Head coach: James Franklin (15-11 in 2 years at Vanderbilt)
All-time record: 573-578-50
2012 record:9-4 (5-3 SEC)
Returning starters:7 (offense) 6 (defense)
2012 overview: With several SEC teams having breakout years in 2012, perhaps the job that Vanderbilt – and coach James Franklin – did last season was a little bit overlooked.
All the Commodores did was record their most wins since 1915, earn a rare national top-25 ranking and win just their third bowl in program history – a 38-24 triumph over North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl.
They also beat Tennessee for just the second time since 1982. The ‘Dores did it in convincing fashion as well. With Derek Dooley’s job status hanging on by the smallest of threads, Vanderbilt used a 28-8 second-half advantage to put the Vols away by a final of 41-18 in Nashville. Dooley was fired just hours later.
UT vs. Vandy 2012 highlights (via SECDigitalNetwork)
Short of an embarrassing 48-3 loss at Georgia, Vanderbilt proved to be competitive against every team it faced. Close losses to South Carolina and Florida prevented the Commodores from contending in the SEC East, but they gladly settled for nine wins in what was a huge step forward for the program.
Three questions for the 2013 matchup:
1. Can Vanderbilt replace its backfield?
Vanderbilt had a balanced attack in 2012, averaging 213 yards passing and 166 yards rushing per game. That stability was in large part thanks to the veteran leadership of senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers and senior running back Zac Stacy. Stacy leaves the program as its all-time leading rusher with 3,143 yards on the ground, while Rodgers departs with 299 completions for 4,063 yards and 24 touchdowns.
The ‘Dores do have some options to replace them, though. Austyn Carta-Samuels, the former starter at Wyoming, is the likely replacement at quarterback. Patton Robinette, a redshirt freshman from just outside of Knoxville, hopes to make a competition out of it in fall camp. At running back, the trio of Wesley Tate, Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour will be used in some form of a rotation with the three talented backs competing for the starting nod.
2. Can UT contain Vanderbilt’s receivers?
While it’s not 100-percent certain who will be getting them the ball, there are no doubts about the talent at receiver for Vanderbilt. The duo of Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews is among the best in the SEC. Matthews gave UT problems last year, catching seven passes for 115 yards and a touchdown and adding a 47-yard touchdown run on a reverse. Boyd and Matthews combined for over 2,000 yards in 2012. Both are back with hopes for an even better 2013.
That’s a scary thought for a UT squad that is dangerously thin at cornerback. Tennessee was 13th in the SEC in passing defense (282.5 yards/game) last year and its best hope of improvement in 2013 is the return of injured safety Brian Randolph.
3. Can Tennessee control the ground game?
The running game was a bright spot for the Vols in last year’s loss with Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal combined for 169 yards on the ground. Both of those running backs return in 2013 along with a potentially elite offensive line for the Vols. Vanderbilt isn’t looking particularly strong or deep on the defensive line heading into 2013, meaning this might be an area the Vols can expose.
How will it play out?
This is the final contest in a three-game stretch that could go a long way in determining Butch Jones’ success in his first year in Knoxville.
Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt all have similar talent levels to Tennessee and if the Vols can knock off all three, there’s a good chance they will be heading to their first bowl since 2010.
Vanderbilt proved it’s not “the same old Vandy” last year with its statement win over Tennessee. Franklin has his team believing it can beat just about anybody and Tennessee is certainly not going to be able to show up and walk over the Commodores any time too soon.
Vegas opened UT as an extremely early one-point favorite in this one and it would be surprising if the line ends up moving more than a couple points in favor of either side by the week of this game.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga