Hi everyone. First of all, I am new here, so I should introduce myself. I am Matt, and I am a member of the Class of 2018 at Vanderbilt and have been a college sports fan for my whole life. When thinking about this upcoming season for the Commodores, there is one team and situation that it keeps reminding me about: the 2013 Duke team. Let me explain.
I should admit that I grew up in a Duke household and that I was a Duke fan (though, my allegiance to them was severed when they rejected me as an applicant). That took place later, so I experienced that whole season from the perspective of a fan. Now, I will go into a little background about the 2013 Duke team and how it reminds me in so many ways of our team for this year.
Duke was even worse than Vanderbilt pre-Franklin before David Cutcliffe became the coach. The team was so bad that, despite his excellent coaching, it took him five years to get them to a bowl game, which it lost to Cincinnati to finish 6-7. During the offseason, I kept thinking that the 2013 team would be a little better than the 2012 version, but the national media considered it a one-year fluke and not one site had Duke making a bowl game. This year, some say that Vanderbilt will make a bowl and some say that we will not, but the general consensus is that we will regress from where we were last year, as it was a fluke and Vanderbilt cannot possibly compete in the SEC.
That is not where the comparison ends between last year's Duke team and this year's Vandy team. The primary reasons that people gave for Duke regressing were that it was losing starting quarterback Sean Renfree (who was the first Duke player drafted in a long, long time) and all-time ACC receptions leader Conner Vernon, in addition to the idea that it was lucky to win six games and go to a bowl game. Of course, we are coming from much more than 6 wins (9 and two straight bowl victories). However, people are expecting us to fall because we lost our quarterback in Carta-Samuels and receiver Jordan Matthews (who now plays for the best pro football team!), in addition to our coach, and because the SEC is so strong overall. Most are saying that we should be right on the bubble of bowl eligibility this year.
However, in both cases, the national media failed to look at the larger picture. Last year, Duke had a very easy non-conference schedule that gave it three certain wins (NC Central, @Memphis, Troy) and one probable one (Navy, a game that Duke would win by four touchdowns). Vandy's non-conference schedule is even easier, with Temple, UMass, Old Dominion, and Charleston Southern, all in Nashville. When your toughest non-conference game is Temple and you play in the SEC, you can add 4-0 to your league record. Last year with Duke, people were saying that they would go 4-8 or 5-7 meaning that they would maybe win one league game. Keep in mind that the ACC has some weak programs, such as Wake Forest, Virginia, and NC State, all of whom were on Duke's schedule. People saying that we will go 5-7 or maybe 6-6 are saying that we will be lucky to win one or two SEC games, despite the fact that we won four last year and five the year before, including dominating the series with Tennessee and Kentucky.
People also made too big of deals about the losses at quarterback in both cases. In 2012, Anthony Boone, Duke's then backup, started two games at QB and won both convincingly, including putting up 40-some points on Virginia. He would go on to never lose a regular season game he started the next year (Duke's two regular season losses to Georgia Tech and Pitt came when he was injured). Patton Robinette started at times for us this season, including leading us to a win in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Houston. He, like Boone, has proven that he is just as good as the previous year's starter. If he winds up losing the battle to our redshirt freshman or to Philip Rivers's brother, that means that one of the other two is even better. Like Duke's team last year, we return most of the key pieces, despite the fact that people think that we will revert back to just being an elite academic institution that cannot play football. I also think that Derek Mason seems very capable as our coach and have heard that he was one of the keys at Stanford.
The point of this post is not that we will win the SEC East, as we will likely not do so. The SEC East is a lot more difficult than the ACC Coastal, which does not have Florida St. or Clemson. But, I do not see any reason to believe that we will have a massive fall from where we were last year. New coaches can have success in the SEC. Just look at Gus Malzahn last year at Auburn. We won't be College Football Playoff contenders this year, but we could easily match last year's win total. While Tennessee and Kentucky are improved, we are still better football teams than they are. That gets us to six already. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are very winnable games, and Florida and Missouri will not be that formidable this year. If we win two of those four, we match last year's 8-4 heading into our bowl game. Win three of them, and we have a shot at that illusive 10-win season. When you factor in the potential for us to upset somebody, we are in great shape for the coming season. Merely getting to a fourth straight bowl game should not be the goal or a formidable challenge. Rather, we should focus on not losing any ground and once again finishing in the Top 25. We won't go 10-2 like Duke did last year, although, we would have a shot of going 12-0 if we played the schedule Duke will this year. When thinking about this team, the setup feels weirdly familiar to what happened to my old team last year.
I hope that, as I did last year, I underestimate this team's success and we go to heights that even I don't imagine!