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March 5, 2012

SEC Spring Preview: Vanderbilt

The next time Missouri plays a game it will be as a member of the Southeastern Conference. Over the next few weeks, PowerMizzou.com will introduce Tiger fans to their new league. We will do a question and answer session with our counterparts at each SEC school prior to spring football. Today, we take a look at Vanderbilt with Chris Lee, who covers Commodore football for VandySports.com.

1. First of all, Vanderbilt seems to be on a good upward arc as a program. But how tough is it to try to build a program in a league as tough as the SEC?

Lee: "Vanderbilt has been synonymous with losing for about half a century now, but that's not how coach James Franklin saw the job when he took it, and more than any time in recent memory, SEC-quality recruits are starting to see it his way.

Franklin sees the Commodores having two huge advantages, and he's right about both. First of all, VU is far-and-away the best school in the league. When other schools try to minimize VU's academic advantage, Franklin simply points recruits to non-partisan academic rankings. So if a player is really serious about academics, unless there's a particular field of study that the university doesn't offer, Vandy's got a clear advantage there.

Second, Nashville has become less of a town know for country music (although that's obviously still a big part of the appeal for the city) and more known as a fabulous place to live. There are some nice towns around the SEC, but none with all the bells and whistles of Nashville... which, of course, includes two sports franchises.

Obviously, football success has been an issue, and as Franklin has become more successful on the recruiting trail, I get a sense that VU's lack of good tradition is probably being used against it more than ever. But here, Franklin has flipped the issue on its ear and sold the idea to players of building their own tradition at Vanderbilt.

Still, competing in the league is just brutal. Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU account for the last six national titles collectively. Before that, Georgia had a nice run as arguably the league's best program for a few years, and Tennessee had a national title in 1998. Other than Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the other schools have all had some big successes in the last decade, and even those two have made a few bowls recently.

So yeah, things aren't going to be easy for VU, and I'm not predicting a BCS bowl any time soon. But I never envisioned a bowl appearance and a top-30 recruiting class in Franklin's first year in my wildest dreams, so maybe there's room for a little more success than most reasonable people have believed.

How good has James Franklin been since getting the job and can Vandy keep him long term?

Lee: "I think he's been fantastic. I answered most of the first part of that question in the previous one.

In addition to winning six games, it shocked me how competitive the Commodores were. Losses to Tennessee, Georgia, and Arkansas went down to the game's final play, the loss to Florida went down to the final minute, and the bowl game was still up in the air until the final two or three minutes.

Meanwhile, five of the six wins were complete blow-outs.

So, it wasn't just the fact that VU unexpectedly went to a bowl, it's that once you start kicking the tires of the 2011 season and see that the 'Dores out-scored opponents by 67 points against a tough schedule, Vandy may have been more legitimate than the record showed. To me, that's the biggest shock, that it wasn't a smoke-and-mirrors, 6-win season.

Nothing's ever a guarantee in the coaching world, and with VU being a private institution, details of Franklin's December contract renegotiation/extension weren't released. However, a source with knowledge of these things told me he believes the per-year amount to be in the $3 million per year range. If that's so, Franklin would be approximately one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in college football.

The other part of securing Franklin's contract included some major facility upgrades, including an indoor practice facility, which VU does not have. The funding has to be secured for some of that, but it was important to Franklin to get those things before signing a deal, and he was comfortable enough with VU's commitment on that end to sign a new deal."

What are the biggest strengths of this Vandy team heading into spring ball?

Lee: "After about a four-year run in which VU may have had the worst offense over the last four years among BCS schools, the Commodores' offense actually ranked around the top third of the league the last half of last season after quarterback Jordan Rodgers (Aaron's brother) took over as the starter.

It's hard to pinpoint just one thing that got better -- obviously, Rodgers had a lot to do with that -- but the offensive line also showed unbelievable improvement despite a huge lack of depth, receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd started to become difference-makers, and Zac Stacy became debatably the league's best back not Lattimore or Richardson.

Other than tight end Brandon Barden and right tackle Kyle Fischer, who'll both be missed, everyone's back. VU will also return Warren Norman, the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year, at running back after he missed last season with a knee injury. Depth will be better across the board, even at quarterback, where former Mountain West Freshman of the Year Austin Carta-Samuels, a two-year starter at Wyoming, could push Rodgers in the spring.

Defensively, VU lost five or six key players who'll be hard to replace. But they've got a top-notch defensive coordinator in Bob Shoop, and good depth at cornerback and along the line. There aren't a lot of stars there, but Shoop took essentially the same defense from 2010 and shaved off nearly 10 points and 100 yards a game off the previous season's numbers in 2011. My guess is that he'll successfully piece things together again, around players like defensive tackle Rob Lohr, cornerback Trey Wilson and linebacker Chase Garnham.

On the flip side, what are the biggest holes that have to be filled and questions that have to be answered?

Lee: "Linebacker is a huge, huge question mark outside of Garnham -- and even he was hurt several games, so it's a question whether he can stay healthy. On the bright side, Archibald Barnes really came on the last few games, and Tristan Strong had a nice first couple of games before missing the rest of the year with injury.

Strong will be back, but the cupboard is just about empty from there. For that reason, VU signed five linebackers, all of whom were highly-regarded. There's no way that at least two or three of them won't play immediately.

VU will miss Barden's pass-catching ability, and on the other side, cornerback Casey Hayward was just an incredible player who didn't get quite the attention he deserved because there were a pair of first-team All-American cornerbacks within the league. VU's had a number of great corners, some of whom played in the NFL for a long time, and I'm not sure there was an eyelash's difference between he and any of them. The staff thinks redshirt freshman Derek King will be a superstar, but there's no way he'll play at Hayward's level immediately.

What's your early take on next season? Give me a ballpark range for the record you see from Vandy.

Lee: This fall will be my 10th year covering Vandy football, and I've never liked VU's chances better for a coming season than I like them this year. Of course, VU's won six games once, and seven games once, and between two and five the other seven years, so take that into context.

Still, I think the schedule gives VU a shot to win some games. From the polls I've seen, only two opponents -- Georgia and South Carolina -- make most people's rankings. The 'Dores have had some success against the Gamecocks, and took Georgia to the last snap in Nashville last season. Still, Vandy will be an underdog there, and rightfully so. For argument's sake, let's chalk those up as losses.

Of the remaining 10 games, VU will be a favorite against Presbyterian and UMass. They'll probably be a favorite against a Northwestern team that lost a lot of key players, and almost certainly favored against Ole Miss, Kentucky and Wake Forest, three teams they trounced in 2011.

Right there is a legitimate shot for six wins, and then while VU will likely be a road underdog at Missouri, and slight underdogs at home to Tennessee, Auburn, and Florida programs that are in down cycles, with last year proving they can compete with any of those teams.

Of course, things are rarely as simple as they seem when you're Vanderbilt. Kentucky and Wake have gotten the better of VU for the last decade, and any opponent of those middle-ground recruit well enough to jump up and have huge seasons.

So, I see the downside being about four regular-season wins, and a dream season where Vandy catches all the breaks it didn't a year ago resulting in nine. More than likely, it'll fall in the middle, so I'll pick seven if I have to give a number. (For the record, I picked four wins last year.)

Chris Lee is the publisher of VandySports.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @chrislee70.

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