USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
James Franklin was never much of a quarterback, though it took until a one-year stint at Washington State in 1998 for Penn State's newest coach to come to grips with his athletic limitations – turns out he couldn't have played on college football's highest level, Franklin decided, though maybe the Football Championship Subdivision …
But it's a funny thing: Franklin didn't complete a pass for Vanderbilt in 2014, nor scamper for a five-yard score to lift the Commodores past Tennessee – two wins in a row and counting, by the way – nor make 112 receptions for 1,477 yards, singlehandedly willing Vanderbilt to another nine-win season despite the constant and undivided attention of the nation's elite defensive backs.
Franklin just corralled the talent, identified the contributors and solidified the mentality – an absurdly impressive set of achievements that will linger in Southeastern Conference history, to be sure, but assets immediately transferrable to former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason and Vanderbilt's new staff.
The only thing Franklin didn't leave behind is experience. Vanderbilt returns only 10 starters, the second-fewest in the SEC, ahead of only Missouri. No team will have fewer senior contributors. No program in the SEC returns a smaller percentage of last season's total offense; no SEC team returns a smaller slice of last year's tackles.
This is a short-term issue, not a long-term concern. Vanderbilt's 2012 recruiting class ranked 29th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, per Rivals.com. The 2013 group came in ninth – yeah, ninth, in case that missed your attention.
View these classes as Franklin's parting gift, a ribbon-tied present left on Mason's desk as the David Shaw clone aims to replicate his predecessor's success. Today, these former recruits are redshirt freshmen and sophomores, redshirt sophomores and juniors. Tomorrow they'll be seasoned veterans, primed to continue the program's torrid run as an SEC contender.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
So can Vanderbilt beat Tennessee – again? Top Mississippi in the opener? Again, it's only with a degree of trepidation that I pick Vanderbilt to do anything but continue its skyrocketing trajectory. However, I do think the Commodores top out at seven or eight wins during the regular season. If I had to guess, I'd say it's a 7-5 mark heading into the postseason.
In a nutshell: Vanderbilt ended the year ranked 23rd in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll, ahead of Notre Dame, Nebraska, Texas, Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech, Michigan, Georgia and Florida – oh, and Tennessee, before I forget. The best part: No one was surprised. The Commodores simply matched the team's preseason expectations, taking yet another step forward in and out of the SEC and burnishing Franklin's reputation as one of the up-and-coming coaches in college football. Vanderbilt beat Florida in Gainesville for the first time since 1945 and just the second time in the rivalry's history. In a program first, the Commodores beat the Gators, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season. Vanderbilt reached and won another bowl game, securing back-to-back nine-win finishes for the first time in about 90 years. No one was surprised.
High point: Beating Tennessee for the second year in a row. Keep in mind this fact: Vanderbilt topped the Volunteers only twice between 1976 and 2010.
Low point: Two bad losses. The defense disappeared in setbacks to Missouri (51-28) and Texas A&M (56-24).
Tidbit: One of the defining characteristics of Franklin's tenure was the Commodores' ability to close with a flourish. Vanderbilt went 12-3 after October during his three-year run, including a 10-0 mark during the last two seasons. In comparison, Vanderbilt went 11-53 in November from 1993-2010. The Commodores have won nine in a row in November alone, the program's longest such winning streak since 1903-5.
Tidbit (SEC edition): Vanderbilt enters 2014 having won 15 of its last 20 games. This is the second-best mark in the SEC during this span, trailing only 18-2 Alabama.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Mason's staff includes just one carryover from Stanford, but it's a big one: David Kotulski, formerly the Cardinal's inside linebackers coach, will work hand-in-hand with Mason in transitioning the Commodores to a 3-4 base defensive set. Mason also retained running backs coach Charles Bankins, a solid decision; hired linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson away from San Jose State; uncovered a very promising young defensive line coach in ex-Utah State assistant Frank Maile; and hired two assistants away from Ohio in tight ends coach Gerry Gdowski and offensive line coach Keven Lightner. Former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell will serve as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after spending the past six seasons in the NFL.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Franklin's best wins at Vanderbilt
1. Vanderbilt 41, Tennessee 18 (2012)
2. Vanderbilt 14, Tennessee 10 (2013)
3. Vanderbilt 34, Florida 17 (2013)
4. Vanderbilt 30, Mississippi 7 (2011)
5. Vanderbilt 17, Auburn 13 (2012)
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Like Franklin, all-league wide receiver Jordan Matthews leaves Vanderbilt with a parting gift: Matthews showed the Commodores how to work. As the offense moves forward, Mason and his staff hope Matthews' legacy of effort and unmatched work ethic trickle down through a largely untested and unproven cast of wide receivers, a group that must band together – a true by-committee approach – to replicate at least a portion of Matthews' lost production. It's going to be an extremely young group, true, but let's not sleep on the talent level. Take sophomore Jordan Cunningham (15 receptions for 123 yards), a sublimely gifted second-year contributor with the frame and athleticism to develop nicely as the Commodores' go-to target. While Vanderbilt isn't expecting a major breakthrough – improvement, but not all-league honors – Cunningham's production may determine the health of the receiver corps as a whole.
