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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#79 Vanderbilt Commodores

NATIONAL FORECAST

#79

SEC East PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Derek Mason, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Ludwig | DEF. COORDINATOR: Derek Mason

Derek Mason's tenure at Vanderbilt got off to a rough start, as the Commodores won just three games overall and went 0-8 in the SEC last season. With a year under his belt and some coaching staff changes, Mason is hoping for more success in Year 2, but the life in the SEC is never easy, especially for an offense that was among the worst in the nation in 2014.

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Previewing Vanderbilt’s Offense for 2015

 

Vanderbilt’s offensive issues were well chronicled throughout the 2014 season. The Commodores ranked last in the SEC in both total offense and scoring offense by a wide margin and ranked in the bottom 10 in the nation in both categories as well. Perhaps the most troubling stat? The fact that Vanderbilt scored only nine offensive touchdowns in its eight SEC games.

Coach Derek Mason addressed the offensive issues shortly after the season by firing Karl Dorrell and hiring Andy Ludwig to run the Commodores’ attack. Ludwig’s first order of business is to identify a quarterback between holdovers Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck. Both started multiple games last year; neither played well enough to stake a claim as the no-doubt-about-it starter entering 2015.

The Commodores are thin at tailback but are in good shape at the top of the depth chart. Ralph Webb, who rushed for 912 yards as a redshirt freshman, impressed Ludwig during the spring. C.J. Duncan, a former high school quarterback, headlines a talented young corps of wide receivers. Keep an eye on sophomore Trent Sherfield and redshirt freshman Ronald Monroe. Tight end Steven Scheu, the team’s top pass-catcher in 2014, suffered a broken leg in the spring. His return for Week 1 is in doubt.

A veteran offensive line was expected to be a team strength in 2014. That, however, was not the case. There were other issues, of course, but the Commodores averaged a league-worst 3.4 yards per carry and struggled to protect the quarterbacks. Mason is confident that this group, which returns four starters, can rebound.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Defense for 2015

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 SEC preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

About a month after he fired defensive coordinator David Kotulski, Mason named himself as the Commodores’ new defensive coordinator. “I am loving it,” he said during the spring. “I don’t know why I ever gave it up. Probably best decision I have made is to come back and run the defense.”

The defensive line is home to three of the most talented players on the roster — ends/tackles Adam Butler and Caleb Azubike and nose guard Nifae Lealao — but this unit is still a work in progress.

Stephen Weatherly proved to be an ideal fit as pass-rushing outside linebacker in the new scheme, leading the team in both tackles for a loss (12.5) and sacks (4.5). Inside linebacker Nigel Bowden was as good as advertised as a redshirt freshman, leading the team with 78 tackles despite battling various injuries. Josh Smith, the prize of the 2015 recruiting class, is considered a natural inside linebacker but might have an easier time finding early playing time on the outside.

The Commodores struggled in pass defense — allowing a league-high 7.6 yards per attempt and intercepting only six passes — due in part to inconsistent play from the cornerback position. Junior Torren McGaster is entrenched as one of the starters, but the other spot is wide open. 

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Specialists for 2015

 

Kicker Tommy Openshaw was solid in his first season, hitting 8-of-11, including all six from under 40 yards. Colby Cooke averaged 42.4 yards per punt, but the Commodores ranked last in the SEC and 86th nationally in net punting with a 36.2-yard average.

Final Analysis

 

It’s difficult to put a positive spin on Mason’s first year as a head coach. Coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons, Vanderbilt slumped to 3–9 overall and failed to win a game in the SEC. Mason’s second Vanderbilt team should be improved, thanks in part to more experience on both sides of the ball and upgrades on the coaching staff. But the Commodores will have to be drastically better, especially on offense, to make a move in the SEC East, where seemingly every program — with the possible exception of South Carolina — is on the uptick.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#55 Kentucky Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#55

SEC East PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Mark Stoops, 7-17 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shannon Dawson | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Eliot

There was tangible growth for Kentucky in Mark Stoops second season in Lexington. Despite a disappointing second half that still left the Wildcats at home during bowl season, Stoops was able to build a more competitive team. The Cats won two SEC games last fall and if it can improve by just one game, a postseason berth is very possible in 2015.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Kentucky’s Offense for 2015: 
 

When coordinator Neal Brown left to become the head coach at Troy after last season, Mark Stoops wanted to maintain continuity, so he grabbed another branch from the “Air Raid” coaching tree that began blooming at UK in the late 1990s with Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. Stoops hired West Virginia OC Shannon Dawson, who spent four years under Dana Holgorsen.

In his first spring at Kentucky, Dawson earned praise for his work with quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker, and for the balance and creativity of his attack. It produced five touchdowns in the Cats’ final scrimmage of the spring.

Dawson has two prototypical prospects — and former four-star recruits — to choose from at QB. Towles (6'5", 241) and Barker (6'3", 221) battled to a near draw in spring, but as a junior who started every game and produced more than 3,000 total yards last fall, Towles has the edge in experience.

There’s more talent around the QBs than any point in recent memory. Sophomore tailback Stanley “Boom” Williams had 1,159 all-purpose yards last season, including three touchdown runs of 50-plus yards. His backup is Jojo Kemp, who had 131 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina last season.

Junior wideout Ryan Timmons (874 career yards) is joined by a quartet of sophomore receivers — big targets Blake Bone and Dorian Baker and breakaway threats Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet — plus true freshman tight end C.J. Conrad, an early enrollee who looked like a legitimate threat this spring.

Four starters are back on an offensive line that is the deepest and most physically imposing of Stoops’ three-year tenure. 

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Previewing Kentucky’s Defense for 2015:  
 

Replacing star ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith won’t be easy, but Kentucky has upgraded its talent elsewhere. Senior nose tackle Melvin Lewis, a 6'4", 342-pound former junior college transfer, will anchor the line, and Stoops expects a breakout year from linebacker Ryan Flannigan, another transfer in his second season with the Wildcats.

Former four-star recruit Jason Hatcher, a junior who waited his turn behind Dupree, is ready for prime time at outside linebacker in what has morphed into a full-time 3-4 defense.

Senior free safety A.J. Stamps is back after a strong debut season at Kentucky in which he intercepted a team-high four passes. He’ll lead a group that includes versatile veterans Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson and Kendall Randolph.

Stoops remains concerned about his corners, but at least he has experienced options there. Seniors Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller have 47 starts and 29 pass breakups between them. But there’s room for a newcomer to break into the lineup.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Kentucky’s Specialists for 2015: 
 

The Cats boast two of the most reliable legs in the SEC in senior punter Landon Foster and sophomore placekicker Austin MacGinnis. Foster averaged 42.6 yards per punt last season, including a career-best 60-yarder. MacGinnis earned Freshman All-America honors.

Final Analysis
 

This is a critical season for Stoops and Kentucky. The administration has given him the resources — huge raises for him and his staff, a $120 million stadium renovation that opens this fall and a $45 million practice facility under construction — and Year 3 is time to deliver results.

The positive vibes of a 5–1 start last fall vanished with the Wildcats’ 0–6 finish. But after three straight top-40 recruiting classes and three springs and summers to develop that talent, Stoops is confident the tide is turning. “Significantly better right now,” he says. “I think it’s hard to put into words exactly. I definitely feel like we’re developing them to be a winning football team.” 

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