Today at No. 47: Vanderbilt
Coach: Derek Mason (13-24, entering the fourth season; 13-24 overall)
2016 record: 6-7 overall, 3-5 Southeastern Conference; tied for fifth in East Division
Look back: Entering the final two games of the 2016 season, coach Derek Mason’s third Vanderbilt squad was 4-6 and struggling to close out games. Two weeks later, Mason was dancing on the sideline and the 2016 Commodores were postseason-bound for the first time since James Franklin bolted for Penn State.
Vanderbilt ultimately was outmatched during a 41-17 loss to NC State in the Independence Bowl. But a 38-17 win against Ole Miss and 45-34 upset of Tennessee to end the regular season triggered optimism about the program’s direction. The strong close also eventually earned Mason a three-year contract extension.
Offensive starters returning: 8
Offensive starters lost: 3
Defensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: LB Zach Cunningham, LT Will Holden, C Barrett Gouger, DE Adam Butler, Ath Darrius Sims
Top returnees: RB Ralph Webb, LB Oren Burks, SS Ryan White, DT Nifae Lealao, WR Caleb Scott, WR C.J. Duncan, WR Kalija Lipscomb, S Ladarius Wiley, CB Tre Herndon
Strengths: The Commodores return 15 starters, including eight on offense. The best of the bunch is RB Ralph Webb, a Gainesville native with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Webb is just 5-foot-10, 202 pounds, but he is a workhorse. He had 250 carries for 1,283 yards and 13 scores in 2016. Converted LB Khari Blasingame chipped in 10 touchdowns, giving Vanderbilt a formidable one-two punch in the running game.
WR Caleb Scott is poised for a big senior season after he averaged 22.7 yards on 10 catches during the final three regular-season games. Meanwhile, fellow senior C.J. Duncan led the team in receptions (44) and receiving yards (494).
NT Nifae Lealao anchors a defense with seven starters back. He could vie for All-SEC honors. Vanderbilt returns four starters in a secondary that figures to be the strength of the defense. CB Tre Herndon, who has made 25 straight starts, and CB Joejuan Williams, the prize of the 2016 recruiting class, lead the way.
Weaknesses: The loss of LB Zach Cunningham would devastate any defense. He had 125 tackles last season to become Vanderbilt’s first consensus All-America since 1984. Senior Oren Burks steps in for Cunningham; he has the talent to make an impact. Burks and the Commodores need production from the outside, beginning with junior Josh Smith.
The key to Vanderbilt’s success will be the continued maturation of junior QB Kyle Shurmur. Shurmur became the first signal caller since 2006 to start every game for the Commodores during a season. He did not throw a touchdown during his first four SEC games. But the son of longtime NFL coach Pat Shurmur did and 2016 with four touchdown passes during the team’s final two regular-season contests.
To take the next step, Shurmur will need some players to emerge at offensive tackle. Junior Justin Skule (combined 15 starts in 2015-16) is the only Commodore with experience.
Outlook: Vanderbilt is all in on Mason, who signed a new deal during the spring. The defensive-minded Mason’s teams have improved every season. But Vanderbilt must become more explosive on offense to get into the mix for a SEC East title. The Commodores averaged less than four plays of 20 yards or longer, but they do return all their key skill players. Even with the loss of Cunningham, Mason should field another hard-nosed defense.