NASHVILLE -- When James Franklin hired defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from William & Mary when he took the job in December 2010, it was met with a collective chuckle from fans and media. But after Shoop has transformed the unit from one that gave up 31.2 points and 419 yards before his arrival to one that yielded marks of 21.6/323 and 18.7/334 in 2011 and 2012, respectively, nobody's laughing now. And, the best may be yet to come.
The Commodores lost five starters off last year's team, but with greatly-improved depth on the front seven and a pair of future NFL players in the secondary (Andre Hal, Kenny Ladler), VU should be stellar on this side of the ball again. That was evident during the first two weeks of practice, when the defense ruled the day more often than not.
That, of course, puts the offense squarely in the spotlight, especially after the loss of the school's all-time leading rusher, Zac Stacy, and steady quarterback Jordan Rodgers. VU will try to replace them with the trio of running backs Wesley Tate, Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour -- all of whom have had their moments in August -- and fifth-year senior Austyn Carta-Samuels, who has shown more accuracy so far in camp than Rodgers (59.9 percent in '12) did.
While VU isn't as proven at those two positions as it was last year, the good news is that the offensive line returns three starters and has much more depth, plus, the Commodores may have the Southeastern Conference's best wide receiver duo in Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.
In short, VU may have a better team this year, but the schedule could prevent a repeat of last year's 9-4 mark. The Commodores should know quickly whether double-digit wins are possible, as it gets a pair of tough foes in Weeks 1 (Ole Miss) and 3 (South Carolina). Both games could be classics: VU beat Ole Miss by one on the road last year, and fell to Carolina by four.
But if the 'Dores can win just one of those two, they should be in good shape. VU will likely be favored in seven games: Austin Peay, Massachusetts, UAB, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest. All except Massachusetts and Tennessee are at home.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Vanderbilt finds itself about a three-point underdog against Ole Miss in its season opener on Aug. 29, even though it has beaten the Rebels the last three years (and five of the last six) and is playing at home. The Commodores trailed 23-6 in the third quarter before Jordan Rodgers hit Chris Boyd with a scoring strike in the game's final minute to seal a come-from-behind victory, adding more fuel for this year's game. Likewise, VU has plenty of motivation against South Carolina on Sept. 14, as no-call on an apparent pass interference penalty against Carolina S D.J. Swearinger on VU's Jordan Matthews that thwarted a potential game-winning drive in the final minutes still has Commodore fans upset. The other three games -- Austin Peay, Massachusetts, UAB -- shouldn't test the Commodores much.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: With an outstanding defense and a solid offense, VU has potential to win a lot of games this fall. Surprisingly, the Commodores were able to win nine games last season while breaking even in the turnover category, but were unable to get that huge win against a Top 25 team due in no small part to a minus-3 ratio in its four games against teams that ended the season ranked. A terrific pass-rush and a good secondary should force some action on one end, so it's up to the offense to hold up its end of the bargain.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Unlike just about every VU team of the last three decades, there are really no gaping holes on this squad. But there are places that could use improvement, starting at TE, where the trio of Kris Kentera, Stephen Scheu and Dillon van der Wal will all see plenty of acton. Kentera, a converted QB, has shown flashes of being a downfield threat, but has lacked consistency. Teams will certainly throw away from CB Andre Hal, making that second CB -- probably Steven Clarke -- a man on the spot. He's been a solid reserve, but how will he do in a bigger role? QB and RB could potentially be issues just because no one guy there has been counted on in the roles they'll see now, and replacing standout P Richard Kent, now with the Chargers, could also be tricky.