It's always been a tough road for the Vanderbilt Commodores as members of the SEC East, but head coach James Franklin is instilling hope that things could be dramatically changing.
With a ton of returning starters on offense, the Commodores should be able to have one of their better offensive seasons than they've had in several years. The defense also has plenty of returning starters, but some key losses to graduation will need to be filled.
Once again, the schedule will be a challenging one, and the addition of Missouri from the Big 12 will add another element to that challenge.
Still, the Commodores have about as favorable of a road schedule as you can ask for in the SEC; no trips to Gainesville, Knoxville and Columbia are always a plus.
That's not to be confused with Columbia, Mo., though, where the Commodores will pay their first visit on Oct. 6. This could be a huge swing game for the Commodores and whether they can achieve one of their best conference finishes in decades.
Actually, Vanderbilt has arguably the easiest schedule out of the SEC's 14 teams. Auburn also will make its first trip to Nashville since that upset in 2008 that sent the Commodores to a 5-0 start that season.
With all of the hype Franklin has created since he became head coach back in December of 2010, the Commodores should finally see what it's like to have some valuable home-field advantage at modest Dudley Field.
Where will the Commodores finish in the SEC East?
Most of the powerhouses on their schedule will have to come to Nashville, which is better than the alternative. The question is how much better the other SEC East teams have gotten as well; after all, the Commodores still have an enormous amount of ground to make up to be contenders in the best conference in college football.
Tennessee figures to bounce back from a couple tough seasons under Derek Dooley, and Tyler Bray will help Tennessee present a tough test for even the best of defenses. Florida was uncharacteristically average last season, but it will have another top-notch defense in 2012.
The cream of the crop in the SEC East looks to be Georgia, with Aaron Murray returning at quarterback as a solid Heisman candidate. The Commodores will have to go to Athens to take on Georgia in September, and it figures to be a loss just based on the talent gap alone. That is, unless Jordan Rodgers can figure out a way to match Murray's production, but that's a discussion for another day.
However, the Commodores have the opportunity to string together some impressive wins after that, as long they're truly not the same old Vanderbilt.
What gives this Vanderbilt team the chance to actually compete in the SEC this year is its evolving offense.
Virtually all of the offense is returning, with emphasis on the receiving corps that will be led by Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.
In years' past, the anemic Vanderbilt offense couldn't even muster red zone attempts, much less compete on the scoreboard in SEC contests. We saw a little taste of that last season when the Commodores managed 20-plus points in six SEC games, and all of those games were winnable.
There's a good chance that the Commodores can duplicate that this season, with Franklin having another year to mold this team into his own. The Commodores were just a few unfortunate breaks away from having an eight-win season in 2011, and eight wins is a fair prediction in 2012.
Now, realistically, are the Commodores going to push for an SEC East crown in 2012?
The answer is probably not. The Commodores still have the talent gap to deal with, but the recent recruiting results should continue to level the playing field in future seasons.
As for 2012, the Commodores no longer have excuses. The time is now for them to make a splash of their own in the SEC East.
Maybe not a big splash, but still a splash.
2012 Predicted Finish: 8-4 (4-4), fourth in SEC East