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2015 season preview: Vanderbilt Commodores

At this time a year ago, Derek Mason hadn’t coached a game yet. There was excitement. There was optimism. There was a buzz about the Vanderbilt football program. Then, beginning with a loss to Temple on opening night, it all started to fade away.

Now, as he enters Year 2, Mason is more mature. He understands what to expect from the SEC, and he knows that this could be a make-or-break year for him.

“We're going to be a better football team,” Mason said while at SEC media days. “What that is, I can't predict wins. But I do know, in terms of being competitive, doing the right things, and creating men that will thrive here in the SEC, I can do that.

“So I'm not going to be about predictions. I'm just going to be about the work and let the season tell a story.”

2014 record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)

Most important player: “Limitless” isn’t a term thrown around loosely. Yet that’s how Mason described running back Ralph Webb when referring to his ceiling. The redshirt sophomore was one of the few bright spots for Vanderbilt last year, rushing for 907 yards and four touchdowns. This year, he believes he can be even better. He wants to be in the same conversation as fellow SEC backs Nick Chubb and Leonard Fournette. And if the Commodores want to play in a bowl game, they need Webb to reach that next level.

Breakout player: Really, any of the linebackers could be mentioned here -- it’s arguably the best position group on the team -- but sophomore Zach Cunningham seems poised for the biggest breakthrough season. When he was inserted into the starting lineup for the final five games last season, it was like a light turned on. He posted a team single-game high 13 tackles against Mississippi State. He had 11 tackles and a sack against Florida. He raised his level of play, and as a result he finished second on the team with 67 tackles. Imagine what he can do when he starts all 12 games.

Most important game: It’s sad when you’re an SEC team and your most important game is Western Kentucky, but Vanderbilt simply can’t afford to lose the first game as it did a year ago. And similar to Temple, the Hilltoppers present a difficult matchup with one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks. However, it’s critical for Vanderbilt to prove that it’s the better team and start the season with a win. If not, which SEC team will the Commodores beat?

Biggest question mark: Last year's quarterback carousel might have been the single biggest reason for the team’s demise. Between injuries and inconsistency, the coaches never could find their guy. That needs to change in Year 2 under Mason. The only problem is that it’s the middle of August, and Vanderbilt still hasn’t named a starting quarterback. Johnny McCrary got the most reps last year and is the early favorite to win the job, but he’s in competition with sophomore Wade Freebeck and freshman Kyle Shurmur, an ESPN 300 recruit who arrived this summer.

Class of 2015 signee to watch: Shurmur could certainly find his way on the field as a freshman, but ESPN 300 linebacker Josh Smith will likely have a more immediate impact. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Smith has ideal linebacker size already and could contribute on special teams from day one. If Smith is able to pick up on Mason’s complex defensive scheme, he could find himself in the middle of Vanderbilt's linebacker rotation. Shurmur, meanwhile, will have some competition, but he does have ideal size and enough arm strength to work himself into the mix for playing time. -- Derek Tyson

Class of 2016 storyline: Vanderbilt finished with the No. 44-ranked class in the team recruiting rankings for 2015 and is hoping to greatly improve on that. The Commodores have only 10 verbal commits for 2016, five of which are ranked as three-star prospects. The other five are ranked as two-star prospects or lower. Mason is hoping more success on the field this year will lead to greater success in recruiting. Look for Vanderbilt to dip into Georgia and Florida to try to find more playmakers on offense and defense. Three-star wideout Donaven Tennyson is the 97th-ranked wide receiver and the highest-rated Vanderbilt commitment. -- Derek Tyson

Best-case scenario: Mason doesn’t want to make any predictions for the upcoming season, but best case? His Vanderbilt team wins six games and returns to a bowl game. That won’t be easy, though -- not with a schedule that includes six road games, including trips to Ole Miss, Florida and Tennessee. But before last year, the Commodores played in three straight bowl games. It can be done.

Worst-case scenario: Outside of maybe Austin Peay, there’s not a game on the schedule you look at and feel super-confident about. Remember, Vanderbilt nearly lost to Massachusetts last year. It would be difficult to repeat what happened in 2014, but it’s certainly possible.

2015 prediction: Vanderbilt is a better football team this year than it was a year ago, but I just don’t see that translating to a huge turnaround in the win-loss column. I think the Commodores will show progress and even win a conference game, finishing 4-8. Will progress be enough for Mason to keep his job? We shall see.