2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The resurgence of the Vanderbilt football program continued in 2013, as it matched its school-record win total for the second consecutive year.
The season got off to a rather sluggish start, as the Commodores dropped two of their first three games to Ole Miss (39-35) and South Carolina (35-25). The team's mediocrity continued through October, as it found itself just 4-4 heading into the final month of the season.
Vanderbilt ended the campaign red-hot however, closing out with five consecutive victories to finish up at 9-4 overall and 4-4 in SEC action. Its final win came in the BBVA Compass Bowl with a 41-24 drudging of Houston. It was the squad's third straight bowl appearance (and second straight win) after qualifying for just four bowls from 1955-2008.
The Commodores finished the season ranked in the AP Poll (No. 24) for the second straight season, the first time they've ever accomplished that feat. Unfortunately, their success in recent seasons led to the departure of James Franklin. The man who built the program up from obscurity, going 24-15 in three seasons, departed to fill the head coaching void at Penn State.
Filling Franklin's shoes in 2014 will be Derek Mason, who spent the last three seasons as the defensive coordinator for Stanford.
OFFENSE: A season ago, the Commodores enjoyed their most successful offensive season since the 1910s, putting up 30.1 ppg.
The squad will have to move on from Austyn Carta-Samuels under center. The quarterback had an outstanding completion percentage of .687 last year, but it only amounted to 2,268 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. This season's starter has yet to be announced, although the competition appears to be down to Patton Robinette (.523 completion percentage, 642 yards, four TDs, five INTs, seven rushing TDs) and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary.
Jerron Seymour didn't wow anyone with his explosion last season, turning 164 carries into just 716 yards (4.4 ypc), but he had a nose for the end zone with 14 scores. Brian Kimbrow (341 yards, three TDs) also returns to the backfield.
Vandy has a big void to fill out wide now that Jordan Matthews, the SEC's all- time leading receiver, is suiting up on Sundays for the Philadelphia Eagles. With Jonathan Krause (42 receptions, 714 yards, three TDs) also graduated, Jordan Cunningham and C.J. Duncan are listed at the top of the depth chart hoping to lead an inexperienced bunch of pass catchers.
While there's turnover in regards to the skill positions, the team is fortunate enough to retain continuity along the offensive line with four starters coming back.
DEFENSE: The Commodores held their own in an SEC known for its stout defenses by ranking fifth in yards allowed per game (354.8 ypg), but their scoring defense (24.6 ppg) ranked in the bottom half of the league. The insurgence of Mason's defensive game planning, a scheme that allowed Stanford to rank in the top-15 nationally in defensive efficiency in each of the past three seasons, should benefit the unit immediately.
The team welcomes back six starters to the front seven, anchored by one of the conference's best linebacking trios in Darreon Herring (84 tackles, INT), Caleb Azubike (9.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) and Kyle Woestmann (40 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks).
The secondary was the unit's strength last season, but all four starters have left, including last year's leading tackler Kenny Ladler (91 tackles, five INTs, five FF) and shutdown corner Andre Hal (three INTs, 18 passes defended). Andrew Williamson, a reserve safety last season, will be inserted into the starting lineup for his junior season and is anxious to see the defense grow under new tutelage.
"I don't think we could have found a better guy than coach Mason," Williamson said. "Coming over from Stanford, being the defensive coordinator over there, one of the top defenses in the country shutting down arguably one of the most explosive offense in the nation in Oregon, it makes guys like me on the defensive side of the ball (want to) play for him."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Redshirt freshman Tommy Openshaw will take over the place kicking duties from the graduated Carey Spear. Taylor Hudson is back as the punter after averaging 42.9 yards per boot in 2013.
Darrius Sims (25 returns, 571 yards) will likely return to his role as the primary kickoff return man. C.J. Duncan is expected to take over punt return duties hoping to improve upon the team's uninspiring showing last season (23 returns at a 3.8-yard average).
OUTLOOK: Against the odds, Vanderbilt has enjoyed great success in the nation's most daunting conference over the past three years and has established a respectable football reputation to go along with its high academic standards, much like Mason's former university Stanford. Losing Franklin after he made such positive strides during his tenure certainly hurts, but Mason is up to the challenge and has high hopes for his team from the outset.
"I think our opportunity to compete for an SEC East title is now," Mason said at the SEC Media Days. "My job is to compete. Our team is a team of probably no-name young men who have a chance to do something great. It's talented across the board."
It's a bold prediction, especially considering its daunting road. Its schedule is littered with difficult games, including bouts with established powers South Carolina and Missouri, bounce-back candidates Georgia and Florida, and cross-division upstarts Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
The Commodores have enough talent left over from the Franklin era to establish some continuity even under a new coaching regime, and in time, Mason's defense should rise to become one of the best in the country. Still, while another bowl bid appears well within grasp for this squad, it isn't quite ready to challenge the conference's big guns for the title.