Is Vanderbilt destined for a bowl game?

During the James Franklin era, Vanderbilt made a bowl game in each of his three years as head coach. Prior to his tenure, the Commodores made just one bowl game from 1983 to 2010. With that came the high expectations for Derek Mason to continue this winning trend that had hardly been a part of Vanderbilt football historically. While the team increased its win total by just one game last year from the prior season, the hype this year has the team, fans and even national media optimistic about a return to a bowl game.

The Vanderbilt Hustler lays out arguments for why Vanderbilt will make a bowl game and why it won’t.

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The Commodores are going into year three of the Mason era, and he has assembled his best team by far. While Mason only produced seven wins over the past two years, consistent improvement from the defense and retainment of offensive talent has Vanderbilt primed to compete in a bowl game this season. Here are the reasons why:

Improved offensive talent

In terms of talent, the Commodores have retained most of their defensive and offensive talent. Namely, running back Ralph Webb, quarterback Kyle Shurmur and wide receiver Trent Sherfield provide the Commodores the explosiveness missing from years past.

With the return of receiver C.J. Duncan from injury, Shurmur should have all the weapons needed to launch a successful Vandy offense. Their combined efforts will prove to be the critical piece in the upcoming season, will ultimately deciding how the team finishes.

Well-rounded defense

On the other side of the field, the defense continues to excel in all position groups. First Team All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham and converted safety-to-linebacker Oren Burks will wreak havoc against the opposing players. The lack of opposing elite quarterback play on the schedule (outside of Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs) will make ruining the offense that much easier for the linebacker duo.

Cornerbacks Tre Herndon and Torren McGaster shut down opposing receivers well last year and will continue to do the same this year. As long as the defense plays to its full power each week, the offense simply needs to limit turnovers and provide sufficient movement with the football.

Manageable schedule

Starting off, the Commodores have a generous schedule and will able to start out strong, possibly 4-0. The first four games (vs. South Carolina, vs. Middle Tennessee State, at Georgia Tech, at Western Kentucky) are all games the Commodores should win.

Georgia Tech should be the only team that troubles the ‘Dores, but a strong start and a stout defense against the Yellow Jackets should clip their offense and lead to a win for VU.

Following that quartet of games, Vanderbilt enters the more intense part of its schedule—the remainder of the SEC. However, home games against Florida and Ole Miss (Vanderbilt played both teams competitively last year) make those SEC challengers more manageable.

Away games at Kentucky and Missouri should not trouble the ‘Dores’ defense, while a cupcake game vs. Tennessee State provides ample opportunity for Vanderbilt to reach that six-win threshold to earn a bowl game offer.

Overall, the Commodores have the roster and the easy schedule to add the bowl game to the end of their season. Expectations are high for this team, and a 7-5 finish to the regular season seems very possible.

There are several obstacles that stand in the way of the Commodores accomplishing something they haven’t done since Franklin’s final season in 2013.  While all fans would love to see Vandy play some December (or January) football, it will not be an easy road.  Typically, it takes six wins to reach a bowl game, and the ‘Dores only have seven wins in the last two seasons combined.  If the team hopes to improve, it will have a lot to overcome along the way.

Quarterback play

This is the big one.  Fans should count on another strong Mason defense, anchored by Cunningham.  The running game should be in good shape with the redshirt junior Webb returning after posting an impressive 1152 yards last season. But fans still don’t know what to expect from the quarterback position, a spot where Mason has yet to stabilize since his arrival two years ago.  

Shurmur will look to improve on a freshman campaign in which he took the reins from Johnny McCrary late in the season.  He showed promise by leading the team to victories against SEC opponents Kentucky and Missouri, but his inexperience prevented Vanderbilt from developing a potent passing attack.  If he has made the necessary progress, maybe this is the year that Vanderbilt only has one starting quarterback. Otherwise, look for Wade Freebeck to compete for playing time.  If the team can’t get the quarterback play straightened out, Vanderbilt’s offense could struggle again as opponents’ defenses will load the box and key on Webb. This team needs to be more two-dimensional if they have hopes for a bowl game.

Schedule

Vanderbilt plays four preseason AP Top 25 teams (Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida).  Two other teams (Auburn and Western Kentucky) received votes.  Half of the schedule is full of teams with strong preseason expectations.  This means it’s critical that Vandy wins most, if not all, of the other six games.  

Unfortunately, these “other six” games aren’t all cakewalks.  Games against Georgia Tech, along with conference foes South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri could ultimately be the deciding factors of whether or not the ‘Dores reach that magic number of six wins. Thursday’s game against South Carolina is vastly important for picking up an SEC win, as well as setting the tone for the season. Vandy enters the game as a four-point favorite.

Injuries

Last year, Vanderbilt got hit by the injury bug with season ending injuries to Duncan, linebacker Nigel Bowden and offensive lineman Andrew Jelks. But whether or not the team can avoid a repeat of this isn’t really in its hands. If Vanderbilt’s key players can stay healthy, it will make a big difference this fall. Jelks is already sidelined for the season so Vanderbilt really can’t stand to lose any more of these important starters.

If Vanderbilt can overcome these hurdles, then it will be possible for them to play in December. It will not be easy.  This Thursday’s game against South Carolina will be a key indicator of the progress the team has made and if they look poised to take the next step. Let’s hope that is the case.

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