Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason is entering his sixth season at the helm in Nashville, aiming for another bowl appearance.
The Commodores went bowling for the second time during his tenure last season, finishing 6-7 straight up and 8-5 against the spread after losing 45-38 to Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
Vandy returns seven starters on offense and five on defense. Although quarterback Kyle Shurmur, the school’s all-time leader in career passing yards (8,865), has graduated, the Commodores have three legit All-American candidates in RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, WR Kalija Lipscomb and TE Jared Pinkney.
Vaughn is a fourth-team preseason All-American running back in Phil Steele’s magazine. The transfer from Illinois rushed for 1,244 yards and 12 touchdowns with a 7.9 yards-per-carry average in 2018. Vaughn also caught 13 balls for 170 receiving yards and two TDs.
Vaughn was destroying Florida’s defense before leaving with an injury when his team held a 21-3 lead over the Gators early in the second quarter. Without Vaughn, Vandy scored only a pair of field goals the rest of the way and lost a 37-27 decision.
He couldn’t go the next week in a 14-7 loss at Kentucky, so one could make a valid argument that Vaughn’s injury cost the Commodores at least one win.
Senior tight end Jared Pinkney passed up going pro, and he’s a third-team preseason All-American in Steele’s magazine. Pinkney had 50 catches for 774 yards and seven TDs in 2018. He has 1,327 career receiving yards.
Kalija Lipscomb had an SEC-best 87 receptions for 916 yards and nine TDs last year, garnering second-team All-SEC honors. The New Orleans Jesuit High School product has 1,845 career receiving yards.
Sophomore WR C.J. Bolar had an outstanding 2018 season as a true freshman, hauling in 34 receptions for 440 yards and two TDs.
The receivers hope to get a lift from grad transfer Justice Shelton-Mosley, who had 148 catches for 1,921 receiving yards in 32 games at Harvard. Shelton-Mosley, who was an FCS All-American in 2017 before his 2018 campaign was cut short due to an injury, will also be a factor on special teams in the return game. He has three career returns of 85 yards or more for TDs.
Shurmur’s potential replacement is Riley Neal, a grad transfer from Ball State who started 32 games for the Cardinals from 2015-18. Neal has completed 60.0 percent of his career passes for 7,393 yards with a 46/25 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Neal brings an asset to the table that Shurmur didn’t, an ability to make plays with his legs. In fact, Neal has rushed for 1,363 career yards and 15 TDs.
Neal needs to beat out Deuce Wallace, a player with a similar skill set, for the starting job.
The offensive line has some holes to fill, but this unit still has plenty of experience. Junior OT Devin Cochran has 23 career starts and is a preseason third-team All-SEC selection in Steele’s magazine. The returning offensive linemen have 48 career starts combined, and this unit adds South Alabama grad transfer OG Rowan Godwin, who started six games for the Jaguars last year.
The biggest issue for the offense could be the loss of OC Andy Ludwig, who left to take the same job at Utah. Mason didn’t go far to find his replacement, promoting Gerry Gdowski, who has been on his staff from the start. Gdowski was Vandy’s quarterbacks coach from 2016-18 and coached TEs in 2014-15.
If Neal can quickly establish chemistry with his new teammates (he arrived in time for spring practice), there’s enough talent to duplicate if not exceed last year’s 28.5 points per game.
Four of Vandy’s top five tacklers are gone from a unit that allowed 26.6 ppg in 2018. The defense played well enough to win in a 22-17 loss at Notre Dame and a 14-7 loss at Kentucky. However, it gave up 37 points to Florida and South Carolina, 41 to Georgia and 45 to Baylor, in part because it could not stop the run.
Middle linebacker Dimitri Moore had a helluva true freshman season in ’18, registering 84 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, four QB hurries and three passes broken up. Junior Kenny Herbert will start at OLB after producing a team-high four sacks last year.
The cornerback spots are going to be filled by transfers from Power 5 conferences. Senior Cameron Watkins arrives from Illinois after producing 98 tackles, 10 PBU, one interception and one forced fumble in 16 starts from 2015-18. Dontae Carriere-Williams went the JUCO route last year after starting five games at CB for Wisconsin in 2017. That Badgers’ defense two years ago allowed just 13.9 ppg, with Carriere-Williams making 30 tackles and breaking up seven passes.
