If the Vanderbilt Commodores football program has anything to hang their hat on as the 2018 season approaches, it’s their success against in-state rival Tennessee in recent years.
Vandy has defeated the Vols the last two years (42-24 last season) and four out of the last six matchups.
Head coach Derek Mason is looking for much more this year from the Commodores than just handling Tennessee. Vandy finished 1-7 in the SEC and 5-7 overall in 2017. They are expected to do more of the same this year — at least by the SEC media — who projects the ‘Dores to finish last in the east division.
It may be the year of the quarterback in the SEC and Kyle Shurmur more than holds his own. As Shurmur goes, so will Vandy. In 2017, a school record performance of 2,823 yds, 26 TDs and 10 ints puts Shurmur among the best at a school known for other reasons. Shurmur averaged 244 passing yards per game last year.
The Commodores return all five offensive lineman paced by senior center Bruno Reagan. The receiver position loses two of its three top contributors. Kalija Lipscomb returns and should be the man in 2018, who put up 610 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017. James Bostic could contribute also and has the speed to give Shurmur a deep threat.
The running game needs to support Shurmur and Mason is hoping Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn will fit that role. Replacing all-SEC back Ralph Webb (over 4000 yds, 32 touchdowns in career) will be a challenge.
New defensive coordinator Jason Tarver will be counting on some returning starters in 2018. Three of four linebackers return, including third leading tackler last season Jordan Griffin. Senior Dare Odeyingbo anchors the line at end and had 11 tackles for losses in 2017. Vandy will be hard pressed to replace linebacker Oren Burks, who was drafted in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Packers.
Safety LaDarius Wiley could be the key defensively this season. He is among the SEC best in that spot. Corner Joejuan Williams also returns. Only four starters return to a defense that gave up 44 points or more in five SEC games last year.
Turnovers are the key for Vandy this year. Last year the Commodores produced five opposition miscues in the first three games for a 3-0 start. Keeping Shurmur on the field is crucial. Vandy does have the benefit of not having Alabama or Auburn on its schedule this year.
Vanderbilt will host Tennessee on November 24th in Nashville. Taking back control of this series is an obvious must for Jeremy Pruitt.