College football insiders might not think much of the Brand New Vanderbilt. Despite returning a stacked receiving corps and much of the defense that ranked 15th nationally in points allowed, Football Outsiders is projecting a 6-6 season for James Franklin's third year. That outcome is the most common result of 1,000 simulated seasons - not one of which includes a SEC title for the Commodores. While dreams of a December date in Atlanta might still be a few seasons away, a return to .500 football seems like quite a letdown for a team that finished their 2012 season on a seven-game winning streak and with a victory in the Music City Bowl.
FO's model has some gravity behind it. Vanderbilt will go into 2013 without the services of its best quarterback since Jay Cutler (Jordan Rodgers) and the best running back in school history (Zac Stacy). The defense will have to fill holes left by quiet leaders Trey Wilson, Archibald Barnes, and Rob Lohr. Now that we are three years in to Franklin's tenure, it's time to see whether or not the players that he's recruited are ready for prime time roles with a surging Commodore team.
Vanderbilt will play 12 regular season games this year. Seven of those will take place in the friendly confines of Dudley Field. Five will come against programs that are likely to be ranked in the top 25 at some point next season. While the 'Dores are fortunate to avoid SEC behemoths like Alabama and LSU, they'll still be big underdogs in showdowns with Texas A&M, Georgia, and Florida.
Can Vandy run through their 2013 schedule and shock the world? Anything's possible. But for a more realistic look at their fall slate, let's take a closer look at each game and this team's chances at pulling out a victory. Yes, James Franklin and his coaching staff would string us up for this given the team's "one week at a time" mentality, but let's gaze into the crystal ball anyway.
Game 1: vs. Mississippi - Vanderbilt has been impressive against Ole Miss in recent years, winning the last three contests against their West rivals and posting a 5-1 record in the past six years. The sportsbooks have taken notice, and that's why Vandy opened as a 6.5-point favorite when the season's odds first came out last week. That number has dropped slightly, but the Commodores should still remain favored as the season draws on.
Mississippi will be better in 2012, and they very nearly held off the 'Dores in Oxford last season. Bo Wallace is developing into one of the SEC's biggest passing threats and a stacked recruiting class will build on last year's bowl-winning season. Still, until the Rebels prove that they can break the Vanderbilt curse it's tough to lean away from the home team in this one. Possible win (1-0).
Game 2: vs. Austin Peay - Moving on. Win (2-0).
Game 3: at South Carolina - Vanderbilt nearly toppled the Gamecocks last season, losing 17-13 after a missed pass interference call cut the Commodores' rally short. However, that game also happened at home, in an unpredictable season opener, and with a USCe quarterback who could barely lift his arm above his neck in the second half. 2013's battle between SEC East rivals is shaping up to be another defensive battle, and unless Jordan Matthews can guide his team to an offensive explosion we may be due for a repeat of 2012's contest.
Jadeveon Clowney will be waiting to address whomever wins Vandy's quarterback battle (likely Austyn Carta-Samuels, but let's not rule anything out), and a stout Gamecock defense should be strong enough to limit the 'Dores rebuild running game. It's still early in the process, but for now let's lodge this one in the L column. Probable loss (2-1).
Game 4: at Massachusetts - The Commodores in Gillette Stadium! Who's coming with me?!? Win (3-1).
Game 5: vs. Alabama-Birmingham - The Blazers went 3-9 in 2012 and would have ranked 32nd in the FCS subdivision according to Jeff Sagarin's rankings. It's not as much of a lock as UMass or Austin Peay on the schedule, but it's definitely the gluten-free butter cream alternative to APSU's red velvet cupcake on Vandy's ledger. Probable win (4-1).
Game 6: vs. Missouri - Vanderbilt and Mizzou played one of the ugliest games of 2012 last season as both teams failed to get anything going on the offensive end. In case you've blanked all memory of this game from your mind, Vandy didn't get a first down until midway through the second quarter, but the Tigers' special teams mistakes -including a botched extra point and an errant snap through the end zone - kept the 'Dores alive long enough to pull out the win.
Missouri lost starting QB James Franklin in the first quarter of last year's game, and he'll be looking for revenge this fall. Like Ole Miss, Vanderbilt will face a better team than the one that they toppled in 2012. They'll also have home-field advantage this time around. It'll be a battle, and potentially not a pretty one, but this one certainly has the makings of a key Commodore win. Possible win (5-1).
