NASHVILLE, Tenn. – James Franklin is trying to make sure his Vanderbilt Commodores stay as hungry to compete as they have been the past two seasons. Turns out, taking part in Vandy's best year since 1915 has only whet their appetites for more.
Still, the Commodores say nothing counts except the season opener Aug. 29 when they host Mississippi and that no game exists after that. They have bought into Franklin's single-minded approach very well since going 6-7 in the coach's first season with a 9-4 record in 2012 that was the Commodores' most wins ever in the Southeastern Conference.
"We've had a little bit of success, but this isn't the success that we want," senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels said.
"We want to win 10, 12 games every single year. It's not about the little success that we've had in the six and the nine. We'll focus on games at a time and right now it's focusing on Vanderbilt. And then we'll play Ole Miss, and that's the only game on our schedule at the current moment. But we're looking to win championships here consistently."
These Commodores are older and experienced with 17 starters back from a team that finished last season ranked No. 20.
They'll need that maturity with four former teammates indicted on five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery involving an unconscious student at a campus dormitory in June. Carta-Samuels is one of five current Commodores listed in the indictment facing subpoenas to testify as prosecution witnesses if and when the case goes to trial.
Carta-Samuels is expected to replace Jordan Rodgers, who graduated. Franklin also has to replace Vanderbilt's all-time leading rusher in Zac Stacy, now in the NFL with St. Louis.
The defense has seven starters back from a unit that ranked 19th nationally in total yards allowed. Coming off a Music City Bowl win, the Commodores grew bigger and stronger this offseason with strength coach Dwight Galt.
The Commodores' schedule doesn't include Alabama or LSU. They visit South Carolina, Texas A&M and Florida but host Georgia and Missouri in Nashville. Moving up in the SEC will mean beating at least one or more of those conference opponents.
"We've played against the big dogs of the SEC, and we know we can beat them," senior linebacker Chase Garnham said.
Here are five things to watch during Vanderbilt's upcoming season:
1. THE REPLACEMENTS: Rodgers and Stacy combined to score more than half of the Commodores' touchdowns in 2012. But Carta-Samuels started 21 games in two seasons at Wyoming before transferring to Vanderbilt, and he also got a start last season while also playing in a total of six games. He completed 61.1 percent of passes as a sophomore at Wyoming. Stacy will be replaced by a threesome in senior Wesley Tate, sophomore speedster Brian Kimbrow and sophomore Jerron Seymour.
2. FLYBOYZ: Vandy has the SEC's top returning receivers with Jordan Matthews deciding to return for his senior season. He caught 94 passes for 1,323 yards with eight touchdowns and leads current SEC receivers with 150 catches for 2,290 yards. Together with Chris Boyd, they led the SEC with 2,097 yards receiving combined. Senior Jonathan Krause and five freshmen signed in February.
3. STRENGTH UP FRONT: Vanderbilt lost two starting guards to graduation but still return six linemen with experience. Senior Wesley Johnson, expected to start at left tackle, has 38 starts at four different spots. Joe Townsend, Spencer Pulley and Jake Townsend all got starts last season for a unit that helped Vandy average 30 points a game, its highest in nearly a century.
4. STINGY PASS D: Cornerback Andre Hal is back in the secondary along with strong safety Javon Marshall and free safety Kenny Ladler to help anchor a unit that ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense and 15th in scoring defense.
5. ON SCHEDULE: The Commodores visit Texas A&M on Oct. 26 in a two-game road swing that concludes at Florida. After Ole Miss, a visit to South Carolina on Sept. 14 is the Commodores' toughest game in the opening month featuring Austin Peay, Alabama Birmingham and Massachusetts.
Predicted finish in conference: Fourth in SEC East
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/