2016 SEC East Preview: Vanderbilt

Derek Mason’s 2015 Vanderbilt squad managed a pair of SEC wins, but couldn’t muster any more momentum. Can the Commodores take another step forward this season?

Vanderbilt football pregame tunnel. Photo courtesy of Flickr, obtained using creativecommons.org. No changes made.

After an abysmal campaign in 2014 that only resulted in wins over Old Dominion, UMass, and Charleston Southern, Vanderbilt made some strides in the rebuild.

Coach Derek Mason’s squad both increased their overall win total to 4-8 (2-6 in the SEC) and even accrued their first conference victory over Missouri 10-3. The Commodores almost got their first signature win November 7 over SEC East champion Florida Gators, even holding a 7-6 lead in the last three minutes. However, a late field goal by Gators’ kicker Austin Hardin and a turnover on downs on Vanderbilt’s next drive thwarted the upset.

Coach Mason took over the defensive play-calling for Vandy in 2015 and the Commodores had the 27th best scoring defense in the country.

Strengths:

Vanderbilt’s strength is its defense. The Commodores’ defensive unit is another year older and has had another year to adjust to Derek Mason’s scheme. On offense, junior running back Ralph Webb is the work horse. Two years ago he set the school record for most carries (212) and rushing yards (907) by a true freshman. He followed that performance with the second best rushing season in school history with 1,152 yards. Those numbers are even more impressive given the overall scope of Vanderbilt’s offense.

Weaknesses:

Quarterback has easily been the biggest problem for the Commodores in the past two years. Last year, Mason alternated between redshirt junior Johnny McCrary and true freshman Kyle Shurmur.

Although McCrary got the majority of snaps, his numbers were less than stellar, posting a lowly 54.7 percent completion rate with six TDs and 12 interceptions. Near the end of the year, Vanderbilt tried out Shurmur, and his numbers were similarly bad. While Shurmur kept his turnovers down (only three INTs), his completion percentage was a mere 42 percent.

On the positive side, he played his best in the last game of the year against in-state rival Tennessee, throwing for 209 yards with 3 touchdowns and one pick. However, the Commodores still lost 53-28.

Coach Mason has a lot of confidence in Kyle Shurmur. To minimize distractions for his team, Mason elected to name Shurmur his starting quarterback for the fall. After his strong performance in the spring game, going 7-of-9 for 96 yards, the Commodores’ coaching staff hopes he can build on that momentum for a strong 2016 campaign.

 

Players to watch:

RB Ralph Webb, RS Junior — If the Commodores want to have any scoring success in 2016, they will have to get Webb as many touches as possible. Assuming he stays healthy, anticipate Webb besting numbers from last season and potentially breaking Zac Stacy’s single season rushing record of 1,193 yards. In doing so, he would also become the school’s all-time career rushing leader.

LB Zach Cunningham, RS Junior — Cunningham is the unquestioned leader of this defense. As a redshirt sophomore, he did not miss a game, registering 16.5 tackles for loss, good enough for third-best in the SEC. His performance on the field earned him first team All-SEC honors. If the Commodores want to continue their improvements on the defensive side of the ball, Cunningham is going to have to produce another stellar season.

Games to watch:

Sept. 1 vs South Carolina

Most coaches will tell say that the most important game of the season is the next one. For Vanderbilt, its next game is the season opener against South Carolina. Clichés aside, this game is imperative for the Commodores. Stealing a conference win in week one against a Steve Spurrier-less South Carolina team trending in the wrong direction would be a huge confidence booster. For a team desperate to get to a bowl game, you have to look at the schedule and find six wins. If they’re going to get to that point, a win in game one would be huge.

Oct. 8 @ Kentucky

Another key game circled on Vanderbilt’s schedule is when the Commodores visit rival Kentucky. Vandy’s win against the Wildcats last year was one of its only two conference victories. With as much criticism as Derek Mason has gotten during his time at the helm, a loss to Kentucky in 2016 with a new quarterback could have fans asking, “Is he the right guy for the job?”  Vandy’s defense is capable of leading the Commodores to victory, but nothing is guaranteed.

Prediction:

5-7

Losses:  vs Georgia Tech, vs Florida, @ Georgia, @ Auburn, @ Missouri, @ Ole Miss, vs Tennessee

Edited by Nathan Odom

Featured image by Hector Alejandro