Game 7: vs. Georgia - The less said about last year's Georgia mollywhopping, the better. Vanderbilt has traditionally played Mark Richt's Bulldogs tough, but this will be a tough one to win, even in Nashville. Maybe this is the year that James Franklin finally gets his revenge on Todd Grantham, but it's difficult to see a victory materializing in week eight for the 'Dores, even after a valuable bye week. Probable loss (5-2).
Game 8: at Texas A&M - Johnny Football welcomes the Commodores in Vanderbilt's first matchup with Texas A&M in school history. The Aggies boasted one of the nation's highest-powered offensive attacks in 2012 and Johnny Manziel's ability to run the ball could give this team fits if Jeff Driskel's performance against the 'Dores last year is any indication. A&M will put Bob Shoops's defense to the test, and while a deep Vandy D should be able to respond well, this team may not have the firepower that it needs to compete at Kyle Field. Possible loss (5-3).
Game 9: at Florida - Vanderbilt will be able to give the Gators a challenge, but history is not on their side. Everything that we said about Ole Miss's struggles against the 'Dores apply in the opposite direction for the Vanderbilt/Florida rivalry. Until this team proves that it can do anything more than just scare the Gators it's tough to see this one as a potential win for Franklin's 2013 team. Vandy hasn't won in the swamp since 1949. Probable loss (5-4).
Game 10: vs Kentucky - Mark Stoops undoubtedly has his team pointed in the right direction. However, Vanderbilt has smoked the Wildcats by a combined 78-8 score in their last two meetings. Factor in Vandy's home-field advantage, and you've got a likely victory (and potential bowl eligibility) for Franklin's team. Probable win (6-4).
Game 11: at Tennessee - Hoo boy. The Volunteers would like nothing more than revenge for last year's streak-breaking loss in Nashville. Unfortunately, they'll have to do it without Tyler Bray, Cordarelle Patterson, or Justin Hunter. New coach Butch Jones will be looking to make a statement in his first battle for I-40, and he'd like nothing more than to send Vandy back into "little brother" mode. Neyland Stadium will be packed full of fans that will be louder than ever now that the 'Dores pose a credible threat to their boys in orange.
However, Vanderbilt's got the momentum in this series, and they'll have a wealth of talent on their roster that should be able to overcome the partially-rebuilding Volunteers. It's difficult to predict where a game like this will end up. Both teams will be carried by their emotions and battling towards either bowl eligibility or a more attractive postseason bid. Expect this to be the most raucous crowd the 'Dores face in 2013 - but expect this team to rise to the challenge, as well. Possible win (7-4).
Game 12: vs Wake Forest - Wake has quietly become a very appropriate rivalry for the Commodores. The Demon Deacons won three straight games against the 'Dores from 2007-2010, but Vandy has beaten their ACC foes to take a 4-3 series edge since 2000. Wake was underwhelming last season, and four of their five wins came over bad teams like Virginia, Boston College, and Army. They'll be stronger in 2013 as QB Tanner Price develops and tailback Josh Harris looks to improve on an injury-riddled junior season, but Vanderbilt should be able to dispatch the 'Deacs and get their recent series record back to .500. Probable win (8-4).
So that's how our 2013 projection shakes out. Technically, we're within FO's range of wins; the 'Dores could end up anywhere between 4-8 and 8-4 in their scenarios. A second straight eight-win regular season would put Vanderbilt in the New Year's Day bowl range and add to James Franklin's list of records at what was traditionally the SEC's football doormat. However, there's still a lot of ground to cover before we get there. While matchups against teams like Austin Peay and UMass will give this team some confidence boosting wins, there's always room for disappointment against tough mid-level opponents like Missouri and Ole Miss.
That said, we put our season prediction on last year's team at eight wins, and Wild Dogs, Fly Boys, and Hollywood Jordan Rodgers came through in a big way to validate the hope and trust fans put in that squad. This year, they're a couple of key upsets away from making a run at 10 wins or more. They'll have to work harder than ever to get there, but Franklin and his crew have proven that determination is the perfect supplement to the talent that they are developing on West End. This staff has done an incredible job of squeezing every ounce out of their players, and that's something that computer projections can't measure.
So think of eight wins as next year's baseline. Is that dreaming big? Sure. But it's something that Commodore fans never would have done in the past...and this is a Brand New Vanderbilt.