College football’s a weird sport. The entire regular season consists of 12 games, which is an incredibly small sample size compared to... well, pretty much any other sport. The short schedule means that who you played, and when you played them, makes an outsized difference. A baseball team can have a couple of bad outings and it probably won’t make a huge difference, but in a sport where two games account for 17 percent of your entire season, a couple of bad games in a college football season can mean the difference between a successful season (however you define it) and an unsuccessful one.
I say all of this to get to the obvious point: Vanderbilt could be a better team in 2017 than it was in 2016, and it might not make that much difference if the team’s record is the metric.
The reason is simple. While the Commodores rank 10th nationally in returning production per S&P+, three of the nine teams ahead of the Commodores are in the SEC East. Vanderbilt ranks 63rd in projected S&P+ for 2017, but ten of the 12 teams on the schedule are ranked higher (S&P+ still projects Vanderbilt to be the worst team in the conference.)
|9/2||at Middle Tennessee||89|
|10/14||at Ole Miss||26|
|10/28||at South Carolina||36|
The good news? Vanderbilt has seven home games, and aside from South Carolina and Middle Tennessee, most of the winnable games are at home. Of course, one of the seven home games is against Alabama, and the Georgia game will be an uphill fight as well. Those two games, plus road trips to Florida, Ole Miss, and Tennessee, mean that there’s probably a hard cap of about seven wins (unless Ole Miss or Tennessee collapse, something I won’t rule out.)
That’s the bad news. The worse news is that after opening at MTSU and then getting what basically amounts to a free win (Alabama A&M went 4-7 in FCS and lost to both MTSU and Auburn by scores of 55-0 last year), Vanderbilt has a brutal six-game stretch awaiting. Kansas State is a decent team, and that home game might be the easiest game in the latter half of September and all of October. Then there’s Alabama, followed by trips to Florida and Ole Miss sandwiched around a home game against Georgia.
With that, it doesn’t take too much imagination to think Vanderbilt could be 2-6 at the end of October heading into a stretch of three winnable home games in a row against Western Kentucky, Kentucky, and Missouri. I’m not saying that Vanderbilt will be 2-6, but it’s entirely possible. And you just never know how a team will react to that situation.
There is, frankly, a ton to dislike about the way the 2017 schedule sets up. Of course these things are always tricky to figure out. Last year, it just didn’t seem plausible that Vanderbilt could make a bowl game while losing to all four of South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, and Missouri, and yet that’s exactly what happened. So take this with the appropriate grain of salt.