It's barely summer, but ESPN made sure to give Derek Mason and the Vanderbilt Commodores some bulletin board material for 2014.
Analysts Brett McMurphy and Brett Schlabach picked 11 SEC teams to make it to a bowl game this winter - and Vanderbilt wasn't one of them. If accurate, their predictions would snap a three-year streak of postseason play for the newly-legit 'Dores. It's a big departure for a team that has scrapped from the bottom of the SEC to become a consistent presence in the mid-tier of college football's toughest conference.
Which SEC teams do they have bowling in Vandy's place? Tennessee (5-7 in 2013), Mississippi State (7-6), and Florida (4-8). With 10 spots for eligible teams, ESPN's analysts are betting that Vanderbilt's small-school regression will fall victim to the rise of the conference's traditional powerhouses (or, in MSU's case, a more recognizable program and a better-known fanbase).
Their trepidation is understandable. Vanderbilt is missing several key pieces from the teams that went to three straight bowl games from 2011-2013. They won't have All-American Jordan Matthews to lead the offense at wideout. They'll also be missing All-SEC lineman Wesley Johnson and their entire starting defensive secondary - half of which earned all-conference honors as well. Most notably, they'll be without the only Commodore coach to never miss a bowl game - James Franklin.
That's a lot of negatives, certainly - but is it enough to discount a six-win season and a spot in one of the SEC's 10 bowl tie-ins? Absolutely not. Let's take a quick look at the reasons why this team should have made ESPN's list - and why a fourth-straight bowl bid isn't as unlikely as some experts would have you believe.
- The returning starters on offense. Vandy lost one of the best linemen in school history when Johnson graduated, but they'll bring back his other four trench-mates who started the BBVA Compass Bowl last winter. That includes potential NFL Draft pick Joe Townsend and rising standout Andrew Jelks. They'll have the majority of their three-headed tailback rotation back as well, as Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow have the talent and experience to take on a major role in this team's offense for 2014. While losing Matthews hurts - a lot - the guy who will be replacing him at WR was the highest-rated recruit to ever choose Vanderbilt, according to ESPN. Things on offense won't be as bad as you think, even though...
Yes, Vanderbilt is breaking in a new quarterback - but Jordan Rodgers and Austyn Carta-Samuels were each able to win in their first seasons as full-time starters in Nashville. The situation is a bit different - Rodgers and ACS were both veterans who transferred to Vandy later in their careers - but Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary are big-time athletes who will sharpen each other in practice this summer. McCrary, a four-star recruit, will bring excitement to the position in his first active year, while Robinette can rely on his 2013 experience to guide this team.Of course, that says nothing about rumored LSU transfer Stephen Rivers. He would be eligible to play this fall once/if he officially enrolls at Vandy.
- That defensive front, though. Vanderbilt has a stable of thoroughbreds waiting to slide into the 3-4 scheme of a coach known for developing high-octane defenses. Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike will torture opposing quarterbacks from the outside linebacker position. Adam Butler, who was absolutely destructive as a freshman, will light people up on the D-Line along with monsters like Vince Taylor, Barron Dixon, and Jay Woods. Darreon Herring held this team together at linebacker last season, and he was only a sophomore. Vandy may have lost a ton of talent from the defensive backfield, but they'll return a stable of hard-hitting athletes in front of them.
- Derek Mason put together one hell of a coaching staff. Mason may not have head coaching experience, but he's been successful at every stop on his voyage to a top spot. His defensive acumen helped turn Stanford from the Pac-12's nerd school to one of their most consistent title threats. He's got former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell to run the offense and a staff filled with NFL and BCS experience. James Franklin did things no other coach has ever done in Nashville - but he also set Mason and his crew up to surpass him when he left.
- Finally, have you SEEN the Commodores' out-of-conference schedule? It's Old Dominion, UMass, Temple, and Charleston Southern. That's a lineup that looks more at home for Villanova than Vanderbilt. That should be four relatively easy wins for this team, and while eight SEC matchups are never pleasant, they have their toughest conference showdowns at home this year. A 2-6 league record - that's all it takes - is a very achievable baseline for 2014.
Six wins is not out of the picture. Getting one of the top 10 spots in the SEC and convincing a selection committee to roll with the Commodores will be tougher, but absolutely reasonable. In fact, another nine-win season is only a few slight upsets away. Until then, Derek Mason needs to print out Schlabach and McMurphy's predictions, hang it up all over Natchez Trace, and rile up a team that won't have a lack of doubters in 2014.