Derek Mason enters year three at Vanderbilt after improving 2014’s win total by one game last season. Mason’s Vanderbilt squad has been far more competitive since he began calling the shots on defense. Last year, the Commodores even scored two SEC wins. Now, with 11 starters returning (5 on offense, 7 on defense), Vandy looks poised to take the next step and potentially get to a bowl game.
For Vanderbilt to get back to the postseason, it will need to win a few key games in the SEC East. The Commodores’ schedule sets up exceptionally well, with Vanderbilt getting its two toughest games at home at the end of the regular season. The month of November will be the most challenging, but Vandy’s defense should be in top form by then.
Here is a look at Vanderbilt’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to toughest:
12. Oct. 22 vs. Tennessee State
Tennessee State has been mostly a “middle-of-the-road” type team in the FCS’ Ohio Valley Conference over the past few seasons. The Tigers finished 4-6 last year but were competitive in most of their games. Vanderbilt and Tennessee State have met once before, back in 2006. The Commodores won that contest, 38-9 in Nashville.
11. Sept. 10 vs. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders have built a solid football program over the past few seasons, usually earning a bowl berth. Head coach Rick Stockstill returns a deep talent pool, which includes his son, Brent Stockstill, at quarterback, as well as wide receiver Richie James. MTSU is one of the favorites in Conference USA this fall. The Blue Raiders gave Vandy a scare last year, but lost 17-13 in Murfreesboro.
10. Sept. 1 vs. South Carolina
Vanderbilt opens the season with a Thursday night meeting against the Gamecocks at home. This could be a major momentum boost toward a bowl game if Vandy is able to knock off South Carolina in week one. For the first time in quite a while, it looks like the Commodores may actually be the more stable pick. Thursday night games are weird, though. These teams last opened the season on a Thursday night in 2012. South Carolina won that game 17-13.
9. Sept. 24 at Western Kentucky
While quarterback Brandon Doughty won’t be slinging passes this fall, the Hilltoppers still should be a contender in Conference USA. Head coach Jeff Brohm has proven his ability to develop talent over the past two seasons, and Vanderbilt has to go on the road in this one. Western Kentucky beat the Commodores to open last season, 14-12 in Nashville. But the Hilltoppers will have their work cut out against Vandy’s defense once again.
8. Oct. 8 at Kentucky
Last year, Vanderbilt was able to knock off the Wildcats in Nashville, 21-17. But will the Commodores be able to find the same success in Lexington? Kentucky looks to have a fairly dynamic offense this fall, but the defense is lacking. That may be just the recipe Vandy needs to match up well in this game. These two teams go way back, and the series is deadlocked at 42-42-4. Vanderbilt has won four of the last five.
7. Nov. 12 at Missouri
The Commodores’ other SEC win last season came at home against Missouri. Again, they will have to prove they can win on the road this year in order to get to a bowl game. The Mizzou game should be winnable once again, but like Vanderbilt, the Tigers have a strong defense. Last year, the final score between the two teams was 10-3. It could very likely end up being an offensive struggle once again. Touchdowns will be valuable.
6. Sept. 17 at Georgia Tech
Last year was not a good season for the Yellow Jackets by any stretch of the imagination. But for all the disappointment that goes along with a 3-9 record, Georgia Tech stayed competitive and randomly took down Florida State in late October. This year, Paul Johnson’s team looks to rebound, and the Yellow Jackets have the pieces to be successful in a wild ACC Coastal division. It should be fun to watch Tech’s triple-option offense against Vanderbilt’s stacked run defense.
5. Oct. 1 vs. Florida
Florida was a completely different team last year after quarterback Will Grier’s suspension. Really, the same team that beat Ole Miss 38-10 in October needed overtime to get past Florida Atlantic in November. Florida’s slump down the stretch showed just how important the quarterback position can be. It kind of makes you wonder about the Gators headed into the fall. Vanderbilt almost got the job done last year, but lost 9-7.
4. Nov. 5 at Auburn
As usual, no team in the SEC is as unpredictable coming into the season as Auburn. The Tigers don’t have much to work with at quarterback, but they could have success in the running game. If Carl Lawson stays healthy, the defense should be quite improved. This will be the first meeting between the Tigers and Commodores since 2012. Remarkably, Vanderbilt actually leads the series 21-20-1, but Auburn has won 13 of the previous 15 meetings.
3. Oct. 15 at Georgia
Vanderbilt travels to Athens for its third consecutive SEC East contest on Oct. 15. Even in the James Franklin years, this game didn’t go particularly well for Vanderbilt. The Commodores won it in 2013, but other than that, things have been pretty ugly. Mason’s Vanderbilt teams have lost to Georgia by an average score of 38-16 over the past two years. However, if the Commodores can make Georgia throw the ball, they might be able to give the Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs a run for their money.
2. Nov. 19 vs. Ole Miss
Ole Miss is essentially just another SEC East opponent for Vanderbilt since the teams meet every year in a cross-division matchup. The Rebels have won three in a row in the series, but with the loss of Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and several contributors on defense, Vanderbilt should have a shot. Chad Kelly will undoubtedly present problems for Vandy’s defense, but the Commodores held Ole Miss to 27 points last season.
1. Nov. 26 vs. Tennessee
It will be nice for Vanderbilt to get its two toughest opponents in Nashville late in the season, but two years ago, this was basically a home game for the Volunteers. Vanderbilt fans have to get out and support the team late in the season or Nashville will be painted orange once again. By this point in November, Tennessee may be well on its way to the SEC Championship Game. The Vols beat the Commodores 53-28 last year.