To sustain success, Vandy needs to replace key pieces
Can Vanderbilt take the next step? The schedule could prove difficult to manage, writes Steve Eubanks.
By STEVE EUBANKSFS Tennessee
The facts are well known but
Vanderbilt fans love to repeat them anyway.
Yes, last January the
Commodores played in their second-consecutive bowl game for the first time in school history. And, indeed, coach James Franklin’s team won that bowl to give Vanderbilt its first nine-win season since 1915, a time when the Ottomans still had an empire and the world’s biggest movie star was Charlie Chaplin.
The ‘Dores set other milestones in 2012, too: they beat Tennessee in Nashville for the first time in 30 years, they won five SEC games for the first time since 1935 and they were nationally ranked at season’s end for the first since Harry Truman was president.
These are heady times for the once-perennial doormats of the SEC.
Not too many schools are scheduling Vanderbilt as their homecoming game anymore.
But just how good can the Commodores become? And what does Coach Franklin have to do to elevate his team beyond second-tier bowl games and also-ran status in college football’s toughest conference?
The short-term needs are obvious. Vandy has to find a quarterback who can step into Jordan Rodgers’ large shoes. With 4,063 passing yards and 24 touchdowns in two seasons -- the majority of those coming in 2012 -- Rodgers was Vanderbilt’s most productive quarterback since Jay Cutler. Austyn Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming, is the likely starter and actually has a stronger arm than Rodgers. But arm strength doesn’t keep you cool when you have Jadeveon Clowney rushing your blind side or you face one of Will Muschamp’s well-disguised blitzes.
Carta-Samuels will also have a disadvantage beyond his lack of experience. He won’t be lining up the backfield with Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt’s all-time greatest running back who graduated with 3,143 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns.
Vandy supporters are quick to point out the positives, though.
Carta-Samuels will have plenty of targets, including returning receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd and tight ends Kris Kentera and Steven Scheu. A good chunk of the defense is also returning, and the offensive line is expected to be better this year than at any time in school history.
But Vandy isn’t improving in a vacuum. The Commodores’ opponents are getting better as well. A quick glance through the schedule leaves even the most ardent Vanderbilt fan wondering where on Earth nine wins might be found this season.
They open with Ole Miss, a team that has experienced the same sort of meteoric rise under Hugh Freeze that Vandy has with Franklin; then, after hosting Austin Peay, the Commodores play South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. Franklin’s squad could easily be 1-2 by mid-September.
Things don’t get much easier after that. In a four-game stretch from Oct. 5 through Nov. 9, Vandy hosts Missouri and Georgia and then travels to Texas A&M and Florida.
Getting out of that stretch 2-2 would require at least one upset, and the ‘Dores could play very well and still lose all four.
Reasonable speculators predict Vandy finishing the regulars season 6-6, a step down from their nine-win high, but still respectable. Seven regular-season wins and a bowl victory would be a substantial achievement, one that would continue to elevate the program.
Vanderbilt can certainly continue to win, and with the recruiting classes Coach Franklin has signed, three-, four- or five consecutive bowl appearances is a reasonable goal. But winning the SEC East is another level entirely, one that Commodores, for all their accomplishments, are still many years away from reaching.