp – although in the The Swamp they’ll keep it close because Florida’s offense is so, well, offensive. They should comfortably beat Kentucky and win a close one at Tennessee, before rounding out the season by winning the Battle Of The Rich Private Schools  against Wake Forest.

BOTTOM LINE: We expect them to go 7-5, but this will be very dependent on what happens to Boyd, the development of Carter-Samuels, and if Jordan Matthews can continue the same incredible season as he had in 2012. So in other words, a lot of moving parts. But that’s a bowl game for Vanderbilt fans, and that’ll suit them nicely.

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