But he's not the only key. A second true sophomore, Latevius Rayford, carved out a slight role in the offense before missing the season's final seven games with an injury. Kris Kentera, a 220-pound junior, could contribute nicely as a possession receiver, joining junior tight end Steven Scheu over the intermediate middle of the field. But Kentera will be the lone junior in the rotation: Cunningham and Rayford are joined by a number of true and redshirt freshmen, a group paced by second-year freshmen Gerald Perry, C.J. Duncan – keep an eye on him – and DeAndre Woods. As we'll see in the secondary, this is a young group that needs time to develop; it's also a group with immense potential.
Let's not worry about one thing: Vanderbilt will run the football with intimidating efficiency. One reason for ground-game optimism stems from the returning talent along the offensive line, a unit that merely – merely, as if this isn't a tall order – needs to replace all-conference left tackle Wes Johnson. Vanderbilt will fill Johnson's shoes with sophomore Andrew Jelks, who makes the move from the strong side after making nine starts as a rookie. In turn, the Commodores can replace Jelks with senior Andrew Bridges, a capable starter who excels more in protection than in moving defenders. There's no doubt along the interior: Jake Bernstein at left guard, Joe Townsend at center and Spencer Pulley at right guard. When accounting for starting talent, returning experience and overall depth, I'd rank this line in the top half of the SEC.
The backfield is also a strength. While Wesley Tate departs, Vanderbilt returns experienced juniors Jerron Seymour (716 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Brian Kimbrow (341 yards), a sturdy and effective running-game duo. My lone concern: Seymour is devastatingly effective in the red zone, but can the Commodores squeeze out successful turns in short-yardage situations – a bit of an issue a season ago? That might lead to an increased role for little-used Derek King, a 210-pound junior; it could also mean situational touches for senior fullback Kellen Williams, a converted linebacker tasked with replacing Fritz Lassing.
Defense: Only three returning starters: bad. That all three returning starters will line up at the same position: good. That all three returning starters play linebacker in Mason's new 3-4 base scheme: even better. The Commodores must feel secure in the potential of the second level, where converted ends Kyle Woestmann (40 tackles, 6.0 sacks) and Caleb Azubike (31 tackles, 9.5 for loss) will stand up and occupy the Commodores' gaps at outside linebacker. Both seem more than equipped for the task: Woestmann and Azubike may very well flourish off the ground, using the pass-rush techniques and stop-the-run strength needed to excel at the new position. Both are going to be fantastic.
This pair will flank junior Darreon Herring (84 tackles), an obscenely underrated second-year starter, and fellow junior Jake Sealand (45 tackles); inside, the Commodores can also call on sophomore Ja'karri Thomas – like Herring, he moves to the interior from outside linebacker – and redshirt freshmen Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham. Let's remember: Mason's defense is defined by linebacker play. It's a good thing, therefore, that Vanderbilt is in very good shape on the second level.
Vanderbilt has the bodies needed to control the nose but lacks proven talent at end, which is a significant concern – for now, at least. Come the end of August, four-star recruit Nifae Lealao may have solidified one of the two open spots on the outside; Lealao is a prototypically sized 3-4 end who chose Vanderbilt over offers from Oregon, USC, UCLA and Wisconsin, among others. In addition, Mason can scheme around a lack of viable options at end by shifting those newly minted outside linebackers down a level – essentially blending a degree of flexibility and multiplicity into this 3-4 set. It's a better situation inside: I love sophomore Adam Butler (25 tackles, 6.0 for loss), who looks like a monster, and the combination of Butler and seniors Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon should hold down the fort in the middle.
The good news stops there. Vanderbilt is starting from scratch in the secondary, where four senior starters must be replaced, and will need a stout and productive front seven to limit the damage along the back end. Now, one slice of good vibes: Vanderbilt may scuffle at times today, but this young core – the sophomore and redshirt freshmen cornerbacks, the many four-star recruits from February – paints a bright picture for the future. Mason's first signing class included at least seven prospects set for the defensive backfield; two, Trent Sherfield and Emmanuel Smith, come with four-star billing.
