When you lose your All-SEC and first round draft choice starting quarterback, it's hard to find as many good things as you normally would. A good quarterback can turn good wide receivers into great ones. A good quarterback can keep a defense honest, making your running game look far better than it ever was meant to be. Jay Cutler's exit definitely leaves the Commodores in a transition period, but the cupboards aren't bare.
Vandy will field the best wide receiver in the conference not named Sidney Rice. Earl Bennett's freshman year has created a large buzz about his future with Vanderbilt and in the NFL. At 6'1" 202, Bennett has adequate size and was a 1st Team SEC player as a true freshman. Logic and history would tell you that Bennett has a very high ceiling and the sky is the limit. WR Marlon White missed some time last season with various injuries, but should really shine with the attention focused on Bennett. White is 6'4" 205, so his height will really cause problems for opposition. This duo looks to be dangerous, but the entire corps isn't very deep and if either Bennett or White miss considerable time, the offense will be in even more trouble.
Another positive area for the Dores is their offensive line. They return three starters in LG Josh Eames, Brian Stamper, and Chris Williams, as well as an SEC Freshman Team player at RG in Mac Pyle. This starting unit has size to match the lines at the SEC top tier programs (290, 320, 310, 305, 315). They should really be able to provide more than adequate time to break in a new starting quarterback, as well as hold their own in the trenches for an inconsistent running attack. If the line plays as I suspect they will, the loss of Cutler won't be as apparent.
At a program like Vanderbilt, the sad truth is that the bad typically outnumbers the good. In 2005, a 5-6 team in Nashville has more good than bad. 2006 probably won't be as kind.
While most experts would automatically group the uncertainty at quarterback as "ugly," I don't see it as pessimisticly. Sophomore Chris Nickson only threw three passes last season, but let's not forget he was Mr. Football in 2003 in Alabama, a state all about football. Nickson is mobile, too, so watch for him to make some plays out of nothing. Even backup MacKenzi Adams has some upside that makes the redshirt freshman a viable option if Nickson underperforms or is injured. Of course, the unit has little experience, which makes this position a huge question mark. Nickson and Co. will rely heavily on the experienced offensive line, and if somehow the Dores come across a solid to good running game, the new QB could flourish. Regardless of these things, they will still have to make throws against teams that have the best talent in the country, and Vandy should be playing from behind the majority of the time. 2006 could be a tough learning year for Nickson, but watch for him to make strides in the last third of the season.
The running attack will probably make or break the Commodores' offense in 2006. There is a lot of promise in JR Cassen Jackson-Garrison, as he averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season. He also showed the ability to bust off long runs, which would really help Nickson at QB. Behind Jackson-Garrison is Jeff Jennings, who has also shown some ability, but only averaged 3.6 yards per carry. He tore his ACL against Kentucky and received no reps in the spring. If he bounces back and returns to his form, he will fill in very admirably for CJ-G. However, the backs should have benefitted from Cutler's stardom in 2005, but they were very inconsistent. Vandy had some nice games on the ground (237, 209, 150, 146), but they came against Richmond, Mississippi, Georgia, and Wake, respectively. They also had four TERRIBLE games on the ground, all against perennially strong SEC teams (v. LSU - 25 yds, @ SC - 41 yds, @ UF - 58 yds, @ UT - 49 yds). This unit will need to play well enough to keep defenses honest, and if they can create problems out of the backfield in terms of receptions, the Vanderbilt offense could be solid again.
Vandy's 2005 defense allowed 29 points per game and only produced 14 sacks. This past offseason, they lost 3 of their 4 top tacklers, including 1st Team All SEC Moses Osemwegie (118 tkls, 6.5 tfl, 3 sacks, 2 INT in 2005) at linebacker. Jonathan Goff and Kevin Joyce will be relied upon for leadership and big time plays, which they seem poised to deliver. Josh Allen, who hasn't received much mention in preseason mags, might be the best CB on the team. He made up for his small frame (5'9") by adding 15 pounds to put him close to 200. Allen made 7 starts last season as a redshirt freshman, so look for him to lead this secondary.
While Goff, Joyce, and Allen will undoubtedly do well, this is still a team that allowed 4.5 yards per carry. Expect the running games of Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama to run wild on their porous defense. Their pass D allowed 224 yards in the air per game, their worst since 2001. The whole unit will be more experienced in general, but I don't think they have a marquee player that will scare opposition. I would imagine they allow more than last year's 29, and with a new quarterback and a questionable running game, Vandy will be very very tired on this side of the ball.
Sep. 2 - @ Michigan (L)
Sep. 9 - @ Alabama (L)
Sep. 16 - Arkansas (L)
Sep. 23 - Tennessee St. (W)
Sep. 30 - Temple (W)
Oct. 7 - @ Mississippi (L)
Oct. 14 - @ Georgia (L)
Oct. 21 - South Carolina (L)
Oct. 28 - @ Duke (W)
Nov. 4 - Florida (L)
Nov. 11 - @ Kentucky (L)
Nov. 18 - Tennessee (L)
The Best Case Scenario
Vanderbilt lost their best player on offense and on defense, and they play a tougher schedule. Of the projected 9 losses above, only 2 can be considered winnable (@ Miss, @ Kentucky). Mississippi looks to be stronger than last year, but Vandy could sneak up on them. The same situation applies with Kentucky. Both Ole Miss and the Wildcats have more talent than the Commodores, but in the SEC, the bottom tiered teams can easily sneak a win out in the others' stadiums. That being said, the absolute best case scenario for Vanderbilt would be a 5-6 record with 2 wins in SEC play.
The Worst Case Scenario
Nobody knows exactly how well the offense will play after the loss of a 1st Team All SEC QB. Because of this, a loss at Duke could be in the future for the Commodores. Vanderbilt has a little more talent than the Blue Devils, but they must travel to North Carolina. Remember, this is a team that lost at home to Middle Tennessee State last season WITH Jay Cutler. I have a really hard time finding a loss at home this season against Tennessee State or Temple (regardless of the MTSU loss last season). In that light, Vanderbilt's worst case scenario is a 2-10 finish with NO WINS in SEC play.
Officially, I believe Vanderbilt will end up 3-9 (0-8) in 2006. They have too many questions at the skill positions on offense, to the point that the improved defense won't be able to keep them in many games. Expect the big dogs in the SEC to plow right through the Commodores without much trouble. You will be able to tell a lot about which scenario Vanderbilt will drift towards after their opener at Michigan. There is no chance they win, but if they look competitive for even a half, you could see 5 wins for this team. Look for good bets on Vandy to cover against Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee.
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