After missing out on a bowl game for the third time in Derek Mason’s four seasons, is this the year that the Vanderbilt Commodores make some noise in the SEC East? Led by senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur, among the most experienced signal-callers in the conference, the Commodores will look to finish with a winning record for the first time in Mason's tenure.
Vanderbilt's road slate is grueling, as four of its five road games come against teams who had at least seven wins last season. While the Commodores only travel twice in the first six weeks, those two contests are in South Bend against reigning Citrus Bowl champion Notre Dame and in Athens against College Football Playoff semifinalist Georgia.
Here's a look at how that schedule unfolds, from the easiest games to the toughest:
12. Sept. 29 vs. Tennessee State
Sure, this is an intriguing in-city rivalry, with the two campuses separated by five miles. However, the Tigers simply don’t have the talent to stay with the Commodores, even if Mason rests some players with a trip to Georgia coming up the following week. The schools are close, but the score shouldn’t be.
11. Sept. 8 vs. Nevada
Nevada went 3-9 and was winless away from home. The Commodores get the Wolf Pack in Nashville, so it’s pretty safe to chalk up a win for the home team in Week 2. The only reason this is ranked tougher than Tennessee State is because Nevada is actually an FBS opponent.
10. Sept. 1 vs. Middle Tennessee
Vanderbilt’s season opener is also its first of three contests against its home state of Tennessee. Middle Tennessee can put up a lot of points, but Kyle Shurmur should win the battle of veteran quarterbacks against the Blue Raiders’ Brent Stockstill under the lights in Nashville.
9. Oct. 27 at Arkansas
Arkansas had a down season last year, going just 4-8 in 2017. What’s worse is that one of those four wins was a one-point squeaker... against FBS rookie Coastal Carolina... at home. That came after the Razorbacks’ only SEC win of the season, a 38-37 victory over beleaguered Ole Miss. With Chad Morris taking over as the head coach in Fayetteville and the starting quarterback still to be determined, Vanderbilt should be able to take care of business, even on the road.
8. Oct. 20 at Kentucky
The first of the Commodores’ final three road games is made easier with Kentucky not having a definitive starter at quarterback. The Wildcats handled Vanderbilt by 23 points last season in Nashville, but this one should be much closer and quite possibly with a different winner.
7. Nov. 17 at Ole Miss
The Rebels closed 2017 on a high note, winning three of their final four contests including a season-ending triumph over Mississippi State in the annual Egg Bowl. But that came after Ole Miss tallied only three wins in its first eight games, when it could not stop anyone (37-plus points allowed per game in that stretch). If Vanderbilt can avoid a low-scoring slugfest and put points on the board, Ole Miss will likely not be able to keep up.
6. Oct. 13 vs. Florida
This game comes in between road trips to Georgia and Kentucky, at least one of which (the former) is going to be extremely tough to win. With only five road games all season, the Commodores will have plenty of chances to handle its business at home. Against the Gators, who are trying to bounce back under new head coach Dan Mullen, this could prove to be one of those golden chances to pick up a win in SEC play and one that might prove significant in deciding its postseason fate.
5. Nov. 24 vs. Tennessee
Vanderbilt’s season-ending win against Tennessee in Knoxville in 2017 was its only SEC win of an otherwise-disappointing campaign. Both teams should be much improved from that meeting, and the Commodores will have home-field advantage this time around. The rivalry game will amp up the pressure for both sides, especially since this might be a game to determine bowl eligibility for one or both teams.
4. Nov. 10 vs. Missouri
While Vanderbilt enters this game off a bye week, it's a matchup against one of the most talented and experienced quarterbacks in the conference in Missouri’s Drew Lock. The crowd in Columbia won’t make it any easier for the Commodores, who fell by 28 to the Tigers last November at home.
3. Sept. 22 vs. South Carolina
The Commodores getting this game at home will help, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Gamecocks went 9-4 with no bad losses. Sure, perhaps they could’ve done better than a one-point win at home against Louisiana Tech and mustered more than 15 points against Tennessee. But their largest losses were to then-No. 4 Clemson by 24 and to then-No. 2 Georgia (in Athens) by 14. This is a very talented South Carolina team that should give the Commodores everything they can handle, and then some.
2. Sept. 15 at Notre Dame
Vanderbilt’s first road test comes in Week 3 against a Notre Dame squad with a lot of momentum coming off a 10-3 finish and a thrilling come-from-behind Citrus Bowl win against LSU. The Irish open 2018 with a primetime showdown with Michigan in South Bend, and if they beat the Wolverines and Ball State the following week, Vanderbilt will face the unenviable task of taking down a hot Notre Dame at home, where the Irish are 14-5 in the last three seasons.
1. Oct. 6 at Georgia
If the trip to take on Notre Dame doesn’t concern Vanderbilt fans, this one will. Georgia was a defensive stand away from winning the national championship last year, and much of the Bulldogs’ talent from a season ago returns to Athens for another run at a title. Georgia won 45-14 in Nashville last season, and this year’s edition shouldn’t be any closer.
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-- Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.