So they'll get a crack at things come August, though Vanderbilt seems to have identified a top group at cornerback: Paris Head (22 tackles, 3 interceptions), Torren McGaster and Darius Sims, all sophomores – Head and McGaster third-year sophomores – and impressive redshirt freshman Tre Bell. A second redshirt freshman, Oren Burks, has the size to fit into a hybrid role as the Commodores' fifth defensive back. The potential among this group is as high as you'll find in any SEC secondary – taken as an entire group, that is. Let's give them time to develop in these increased roles. It's a touch more seasoned at safety, where Vanderbilt should feel secure in how ably juniors Andrew Williamson (20 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Jahmel McIntosh can fill the spots left vacant by Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall, respectively.
Special teams: The Commodores' special teams will struggle a touch without kickoff specialist Carey Spear, who effectively negated the potential for lapses in coverage – and gave the defense room to breathe – by putting nearly two of three kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. That could be an issue. Of equal concern are these subpar return teams: Vanderbilt needs to get more from Kimbrow, Sims, Cunningham and others on kickoffs and punts.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: A two-man quarterback competition will add another four contenders for the starting job come fall camp, though it's my impression we can limit the discussion to three contenders in particular: Patton Robinette, a sophomore who led the Commodores to wins against Georgia and Florida last fall; Johnny McCrary, a high-profile redshirt freshman often praised by Mason for his performance during the spring; and junior Stephen Rivers, an LSU transfer set to arrive in August with immediate eligibility.
It's anyone's game. Robinette is a gamer – not a game-manager, mind you, but a gamer – with the legs to add another dimension to this offense. He also adds a level of game-day experience unmatched by his two primary challengers; he lacks touch as a thrower, however, and that's a major issue. McCrary might be the program's most ballyhooed quarterback recruit in years: Mason had largely positive comments on his showing during drills, perhaps giving the freshman a slight advantage heading into summer conditioning. Then there's Rivers, another top-tier recruit bumped out of a starting job with the Tigers. If he can learn the system – and that's a tall order in such a short period – Rivers could move ahead of both incumbent options and grab the starting job. It'll be an interesting competition in August. One more thing: Robinette's athleticism should give him some sort of role in the offense regardless of whether or not he earns the top spot.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Kentucky: Say one thing about the previous regime: Franklin and the Commodores didn't lose against inferior competition. Kentucky would still qualify in this regard, though I wonder if a Vanderbilt team coming off two SEC dates in three weeks – Mississippi and South Carolina, the latter the week prior – will have enough in the tank to avoid a painful, season-changing upset. But isn't this schedule a peach? Vanderbilt draws the Rebels and Mississippi State from the West Division; pull Temple, Massachusetts, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion in non-conference play; and get the Rebels, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee at home.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: This is a young team undergoing the transition to a new coaching staff, which in turn will implement new schemes within a roster and returning personnel indoctrinated in Franklin's offense and defensive approach. The biggest transition comes on defense: Mason's 3-4 set is going to work wonderfully in the long term, I believe, and will soon come to define the football program as a whole – as we saw at Stanford, where multiple runs to the Rose Bowl have been built on the foundational strength of a rock-solid offensive front and a plan-changing defensive front seven. Yet there will be growing pains in the interim, as the returning personnel adapts to a shifting approach in style, scheme, mentality and aggressiveness. For now, the defense may hit a few hiccups against high-quality competition.
This is a roundabout way of saying the following: Vanderbilt's still squeezing out six wins in 2014 – and I feel very strongly about this. Another nine wins? Not with this amount of changeover, both on the field and along the sidelines: Vanderbilt is still frighteningly young and inexperienced, so expecting a continuation of recent results is too tall order for the Commodores to handle. But netting six wins behind a strong younger core, a terrific new staff and an easy-as-pie schedule … I can't imagine a scenario where Vanderbilt doesn't notch at least two SEC wins to vault back into the postseason.
And I'm surprised that this isn't the consensus. The Commodores will go 4-0 in non-league play – this is for sure. So this talented-but-raw team can't pull out an additional two wins during SEC action? I would be shocked if this team sticks at five wins. Now, let's talk about the issues: Vanderbilt is young, as noted; needs to completely overhaul its receiver corps; is uncertain at quarterback, to put it lightly; will be moving to a new scheme on defense; must find two steady ends; is currently questionable in the secondary, though very promising; and lags behind the SEC's curve on special teams. It's not a great team – not a nine-win team, in my opinion. But this is a bowl team with the potential for noticeable growth during the second half of the season. Six wins is in the cards, though I do worry about the quality of the Commodores' victories.
Dream season: Vanderbilt does it again, winning nine games during the regular season despite the young and inexperienced starting cast.
Nightmare season: The Commodores slide back to 3-9, dropping all eight games against SEC competition – yes, even Kentucky.
Who's No. 73? This program's first opponent in 2014 was its second opponent during its inaugural season.