Let's be honest here - I didn't picture even being able to write this article back in July.
Vanderbilt's turnaround on offense has been nothing short of remarkable. For the first five games of the season, the Commodores looked depressingly similar to their 2010 predecessors. That Robbie Caldwell team couldn't keep their own defense off the field for more than a few minutes at a time. When Vandy got skunked by South Carolina and Alabama back in September, it looked like fans were in for another season packed with three-and-outs.
Then, the wizardry of James Franklin, John Donovan, and Herb Hand kicked in. Gadget plays, which helped sustain the team in wins over Elon, Ole Miss, and Connecticut, took a backseat to a more traditional offense. Suddenly, the 'Dores found ways to get the ball downfield without relying on bubble screens and fake punts. The Vanderbilt offense was fun again.
But would it lead to league-wide recognition for Vandy's best players?
When Brandon Barden went down with a leg injury early in the season, it seemed unlikely that the Commodores would put any offensive players amongst the All-SEC ranks. A patchwork offensive line was still working to block effectively, sapping Larry Smith of his efficiency and turning the passing game into a quagmire. Zac Stacy and Jerron Seymour were useful at running back, but neither player looked poised to break out until Stacy's 169-yard game against Ole Miss. Even that was tempered by the team's next two games, where the junior gained just 22 total yards on the ground. In short, Vanderbilt looked very much like last season's offensively challenged team when they sat at 3-2 on the season.
However, things changed for the 'Dores. Jordan Rodgers's insertion at quarterback gave the offensive line a more traditional pocket presence to protect, and they responded with solid work in the trenches. Stacy developed into a workhorse back that sucked defensive secondaries towards the line and opened up passing lanes downfield. Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd showed that their potential at wideout could be translated onto the field.
Vanderbilt got to 6-6 behind some herculean efforts and playcalling that embraced this team's strengths. They're headed to their second bowl in 30 years thanks to great play on both sides of the ball. Today, we'll look at the probable candidates along the offense for All-SEC honors after the jump...
Zac Stacy - Stacy rumbled into the Vanderbilt record books as the school's all-time single-season rushing leader despite sharing the backfield with freshman Jerron Seymour for much of the season. His breakout gave the team an extra gear on offense and opened up the passing game for Jordan Rodgers's competent downfield attack. Stacy finished the regular season with 1,136 yards on the ground, 13 touchdowns, and a sick 6.2 yards-per-carry average.
With Marcus Lattimore hurt, only Trent Richardson has meant more to his from from the tailback position in the SEC. Stacy's ability to break big runs and drag defenders into the end zone with him has been the spark that Vanderbilt needed to trudge to bowl eligibility. He should be a lock for All-SEC, with a good chance at being the team's most recent First-Team representative at running back since Corey Harris in 1991.
Jordan Matthews - The sophomore wideout started the 2011 campaign slowly before breaking out over the team's final five games to rank in the top four in the SEC for receiving yards. Matthews had just eight catches for 117 yards in Vanderbilt's first seven games before exploding for 605 in the tail end of the season. With Rodgers behind center, the receiver blossomed into the team's biggest deep threat since Earl Bennett played at Dudley Field.
Matthews has the highest yards-per-catch average amongst SEC receivers with 20 catches or more and ranks seventh nationally in that category. His totals over the final five games of the season would be enough to make him the leading wideout at six different SEC schools, including Florida, Georgia, and Auburn. While Matthews's disappearance in the first half of the season will hurt him come awards season, his monster comeback should be enough to earn an All-SEC nod.
Jordan Rodgers - Rodgers is a long shot for an All-SEC slot for a few reasons. He only started half of this team's games and still struggled with accuracy throughout the season. He's also up against stout competition with guys like A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray, and Tyler Wilson in the league.
However, Rodgers's impact on this team has been undeniable. He developed from a skittish backup who was prone to mental mistakes to a game-changing general who can produce with both his arm and his legs. The redshirt junior accounted for 12 touchdowns in his six starts while averaging 210 yards passing and 49 on the ground. Plus, he led the SEC in ridiculous twitpics for the season.
Wesley Johnson or Ryan Seymour - Johnson and Seymour are the strongest members of Vanderbilt's offensive line, a unit that deserves accolades after pulling together despite injuries and a lack of depth. The team's line transformed from a porous sieve in the team's first five games to provide Rodgers with the protection he needed to let plays develop and give the team their best deep-play threat since the Jay Cutler era. The award could go to a few different guys along the line - Logan Stewart also stands out despite his injury - but these two gets the nod from AoG for their solid work and flexibility across the line at center, left tackle, and left guard for the season.
Johnson had just one penalty in the team's final six games of the season - a false start. Seymour had none. Johnson was a 2010 All-SEC Freshman team pick, while Seymour earned the same honor in 2009.