The case for
Since finishing last in the SEC in total defense in 2010, the year before James Franklin's arrival, the fiery coach has elevated the unit to sixth in '11 and fifth last year, when the Commodores held SEC opponents to 250.0 yards—and 10.9 points—per game. They're likely to be as stingy this year. Six starters return, including key contributors such as senior defensive end Walker May, senior linebacker Chase Grnham and senior corner Andre Hal.
Jordan Matthews led the SEC in 2012 with 94 catches, and Vandy is at its deepest along the offensive line, with senior left tackle Wesley Johnson (a three-year starter who has never been flagged for holding), junior center Joe Townsend and junior right tackle Andrew Bridges. Depth, an issue in Franklin's first two seasons, has improved at every position, and the coach has all but erased Vanderbilt's image as a conference doormat, exemplified by the program's nine-win season—its first in nearly a century—in 2012.
The case against
Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels—a former starter at Wyoming—has played sparingly since 2010 (14--24, 220 yards). Also, the program's career rushing leader, Zac Stacy, is gone, and there is no apparent successor.
This is your deepest team since arriving at Vanderbilt. Did you notice a difference in the spring?
You're starting to see recruiting affect our team. We had seven scholarship offensive linemen last year; now we have 14. It makes a difference, and you're seeing bigger guys across the roster. We feel good about the direction we're going.
You wore T-shirts during spring practice with CHIP printed on the shoulder. What were you saying?
That's just who we are. We're a blue-collar program. We have a chip on our shoulder and an underdog mentality in this league.
You lost Jordan Rodgers at quarterback, a two-year starter. Is Austyn Carta-Samuels ready?
I've been pleased with his leadership and work ethic. He has a strong arm and a natural feel for the game. He has a chance to have a really good year.
Can this roster make noise in the SEC East?
In our first year we thought we could win. Last year we believed we could win. Now there's an expectation, not only externally but internally.
Player to Watch
As a sophomore defensive end,Kyle Woestmannrecorded six sacks in the final seven games, all Commodores victories, two of them (and a forced fumble) coming in a 38--24 Music City Bowl win over N.C. State. He may be even better this year.
FREDERICK BREEDON/GETTY IMAGES
FREDERICK BREEDON/GETTY IMAGES
Projected 2013 Stats
QB Austyn Carta-Samuels
Pass: 2,340 yards, 17 TDs
Run: 270 yards, 3 TDs
RB Wesley Tate
Run: 810 yards, 12 TDs
Rec.: 165 yards, 0 TDs
WR Jordan Matthews
Rec.: 1,100 yards, 8 TDs
Run: 45 yards, 1 TD
The Commodores will know a lot by Week 3: They face Ole Miss in a Thursday-night home opener, then travel to Columbia two weeks later to meet the sixth-ranked Gamecocks. Vandy will need to steal at least one SEC victory on the road to match last season's total of five conference wins.
SI Power Ratings
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