There’s some talent on the defensive line, including junior DE Dayo Odeyingbo. As a freshman in 2017, Odeyingbo had 20 tackles and 4.5 TFLs. He started 12 games last season, contributing 28 tackles, six QB hurries, four TFLs and 2.5 sacks. JUCO transfer Branden Maddox was in for spring practice and earned the starting job at DT. The nose tackle position will be manned by junior Drew Birchmeier and Eddie Zinn-Turner. Birchmeier had 31 tackles, three TFLs and four PBU in 12 starts last year. Zinn-Turner is another grad transfer who had 121 tackles and six sacks in 20 starts at Marist from 2015-18.
5Dimes has Vanderbilt’s season win total at five, but the price on the over is -150. Bettors looking at the under can earn a +110 return. There aren’t any games for the Commodores listed in the Games of the Year from the offshore betting shop.
If there’s another team in the nation that has a tougher three-game stretch to start the season, I’m all ears to hear about it. Vandy opens against Georgia before going to Purdue to deal with Rondale Moore in Week 2. It gets an extra week to prepare for a home date against LSU, but Mason’s bunch must face a pair of top-10 foes in its first three contests.
As of June 25, the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas had Georgia installed as a 21-point favorite at Vanderbilt. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on SEC Network.
I see three non-conference home wins against Northern Illinois, UNLV and East Tennessee State. Unless Vandy catches a bunch of breaks and wins the turnover battle, the Commodores will go down vs. Georgia, vs. LSU, at South Carolina and at Florida.
That puts the Commodores at 3-4 with five swing games. Those games include at Purdue, at Ole Miss, vs. Missouri, vs. Kentucky and at Tennessee.
They’ve dominated the Volunteers in the last three seasons. Vanderbilt won 45-34 to wrap up a bowl bid in ’16. Then in 2017, Vandy went to Neyland Stadium and won by a 42-24 count as a 1.5-point road underdog. The ‘Dores won 38-13 as 3.5-point home “chalk” vs. Tennessee last year. Mason is 3-2 SU and 4-1 ATS in five head-to-head meetings with the Vols.
What’s Vandy’s best-case scenario in 2019? Neal, Vaughn, Lipscomb and Pinkney remain healthy and play in all 12 games. The grad transfers and JUCO guys – WR Shelton-Mosley, CB Watkins, CB Carriere-Williams, NT Zinn-Turner, DT Maddox and OG Rowan Godwin – become key contributors.
In this scenario, I can see at least three of the four swing games (at Purdue, at Ole Miss, vs. Kentucky and at UT) going Vandy’s way and it could perhaps steal the games vs. Missouri and at South Carolina. We should note that the Commodores get two weeks to prepare for the Gamecocks, who are at Georgia, vs. Florida and at Tennessee in the three weeks preceding Vandy’s trip to Williams-Brice Stadium.
If Mason’s team can prevail in all five swing games, it would go 8-4. Perhaps it catches South Carolina or Missouri when Jake Bentley or Kelly Bryant are nursing an injury? Maybe it could win one of those, too? Whatever the case, I consider 9-3 Vandy’s ceiling and it would take quite a bit of good fortune to get there.
On the flip side, an injury to any of The Big Three would be costly. If Pinkney, Lipscomb and Vaughn are good for the Week 2 trip to Purdue, I like Vandy’s chances in that game. It will have to cope with Moore’s explosiveness, but the Boilermakers return only three starters on offense. Plus, they lost at home to Eastern Michigan, Northwestern, Missouri and Wisconsin in ’18.
Even if injuries hit Vandy hard, I would still like its chances vs. Kentucky and at Ole Miss. Therefore, I’ll call for the ‘Dores to finish 6-6.
To be clear, however, that’s a pass for me on the win total. I like to have a 1.5-game confidence cushion between my prediction and the number. In other words, I would have to be confident that Vandy would win seven games to take the over, or feel good about it winning only three to be bullish on the under.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
- After going 6-1 ATS as a home underdog in 2015-16, Vandy has limped to a 1-5 spread record as a home ‘dog the last two seasons.
- Vandy is 13-11 ATS as a road underdog on Mason’s watch.
- Vandy has won nine consecutive non-conference home games, going 6-3 ATS. The non-covers came when the ‘Dores were favored by 28, 50 and 47 points against FCS foes.
- Vandy is 2-7 ATS in nine games as a double-digit favorite during Mason’s tenure.
- Vandy has beaten the closing number by 59.5 combined points in its last three games/wins against the Vols.
- Vandy owns a 14-8 ATS record in 22 games as a double-digit underdog since Mason took over in 2014.