The Vanderbilt Commodores enter the 2013 football season looking to extend the SEC's longest active winning streak.
In 2012, Vanderbilt won nine games for the first time since 1915. Its nine-win season also included its longest win streak (seven) since 1949. Perhaps its most impressive win was its 41-18 victory over its in-state rival, Tennessee.
The Commodores completed the 2012 season in style with an impressive 38-24 victory over the North Carolina State Wolfpack and a 9-4 overall record.
While there is no doubting that Vanderbilt is headed in the right direction, the Commodores will need to post their second consecutive winning season to prove they are legit.
Are the Commodores primed to become an annual roadblock for any team on their schedule, or have the past two seasons been a flash in the pan?
Vanderbilt has never been known as an offensive juggernaut. However, last season the Commodores averaged 30.0 points per game.
It was their highest team average since the 1940s, and while reviews are mixed about former Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rogers, he did finish his career with an 11-8 record.
In comparison to the overall record of the quarterbacks who preceded him, he is the Tom Brady of Nashville.
Hopes are high, however, for his replacement, Austyn Carta-Samuels. While the senior quarterback has only attempted 25 passes in the SEC, he has thrown for over 3,800 yards in his career.
Carta-Samuels started his career with the Wyoming Cowboys, leading them to a bowl win and being named Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year.
Carta-Samuels passed for 1,953 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions his freshman season and 1,702 yards, nine touchdown passes and eight interceptions his sophomore season before transferring to Vanderbilt.
Carta-Samuels will benefit greatly from having the SEC's most productive wide receiver in 2012 back for another season. Senior wide receiver Jordan Matthews led all SEC receivers with 94 receptions for 1,321 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Commodores did suffer a major blow to their passing game with the recent suspension of standout wide receiver Chris Boyd, who caught 50 passes for 774 yards and five touchdowns.
While the Commodores might be able to replace Boyd's statistics, replacing his clutch play will be more difficult. Boyd has a knack for making big plays at the most crucial moments—like his game-winning touchdown against Ole Miss last season.
Instead of replacing Boyd on this week's depth chart, the Commodores have dropped the third wide receiver spot and added fullback Fitz Lassing in his place.
The Commodores should be a more physical team this season with more fullback sets and an offensive line that looks ready to take the next step.
Coach Franklin will need to replace both the left and right guards from last season. However, the Commodores do have five linemen who have made four or more starts and three linemen with nine or more.
The most recognizable name on the offensive line is senior left tackle Wesley Johnson. Despite starting 38 games in his career, Johnson has never been called for a single holding penalty and has only given up 6.5 sacks on 1,021 career pass attempts.
Outside of quarterback, the only major question mark on the offensive side of the football for the Commodores is their ability to replace departed NFL running back Zac Stacy without a major drop-off.
The burden of this task will be primarily carried by sophomore running back Brian Kimbrow and senior running back Wesley Tate.
Kimbrow was one of the top recruits in Vanderbilt history, and in his first season for the Commodores, he did not disappoint. Kimbrow rushed for 413 yards on just 66 carries (6.3 yards per carry) and also returned 22 kicks for 486 yards.
Kimbrow is one of the fastest players in the SEC and has the athleticism and quickness to turn any carry into a touchdown. However, for Kimbrow to be fully effective, he will need a partner-in-crime.
He is not the biggest back at 5'8" and 185 pounds and could wear down as the season goes forward if he is required to take the bulk of the carries for the Commodores.
This is where senior running back Wesley Tate comes into the picture. He is not the home run threat that Kimbrow is, but he does have the size (6'1" and 225 pounds) to take the pressure off of Kimbrow.
Tate has carried the ball 150 times for a modest 542 yards (3.61 YPC) over his three seasons at Vanderbilt. However, his size makes him a talented blocker and a more physical presence. He also has very good hands, which is crucial in Coach Franklin's offense.
The Commodores defense has ranked in the top 20 nationally each of the last two seasons, which is somewhat surprising because Franklin arrived at Vanderbilt with a reputation as an offensively minded coach.
However, he brought in defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who had flown under the radar because he had been coaching at William & Mary.
The Yale graduate has proven to be a home run hire for Franklin, and the 2013 Commodores defense could be better than either of the past two seasons.
The Commodores return seven starters on the defensive side of the football and six of the team's top seven tacklers from 2012.
The defensive line should be solid in 2013 with the return of senior defensive end Walker May and defensive tackles Barron Dixon and Vince Taylor.
However, Kyle Woestmann could be the MVP of this defense by the end of the season. Woestmann recorded six sacks in his final seven games of the season.
The Commodores also return five of their back seven on defense, including All-SEC cornerback Andre Hal. A great deal of credit for the Commodores ending the season on a seven-game winning streak should be extended to Vanderbilt's linebacker unit, which improved dramatically as the season progressed.
In 2011, the Commodores dropped several close games in the final seconds, partly because they only converted eight of their 14 field-goal attempts. In 2012, placekicker Carey Spear connected on 20 of 24 field-goal attempts.
Walk-on Taylor Hudson will replace departed punter Colby Cooke this season and will need to be efficient, as Cooke was a three-year starter.
The first depth chart of the season shows that senior wide receiver Jonathan Krause will return punts and Kimbrow will be the primary kick returner.
Worst-Case Scenario: 4-8 (1-7 in SEC)
Best-Case Scenario: 10-2 and a Bowl bid (6-2 in SEC)
Dr. SEC Preseason Prediction: 9-4 with a win in the Gator Bowl (4-4 in SEC)
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