When: Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. Time TBA.
Where: Nashville, Tenn.
Vanderbilt at a glance:
Head coach: James Franklin (2nd season at Vanderbilt; 6-7 record)
All-time record: 564-574-50
Record vs. UT: 27-73-5 (Vanderbilt has lost 6 straight)
Returning starters: 9 (offense), 7 (defense)
2011 overview: Year one went much better than many could imagine for coach James Franklin. The Commodores jumped out of the gates with a 3-0 start and held on for a 6-6 regular season that led to a matchup against Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. Their 31-24 loss to the Bearcats put only a slight damper on an otherwise overachieving year. Their wins — Elon, Connecticut, Ole Miss, Army, Kentucky and Wake Forest — weren’t incredibly impressive, but real progress could be seen in some of their heart-wrenching losses. The ‘Dores lost to Tennessee, Florida and Arkansas, teams that normally make easy work of Vanderbilt, by an average of just 4.7 points. Vanderbilt was within at least one score in every loss, with the exception of the Alabama and South Carolina games. That may sound like just a moral victory, but considering the Commodores lost seven SEC games in 2010 by an average of 27 points, 2011 showed real progress.
Three questions for the 2012 matchup:
1. Who will be Vanderbilt’s quarterback?
Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers seemed to have a chokehold on the starting job in the middle of 2011. His grip began to slip away down the stretch. His performance against UT didn’t help his cause. Rodgers threw three interceptions, including the game-clenching one in overtime, in the Commodores’ overtime loss to the Vols. He went on to complete only 15 of his next 34 throws in Vanderbilt’s last two games. He was eventually benched in the Liberty Bowl favor of former starter Larry Smith.
Smith is out of the picture and Rodgers enters fall camp as the starter, but he will be pushed by redshirt junior Austin Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming. Carta-Samuels was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2009 and led the Cowboys to a bowl win. Whoever wins the battle will need to have a better performance against the Vols in 2012. The Vols’ three picks against Vanderbilt in 2011 marked a season high and helped Tennessee escape with the overtime victory.
2. Can Vanderbilt run the ball better?
Vanderbilt running back Zach Stacy had a breakout year in 2011. After starting the season behind Warren Norman, Stacy took the lead role when Norman, the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2009, went down for the year with a knee injury. He responded with a Vanderbilt record of 1,193 yards along with 14 touchdowns and a 5.9 yards-per-carry average. Tennessee was one of the few teams that held him in check. Stacy finished the 2011 game with just 61 yards on 17 carries and the Commodores as a team averaged only 2.5 yards per carry in the 27-21 overtime loss.
The Commodores’ rushing attack should be better in 2012. Stacy and Norman both return behind an offensive line that will be more experienced. Sophomore Jerron Seymour, redshirt freshman Lafonte Thourogood and true freshman Brian Kimbrow also provide depth in the backfield.
3. How will the Commodores’ new-look secondary handle UT’s receivers?
Vanderbilt’s secondary was impressive in 2011. It was so productive that two of its starters — cornerback Casey Heyward and safety Sean Richardson — are now on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. Replacing those two will be tough, but having senior cornerback Trey Wilson back is a good start. He will pair junior Andre Hal as the new cornerback duo. Javon Marshall, Kenny Ladler and Eric Samuels will all battle for time at safety.
Containing Tennessee receiver Da’Rick Rogers has been a problem the last two years for the Commodores. He has totaled 13 catches for 175 yards and two touchdowns in his two games against Vanderbilt. Throw in a healthy Justin Hunter, who caught a 15-yard touchdown as a true freshman against the Commodores in 2010, and the Commodores’ re-built secondary should have quite a challenge.
How will it play out?
Tennessee has won six straight and 33 out of the last 35 in this series. That doesn’t mean the Vols can go ahead and put their 2012 trip to Nashville in the win column.
They may still be on the lower end of the SEC in talent, but Franklin is working on changing the mindset and has done a commendable job of recruiting some impressive young players to Vanderbilt.
The Vandy offense has some potential in 2012 if one of the quarterbacks can stabilize a spot. Stacy has a chance to be one of the best backs in the SEC, the receivers are experienced and the offensive line is getting better. The defense has significant holes to fill with the loss of players such as linebacker Chris Marve, Heyward, Richardson and defensive end Tim Fugger.
Vanderbilt clearly has some momentum as a program and has closed the gap some on Tennessee in the last year. In the end, the best guess is that Tennessee will still figure out a way to leave Nashville with its seventh straight win over the Commodores.