In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
I was aboard the Vandy train after the Kansas State win but I've since jumped off and will walk to the next station. And it's unlikely I'll buy another ticket anytime soon.
I was not expecting Vanderbilt to fall outside the top 60 or 70, let alone No. 83, but after digging further into last season, watching more film and breaking down the two-deep, there are major concerns entering year five of the Derek Mason era.
Vanderbilt surrendered 13 total points during a 3-0 start that included smothering Brent Stockstill, Richie James and Middle Tennessee and a win over then-ranked Kansas State.
Nick Saban and Alabama rolled into town in Week 4 and beat the ever-loving piss out of the Commodores, outscoring them 59-0 and outgaining them 677-78. The Tide had nearly 500 rushing yards and rested many of their starters for most of the second half. While Vandy wasn't that bad after that game and won just one fewer game than a year earlier, it felt like a big step back — or at least a dose of reality in the SEC.
Head Coach: Derek Mason (5th Year, 18-31)
Derek Mason was the toast of Nashville after leading Vandy to six wins in 2016 — their fourth-highest win total in the last 34 years — and a 3-0 start in 2017. Then came the Alabama game.
He's done a good job stabilizing the ship after the departure of James Franklin and now enters a critical season. He gave up his defensive coordinator duties and added three other new coaches, including new receivers coach Aaron Moorhead.
QB Jacob Free, RB Ralph Webb, WR C.J. Duncan, WR Trent Sherfield, DT Nifae Lealao, LB Oren Burks, S Ryan White
Jacob Free didn't take a snap in his lone season at Vandy but their top-rated recruit in the 2017 class could've been in line to replace Kyle Shurmur in 2019. He announced his transfer four days after the season ended and will play at Northwest Mississippi Community College this year.
Their leading rusher — Ralph Webb — and leading receivers — C.J. Duncan and Trent Sherfield — are both gone, as is big defensive tackle Nifae Lealao and linebacker Oren Burks, a third-round pick of the Packers.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Kyle Shurmur, RB Khari Blasingame, RB Jamauri Wakefield, WR Kalija Lipscomb, WR Donaven Tennyson, TE Jared Pinkney, OT Justin Skule, OT Devin Cochran
Largely lost in the post-Kansas State struggles was a Kyle Shurmur-led passing offense that often lacked efficiency (57.9 completion percentage) and big plays (12.6 yards per completion) but was much improved from 2016.
Shurmur enters the season with 28 consecutive starts and the single-season program record for touchdown passes (amazingly only 26). Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said 6-foot-4, 227 pounder has the keys to an offense that lost a ton of skill players.
"He has a chance to really make an impression on the younger receivers with his leadership, with his scheme knowledge," Ludwig said in March. "But he's got plenty of his own things that he's continuing to work on. You're looking for the guy to play his best ball his senior year."
Shurmur's senior season won't include some of favorite targets and security blankets over the last couple years. Replacing 4,000-yard rusher are a pair of upperclassmen in Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield (and transfer Ke'Shawn Vaughn). At 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Blasingame is a big back had a couple nice games as a sophomore two years ago (132 yards and two touchdowns vs. South Carolina and Missouri) but struggled to find room last year, though that was more a result of their run-challenged offensive line than anything else.
"You can’t really describe the way they run," linebacker Josh Smith said of a crowded running back room. "They all have different running styles and the way they tote the ball, it’s going to be hard and difficult for people to game plan this year.”
From all accounts, receiver Kalija Lipscomb has been a beast this offseason and had four receptions for 133 yards in the spring game. Jared Pinkney is back at tight end and Donaven Tennyson is a breakout candidate as the No. 3 receiver.
“We've got a bunch of guys that can play,” Lipscomb said. “If I’m the only one that’s going, then we’re not going to get very far because I’m going to get doubled. It won't just be me out there.”
Tackles Justin Skule and Devin Cochran anchor a starting line that returns five starters and a couple intriguing underclassmen.
Returning Defensive Players
DT Cameron Tidd, DT Dayo Odeyingbo, DE Dare Odeyingbo, LB Charles Wright, LB Josh Smith, LB Jordan Griffin, CB Joejuan Williams, CB Tae Daley, S LaDarius Wiley
After serving as his own defensive coordinator for the last three years, Derek Mason handed the duties to Jason Tarver, a former colleague at Stanford who was most recently an assistant for the San Francisco 49ers.
“I missed my dude. He makes football very simple for me, and I make it simple for him,” Mason said of Tarver, who will call plays. “Now he’s here, and I am having the time of my life.”
Hopefully that simplicity leads to improvements for a unit that held only one SEC opponent under 34 points last year (Tennessee, 24), ranked fourth-worst nationally in turnover forced.
“He came in there with a football,” senior linebacker Jordan Griffin said of Tarver. “He threw it to everybody and said, ‘This is the most important thing on defense.’ From then on, I knew we would be attacking the ball this year. It’s all about getting turnovers.”
Their top pressure guys, defensive end Dare Odeyingbo and linebacker Charles Wright are back. They both had breakout junior season, bumping their combined totals of 7.5 tackles for loss and one sack to 22.5 and 14, respectively.
The secondary is in decent shape and has a new cornerbacks coach in Terrence Brown. Vandy intercepted only seven passes last year and are looking for players like junior Joejuan Williams (below) and sophomore Tae Daley to make more field-flipping plays.
“(Daley) doesn’t care who’s watching," Mason said of the sophomore. "He just tries to play ball. He’s got the makings of a leader.”
Elsewhere, keep an eye on two sophomore linemen: Tackle Cameron Tidd and end Dayo Odeyingbo (brother of Dare). Both showed legit potential last year but needed a full offseason.
RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn, WR Alex Stump, WR James Bostic Jr., WR C.J. Bolar, TE Ben Bresnahan, DT Rutger Reitmaier
Reinforcements arrived, especially at the skill positions.
Illinois transfer Ke'Shawn Vaughn is fighting to replace Webb as their No. 1 back while Ohio State transfer Alex Stump was one of Shumur's top targets in spring ball. Rutger Reitmaier is a former local prep standout who was the 23rd-ranked defensive tackle in the 2017 class. He left Oregon last summer and is eligible this season.
Redshirt freshman receiver James Bostic has been lauded by coaches this offseason, as have true freshman and early enrollees Ben Breshahan and C.J. Bolar.
“They both have the athleticism to get on the field in the fall, but they’ve got to figure things out,” offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said of Bolar and Bresnahan. “The game is moving pretty quick for them. But I like them both athletically and their attitude and approach.”
You don't see this often: Vanderbilt has a three-game SEC road trip. And their two road games outside of that stretch are against Notre Dame and Georgia. It's their third-ever meeting with the Irish and first since 1996.
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