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CFN Preview 2013 - Vanderbilt Commodores

And the funny part about it is that head coach James Franklin actually believes his team couldve done more.

This is Vanderbilt were talking about - everyones homecoming date and the perennial SEC lightweight/doormat - but last year the team not only hung around in several key games, it won a few of them. The 48-3 thumping from Georgia was the lone blip, but the Commodores pushed South Carolina hard, came up with a strange game in the loss to Northwestern and had Florida in trouble before a Jeff Driskel home run. If everything had gone 100percent the right way, yeah, the Commodores might have gone 11-1, and while close games are a way of life for SEC teams, at least Franklin now has everyone believing that more good things are possible.

Texas A&M and Ole Miss are the SECs hot programs, but Franklin has made Vanderbilt into a place for top recruits at least the smart ones to at least take a long look. The program will never compete with Alabama, Florida or LSU for five-star talents, but it came up with its share of wins on the recruiting trail this year because Franklin has done a fantastic job of selling the idea that players can win at a high level and get a phenomenal education. Sure, Stanford and Northwestern have also done a good job of recently pitching the same line, but they dont play in the SEC.

Once in a while the Commodore will get blasted merely because they wont have the NFL talent and depth, but almost everyone in the SEC catches a beating once in a while. The key is to not blow it against the average teams, keep the mistakes to a minimum, and yeah, play to the stereotype and take advantage of the opponents looking ahead to Alabama or Florida. But above all else for Vanderbilt its about believing that it belongs, and again, Franklin has been brilliant at that. From the start he preached the idea of no excuses, and with the pieces he has in place, hes actually right.

This year, the key will be the quarterback play and the need for consistent firepower on the days when the terrific-looking defense is off. Jordan Matthews and the receiving corps will be outstanding, and the O line should be even better with four starters returning.

If punter Colby Cooke has a good year, the special teams will be among the SECs best, and the defense should finish in the top 25 as long as the line turns promise into production right out of the gate.

No, Vanderbilt isnt going to win the SEC title, and yeah, things wont go as well over the second half of the season in 2013 like they did in 2012, but Franklin isnt going to bother with all the negatives against Vanderbilt football, and better yet, neither will his team.

This isnt your fathers Vanderbilt football program anymore.

What to watch for on offense: Can the backfield hold up its end of the bargain? The quarterback situation will be under the microscope, but the running backs also have to shine with Zac Stacy gone after rushing for 1,141 yards and ten scores. Its going to take a combination of decent backs ready to do more for the ground game with the power of Wesley Tate working with the speed of Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour. The rest of the team should be solid, so as long as the backfield is doing a decent job, everything should work out well.

What to watch for on defense: The emergence of the defensive front. You cant win in the SEC if you cant come up with a decent defensive line, but theres upside. The Commodore back seven should be rock solid with a terrific starting secondary and rising playmakers at linebacker around Chase Garnham in the middle. Walker May is a solid veteran at one defensive end, and theres talent at the other spots with Kyle Woestmann at one end and Stephen Weatherly at tackle, but its going to take some untested prospects to rise up and rock.

The team will be far better if the run defense holds up. The elite SEC teams are the elite teams in all of college football, and it showed in several key games last season. The Commodores allowed 17 rushing touchdowns all season long with 12 of them coming in the four losses to South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Northwestern. Those four games also happened to be the defenses four worst days all season against the run allowing over 190 yards in all four and under the mark in the nine wins.

The schedule: Its not bad overall, but the Commodores wont have much wiggle room for mistakes. With a few horrendous SEC road games to deal with, getting a win over Ole Miss to start out the season on August 31st is an absolute must. A victory will mean a 2-0 start Austin Peay is up next before going on the road to face South Carolina. Fortunately, a road trip to UMass and a home game against UAB follow, so 4-1 isnt out of the question before hosting Missouri and getting a week off. Theyll need it.

Georgia comes to Nashville, but three of the next four games are on the road including trips to Texas A&M and Florida before the relatively easy final stretch. The final week off comes before facing the Gators, and then the team doesnt leave Tennessee facing Kentucky and Wake Forest at home and going to Knoxville to play the Vols.

Best offensive player: Senior WR Jordan Matthews. It was a bit of a stunner when the 6-3, 205-pound deep threat chose to return for one more season. After blowing up at the end of 2011, he carried over his production into 2012 starting out with eight catches against South Carolina and not slowing down. Even when keyed on he still produced, and now hes going to be even more of a marked man he should be able to handle it.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Chase Garnham. A few defensive backs are going to be terrific corner Andre Hal is an all-star and the safety tandem of Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall is fantastic but its Garnham whos the tone-setting leader for the front seven. With good size, hes one of the teams biggest linebackers to go along with the speed and quickness to get into the backfield from time to time.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Austyn Carta-Samuels and/or redshirt freshman QB Patton Robinette. Its not like Jordan Rodgers was Aaron Rodgers, but he came up with an efficient and effective season showing a terrific rapport with Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Carta-Samuels was a promising playmaker for Wyoming before transferring, and Robinette leads a great group of untested prospects, but its not okay to just be decent in the SEC. No ones asking the Vandy quarterbacks to be special, but the starter cant make a slew of mistakes and he has to be steady.

The season will be a success if Vandy wins nine games again. Its going to take a huge effort and a few big upsets, but even if the Commodores lose at South Carolina, at Texas A&M and at Florida, going 8-4 before going off to a bowl game isnt crazy. Beating some of the better teams like Ole Miss, Georgia and Missouri at home is a must, but there cant be any big mistakes against Tennessee or Wake Forest to have any hope of a ten-win campaign.

Key game: Aug. 31 vs. Ole Miss. Call this the tone-setter. Despite getting bombed on, the Commodores got out of Oxford with a 27-26 victory last season to become bowl eligible, but things are different this season. Coming in on a seven-game winning streak and with a world of momentum, Vandy has to beat one of the SECs other high-risers or else deal with having to beat South Carolina in Columbia two weeks later to avoid a disastrous conference start.

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