Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: After spending the past 15 years as an offensive assistant at various schools, James Franklin finally got his shot at a head coaching gig with the Vanderbilt Commodores in 2011.
Franklin's squad held its own last year, going 6-6 in the regular season, which included a fast 3-0 start. The Commodores went on a mid-season slide when their SEC schedule beefed up, losing five out of six to South Carolina (21-3), Alabama (34-0), Georgia (33-28), Arkansas (31-28) and Florida (26-21).
They were able to salvage the season by winning two of their last three games against Kentucky (38-8) and Wake Forest (41-7) to bring their record to .500. They were invited to participate in the Liberty Bowl, and although they were defeated by Cincinnati, 31-24, the 2011 senior class became the first in program history to qualify for two bowl games in their careers.
OFFENSE: With a new head coach came new coordinators in 2011, and John Donovan led his unit to respectable numbers (26.9 ppg, 342.8 ypg).
Quarterback Jordan Rodgers shared snaps last year, completing just 50 percent of his passes for 1,524 yards, 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. With Larry Smith graduated, Rodgers is expected to take complete control in his senior season with the hopes that his efficiency will improve with more playing time.
"I thought (Rodgers) did a lot of things last year, made a lot of plays with his feet," Franklin said. "From the time the season ended till now, it's night and day. You guys have all been following the game long enough. You know the difference between a quarterback's first and second year, it's not even close."
Luckily for Rodgers, the Commodores have one of the best receiving duos in the SEC back for another go. Jordan Matthews emerged as the No. 1 target down the stretch last season, as despite compiling just five catches and 63 yards through the first five games, he finished with 41 grabs for 778 yards and 5 touchdowns. If he can keep up the pace he set in the second half of last season, he'll be a top performer at his position this fall. Chris Boyd (31 catches, 473 yards) was also effective last year, especially in the red zone (8 TDs).
Also returning for his senior season is running back Zac Stacy, who bounced back from an injury-plagued 2010 to rush for 1,267 yards and 14 touchdowns last season (also adding 20 receptions out of the backfield). Controlling the ball through the run game is key in the SEC, and if Stacy can stay healthy, he should be equally effective in 2012.
DEFENSE: First-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop rounded out an impressive group of rookies for Vanderbilt in 2011. His unit held its own in a stacked SEC, ranking seventh in scoring defense (20.8 ppg) and sixth in total defense (324.6 ypg). But whereas the offense retained most of its talent from a year ago, the defense lost several leaders, including Casey Hayward (62 tackles, 7 interceptions), Sean Richardson (63 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss), Chris Marve (91 tackles, 3 sacks) and Tim Fugger (13.5 tackles for loss, 8 sacks).
The Vandy defense isn't completely devoid of talent however, as linebacker Archibald Barnes finished fourth on the team last year in tackles (59), and added 2 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles. Kenny Ladler (53 tackles), Chase Garnham (51 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss), Rob Lohr (11.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks), and Trey Wilson (3 interceptions) also return.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Carey Spear and Ryan Fowler both return after splitting kicking duties last season. Both kickers went 4-of-7 on their field goal attempts, although neither connected from longer than 40 yards. Richard Kent is one of the more experienced punters in the conference, and he placed 23 punts inside the 20-yard line and booted 18 of at least 50 yards.
Andre Hal figures to be active in the kick return game yet again. He complied a 23.8 yard average on 31 returns a season ago, and he brought one kick back 96 yards for a touchdown against Georgia.
OUTLOOK: The Commodores are one of the more interesting teams entering the 2012 campaign. They have a lot of firepower on offense and, with that experienced core of skill players, are likely to improve, maybe even drastically.
On the other hand, losing so many defensive players to the NFL will hurt, especially since, unlike big-time programs like LSU and Alabama, Vandy doesn't have the recruiting base to have as quick of a talent turnaround. Still, Franklin remains optimistic that progress will be made in his second year.
"I think for us the fact that this is not going to be the first year of learning an offense, learning a defense, learning a special teams, understand the expectation of how we do things," he said. "I think that's as valuable as anything."
Luckily for the Commodores they are in the Eastern Division of the SEC, which is less challenging than the West, so it certainly has the potential to make some noise. While traveling to Georgia and Missouri will be difficult, tilts at Kentucky and Ole Miss are far less daunting. It's in-conference home schedule is no cakewalk either (South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Tennessee), but the home field advantage should account for at least a couple of wins in that stretch.
Franklin and company are making great strides, and all signs point to just as good if not a slightly better season in 2012, meaning back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history is a real possibility. But the Commodores are still a long way from challenging the likes of Georgia and South Carolina in the SEC East.