Two things about being at the bottom:
1) The view is great in that it’s easy to see places to climb in the right direction.
2) Taking the first step can be treacherous, particularly against an underdog that plays a style that is tough to slow down even with a good defense.
Vanderbilt took a free-fall to the SEC basement in 2014, finishing 0-8 on league games (3-9 overall), and did so in unsavory style, ranking last or near it in almost every offensive category with as dysfunctional a situation at quarterback as any program in the country.
Defensively, the Commodores did some decent things as the season wore on, but the final carnage was ugly: Five losses by at least 24 points, four of those in league play.
So in year two under Derek Mason, Vanderbilt has to find some continuity on offense and follow a blueprint similar to what Arkansas has done in Bret Bielema’s two seasons at Arkansas with personnel that doesn’t stack up vs. the rest of the league.
Run the ball well, be stingy on defense, keep games close and reach down for some late-game grittiness. That approach allowed the Razorbacks to climb up to respectable a year ago, which could be a realistic goal for Vandy in the less treacherous SEC East.
Now that Mason has had another year to get his footing and a second full recruiting class, he and his staff have to be creative with ways to keep the Commodores – who feature nine returning starters on both sides of the ball – in games and make this season a step forward at the very least.
VANDERBILT AT A GLANCE
2014 Record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS
QB Johnny McCrary: Once he took the wheel of the Commodores’ dysfunctional offense with five games to go last season, the big 6-foot-4, 224-pounds quarterback supplied some stability and that’s reason for optimism. He finished with 985 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns, but wasn’t as sharp in the spring game. McCrary has to improve his accuracy (51.3 percent last season) and limit turnovers to keep Vandy’s offense on on the field and moving the chains better after the ’Dores were last in the SEC in first downs (119 in eight games) and third-down conversions (27.5 percent).
RB Ralph Webb: After carving a role as the Commodores’ workhorse in his first season, Webb is back as one of the SEC’s top backs and certainly the one the farthest off the radar. His 212 carries a year ago were a VU freshman record and the second most among backs returning in the conference and the 912 yards he generated on the ground ranked eighth in the SEC. Now with new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig in charge, Webb could be even more of a focal point. His role is tied closely with McCrary’s development, because an ineffective QB could allow defenses to minimize Webb’s impact.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS
OLB Stephen Weatherly: With some freedom to roam in Mason’ 3-4 scheme, Weatherly found a comfort zone both as a pass rusher and defender against the run and finished with an eye-catching 12.5 tackles for loss among his 55 tackles. Formerly a defensive end, Weatherly is a tough matchup another step off the line of scrimmage and was emblematic of the Commodores’ late-season improvement when he logged 28 tackles in the last five games, culminating with a game when he recorded 5 tackles for loss against Tennessee.
ILB Nigel Bowden: Bowden broke through as a freshman in Mason’s scheme and paced a defense that evolved nicely down the stretch with 78 tackles in 11 games, which was the most by any freshman in the SEC. For the Commodores to stand up against the passing offenses they will see, Bowden has to add some wrinkles to his game and help improve VU’s pass rush and team with Weatherly to solidify the middle of the defense.
KOR Darrius Sims: Though the Memphis native was involved in all three phases as a sophomore, his major contribution came as a kickoff returner and he will be vital in that role again this season. He averaged 24.5 yards per return and torched South Carolina for touchdown returns of 91 and 100 yards to keep Vandy within striking range.
MOST IMPORTANT GAMES
Sept. 5 vs. Western Kentucky: Right off the bat, the Commodores will be tested by an opponent they should be able to beat, but could struggle with because of how the Hilltoppers click offensively. Vanderbilt has to take another step on defense for things to improve, and showing signs of that against WKU would be a huge step in that direction.
Oct. 24 vs. Missouri: A weird first half of the schedule has the Commodores opening with three home games and then hitting the road for three in a row, two against conference opponents. Should Vandy wade through that part of the slate at .500 or better, the game against Mizzou could be the crossroads to either a potential return to a bowl or a miserable rest of the way.
BEST/WORST-CASE SCENARIO: 6-6/3-9
The variance for a wide swing is there because the Commodores have so much room to grow, but so much potential for trouble if they don’t solve some of the issues that nagged them last season – especially on offense. The four non-conference games are all winnable and a stretch against South Carolina, Missouri, Florida and Kentucky doesn’t feature any games that loom as sure losses. Should Vanderbilt manage the season’s middle with some success, a lower-tier bowl game is possible and that would be a quantum leap. If not, 3-4 wins is about where the Commodores seem to be headed.