Vanderbilt may have lucked out in 2012, as their schedule misses most of the beasts in the SEC West and brings soft opponents like UMass and Presbyterian to Nashville. Coach James Franklin will have the benefit of a moderate schedule in the country's toughest football conference as he looks to make history by bringing the Commodores to their second consecutive bowl game.
This week's USA Today preseason rankings make a strong case for Vanderbilt's opportunities this season. Five SEC schools are ranked in the Coaches' preseason top 10, and Vandy will only draw two of them in 2012. They'll kick off Franklin's second season at the helm with #9 South Carolina before traveling to #6 Georgia nearly a month later. In all, the Commodores will only face four ranked teams as it stands now. In 2011, the team had five ranked opponents on their opening slate.
Here's what the 2012 schedule looks like in terms of the USA Today poll:
Vanderbilt gets the benefit of missing the bulk of a fearsome SEC West, drawing Ole Miss (annual crossover) and Auburn in 2012. Every other team in the division - LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State - is either ranked or receiving votes from the coaches. While the East has some bulk at the top with South Carolina and Georgia, it's clear that the Commodores reside in the weaker half of the Southeastern Conference this season.
Vandy's "favorable" schedule still includes four ranked teams and two more that could easily join the rankings by the time they match up with the Commodores. That's a tough slate of opponents who won't be taking Franklin's team lightly after their surprising 6-7 season in 2011. Vanderbilt was gifted a soft - but legitimate - out-of-conference slate and the benefit of a down year in the SEC East, and they should be favored to improve on last season's turnaround.
My predictions? You can pencil in UMass and Presbyterian as wins. Ole Miss and Kentucky too. Wake Forest, Northwestern, and Tennessee are also games that look like a 55-45 advantage in a horse race for the Commodores; the team can win at least two out of those three. That leaves four ranked teams and a strong SEC newcomer on the schedule. Vandy won't be favored in any of those games, but after this team cut their teeth in close losses last year, they won't get shut out again. They can pull out at least one of those games; probably two.
So here's my slightly bombastic, possibly unrealistic baseline for Vandy's season (before a bowl game). Seven wins. Is eight possible? Sure. Nine? If things go right. Ten? Well, that'd be almost perfect from a team of haggard veterans and young recruits. Still, I wouldn't put it by James Franklin. He took a projected three-win team to a bowl game last year. Now we get to see what he can do with a projected bowl team.