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Vanderbilt Football: 2021 Commodores Season Preview and Prediction

The Commodores rank No. 90 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2021
Ken Seals, Vanderbilt Commodores Football

Ken Seals and the Vanderbilt Commodores are starting over with Clark Lea as head coach

Does Vanderbilt have new life as a program? That's what the Commodores are hoping for after firing Derek Mason and hiring former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and Vanderbilt alumnus Clark Lea to helm the ship. Vanderbilt has won just three games over the last two seasons and suffered major roster attrition via transfer during Mason's last year, so Lea has a lot of work to do as a first-time head coach.

The Commodores are not likely to go winless, as they did during an 0–9 campaign in 2020. But they're still looking at a major rebuilding project considering the young roster and new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Lea will have a tough job in the short term, but there are some pieces to work with thanks to decent recruiting under Mason.

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing Vanderbilt's Offense for 2021

Offensive coordinator David Raih comes over from the NFL, where he most recently coached wide receivers for the Arizona Cardinals under Kliff Kingsbury. Expect Vanderbilt to run a "pro spread" that incorporates myriad formation shifts and misdirection rather than a true Air Raid scheme. This unit could improve quite a bit after ranking 13th in the SEC in total offense and 14th in scoring last season.

Ken Seals returns after a fairly strong true freshman season during which he completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 1,928 yards and 12 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in nine games. He'll battle fellow sophomore Mike Wright for the starting job, but Seals has a big advantage there thanks to what he put on tape last season. Although Vanderbilt didn't let Seals bomb the ball downfield much, he made some impressive touch throws and can fit the ball into tight windows. Improving his decision-making will be the next step, as he might have been fortunate to throw only 10 interceptions.

Wide receiver will probably be the strength of the offense with all three starters returning: Cam Johnson, Amir Abdur-Rahman and Chris Pierce Jr. Ben Bresnahan also emerged as a decent SEC starter last season, ranking third among returning tight ends with 28 catches for 300 yards. The question is whether Seals will have enough time to find those weapons downfield, as the Commodores' offensive line projects toward the bottom of the SEC. Cole Clemens, Bryce Bailey and Jonathan Stewart all return after sitting out last fall — all have starting experience — but will there be rust?

Vanderbilt will miss Keyon Henry-Brooks, who looked like the Commodores' top returning player before entering the NCAA transfer portal this spring. Temple transfer Re'Mahn Davis is the top candidate to take over in the backfield after running for 936 yards as a freshman with the Owls in 2019.

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Previewing Vanderbilt's Defense for 2021

This side of the ball atrophied over Mason's last few years, to the point where Vanderbilt ranked 12th or worse in the SEC in scoring defense and total defense each of the last two years. And the cupboard is pretty much bare now that edge defenders Dayo Odeyingbo and Andre Mintze are moving on to the NFL. Lea and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, formerly the Baltimore Ravens' safeties coach, will need to work their magic.

Safeties Dashaun Jerkins and Brendon Harris might be the top returning players on this unit, but every other position is totally unproven. Anfernee Orji could play the "Anchor" role as a hybrid linebacker/safety in Lea's 4-2-5 scheme, and Feleti Afemui returns after opting out of the 2020 season; he'll be needed at inside linebacker and is a strong candidate to lead the team in tackles.

Defending the pass will be an issue, as Vanderbilt probably won't get much pressure on opposing quarterbacks and has recently had shaky play at cornerback to boot — the Dores made just two interceptions all of last season. Elijah McAllister is coming off an injury that kept him out for the entire 2020 season, and he'll need to provide some disruption on the edge. Vanderbilt ranked No. 101 nationally last season with 1.56 sacks per game, and that figure could get even worse in 2021.

Previewing Vanderbilt's Specialists for 2021

For all of Vanderbilt's holes last season, none were bigger than the total vacuum at kicker. Pierson Cooke converted 4-of-9 field goals — no one else attempted any — and the Commodores needed to address the position via the transfer portal. They did so by adding former Alabama kicker Joseph Bulovas, who should take Vanderbilt from last in the SEC to middle of the pack in terms of production at the position.

This likely won't be an explosive return team on kicks. Harrison Smith is a rock-solid SEC punter, so special teams could be a relative strength under new coordinator Justin Lustig, who came over from Syracuse.

Final Analysis

Thanks to an offense that should have experience at every spot except center, Vanderbilt could score enough points this year to make things interesting against the SEC's bottom-tier teams. It would be fairly surprising, however, if the Dores finished anywhere but last in total defense. If Vanderbilt is competitive on that side of the ball, then it could avoid a last-place finish in the SEC East; otherwise, the program is a year away from pushing for a bowl game.

National Ranking: 90

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