2017 RECORD: 6-7 overall, 3-5 in the SEC East
As we continue our summer series previewing Georgia's 2017 opponents, we turn our attention to Vanderbilt.
The Commodores shocked the Bulldogs in Athens 17-16 after a fourth-down run by Isaiah McKenzie came up short, a game that still raises the collective hackles of Georgia fans.
Vanderbilt gained a lot of confidence last year, boasting wins over not only Georgia but Ole Miss and Tennessee. The Commodores feature one of the best running backs in the SEC in Ralph Webb.
To learn more, we turned to VandySports.com publisher Chris Lee.
UGASports.com: What’s your current overall outlook on Vanderbilt for this upcoming season, based off of what you saw this spring?
Lee: "Between the offensive improvements, and an SEC East that, 1-through-7, is more competitive from top to bottom than I ever remember, it sets up as an interesting season.
"Add to that the fact that Vanderbilt's out-of conference schedule includes Kansas State, and a pair of good non-Power Five programs in MTSU and Western Kentucky, and the Commodores will be really interesting to watch from one week to the next. The only sure win on the schedule is Alabama A&M, and the only sure loss is Alabama. That may sound crazy, but VU beat the three teams--Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee--that this time a year ago would have been the consensus as the three toughest teams on the slate, and came close to upsetting Florida and Auburn. (Of course, it also lost to South Carolina and Missouri.)
"For the first time in forever, defense may be a bigger concern than offense. VU allowed 24.0 points per game last year, and I'd expect that number gets a little worse.
"If you made me pick a record, I'd probably settle on 6-6. That's probably going to be higher than the preseason Vegas total, but, I think VU has beaten the Vegas number five of the last six seasons."
UGASports.com: What can you draw as far as how an opponent like Georgia should scout Vanderbilt and then game-plan for the Dores on each side of the ball?
Lee: "I'm not sure that there's much mystery in what Vanderbilt will do, on either side of the ball.
"Mason wanted this to be a power running team from the day he got to campus, and the Commodores are suited to doing it. Things are still a bit unsettled at the tackles, where VU tried to mix and match, but Vandy has some nice young talent at the spots and a fantastic coach in Cameron Norcross. Combined with the aforementioned running game, I trust it to work out, and the passing game is a lot more developed coming into this season than last, giving the 'Dores the ability to throw teams more off-balance this year should they sell out for the run.
"The wild card will be how much the offense turns it loose. Andy Ludwig's offenses had been super-conservative until the season's second half, when the staff was in jeopardy of losing its jobs. Faced with the prospect of unemployment, VU suddenly shocked everybody with play-making ability and big passing totals against Ole Miss and Tennessee. It was a far cry from what the Gators saw when the teams met in Nashville last year, and it also helps that quarterback Kyle Shurmur improved by leaps and bounds at season's end.
"Defensively, Mason's teams Vandy teams have been impotent in generating a pass rush, and while they force a fair amount of fumbles, they haven't had defensive backs who make plays. They'll allow yards until you get to the red zone, but for two years running they've been phenomenal there. Unless Williams and/or White become play-makers, I'd expect a lot of the same."
UGASports.com: Which positions does Vanderbilt feels best about heading into the 2017? What positions do you see as the Commodores' biggest concerns?
Lee: "Vanderbilt is in good shape in terms of depth and quality within its secondary, where safety Ryan White should be an All-Southeastern Conference candidate and sophomore JoeJuan Williams is as talented as VU has had in years, and at receiver, where it has a number of proven veterans and a young talent in Kalija Lipscomb.
"But, the running back corps, led by Ralph Webb, a senior who could end up as the Southeastern Conference's No. 2 career rusher with another season like his last, is better than VU's had in decades. Behind him, Khari Blasingame surprised everyone with a successful conversion from linebacker, spelling Webb in short-yardage situations to the tune of 449 yards and 10 touchdowns. But the coaching staff also raves about the physical ability of redshirt freshman (and Jacksonville native) Jamauri Wakefield. Junior Josh Crawford is also capable of producing in spots.
As for weaknesses, it's hard not to see the linebacking corps step down with the departure of first-team All-American Zach Cunningham, but the bigger concern seems to be the defensive line.
"Neither of end starters Jonathan Wynn or Dare Odeyingbo have really stood out in their careers, and neither dominated the spring, either. Backup ends Drew Birchmaier and Cameron Tidd showed potential in fall and spring, but they're both redshirt freshmen. In the middle, big tackle Nifae Lealao is an All-SEC candidate and backup Jay Woods is quality, but Woods is undersized for the position and his backup is Josiah Sa'o, a lightly-recruited redshirt freshman."
UGASports.com: Which position battles were some of the ones to watch this spring?
Lee: "This is a veteran team where there weren't as many battles at certain spots as there are most years, but what's happening along the offensive line will certainly be something to watch during the fall.
Just as was the case last year, center is up for grabs. We list Cole Hardin first on our depth chart (you can see that here: https://vanderbilt.rivals.com/news/football-depth-chart) but I was told that he and Sean Auwae-McMoore were in a dead heat at the end of spring. Hardin has been plagued by injuries over the last year, while Auwae-McMoore is a redshirt freshman who was a highly-regarded recruit (and a former UCLA commit).
"We were also surprised to see what went on at the tackle slots. Our guess was that talented redshirt freshman Devin Cochran would emerge at left tackle, and Justin Skule would stay at right tackle, where he fits very well as a strong run blocker.
"But that didn't happen. Skule spent the spring starting ahead of Cochran on the left side, while perhaps an even bigger surprise was seeing Bailey Granier, who seems to fit better at guard, starting at right tackle.
"On defense, Vanderbilt is shuffling to replace Cunningham at linebacker, where none of the current starters are the same as the starter in their position at the end of last season. It moved Oren Burks back inside--he started at the star position last season--where he'll be next to Emmanuel Smith, who'll have a challenge to hold off Jordan Griffin, who's been really productive when he's played."
UGASports.com: Who do you see as Vanderbilt's top players on each side of the ball and why?
Lee: "On offense, it's clearly Webb.
"Defensively, one could argue any of Lealao, White or perhaps even Williams, the latter being maybe the most talented, but also the most unproven. If you asked coach Derek Mason, I suspect he'd say it's Lealao, whom he believes is as good a defensive lineman as there is in the SEC, as Mason says, "when he wants to be." Lealao certainly has the pedigree; he was the No. 130 recruit in the Class of 2014 and the type of recruit that the 'Dores historically don't often get."
Vanderbilt 2017 Schedule
at Middle Tennessee
at Ole Miss
at South Carolina