The regular-season grades for the Vanderbilt Commodores are pretty spiffy. They’re headed to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl to face Cincinnati on Dec. 31.
When you consider that the offensive grade for the Commodores each of the past two seasons was a resounding F, the fact that they check in this season with a B- is a testament to how much they improved on offense. That improvement was most glaring in the offensive line, which paved the way for Zac Stacy to rush for a school-record 1,136 yards. The Commodores averaged 26.9 points per game, a full 10 points more than they averaged a year ago. Jordan Rodgers’ emergence at quarterback helped bring the big play back to the Vanderbilt offense. Sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews averaged 19.5 yards per catch, while redshirt freshman receiver Chris Boyd caught seven touchdown passes. After being held without a touchdown in back-to-back games against South Carolina and Alabama, Vanderbilt averaged 31.6 points in its final seven games and scoring at least 21 points in all seven.
The Commodores had several veterans returning on defense and played at a high level on that side of the ball all season. Early on when the offense was trying to find its identity, the defense carried this team. Senior leaders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger, Sean Richardson and Casey Hayward all had big seasons, and it’s a defense that specialized in taking the ball away. The Commodores forced 27 turnovers, tied for fourth in the SEC, and returned four of their 17 interceptions for touchdowns. The Commodores ranked 19th nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 324.6 yards per game, and were 27th in scoring defense, giving up an average of 20.8 points per game. Vanderbilt has had some good defenses over the years, but this one ranks right up there with any of them.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
The Commodores made some big plays on special teams. They gave themselves a chance to beat Georgia with the late blocked punt, and Andre Hal returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown earlier in that game. But they also made just 7 of 13 field-goal attempts, missing two in the 27-21 overtime loss to Tennessee, and had a costly running-into-the-kicker penalty go against them in that loss to the Vols, too. They were fourth in the league in both net punting and kickoff coverage. Richard Kent averaged 42.5 yards per punt.
Some might look at this grade and think it’s a bit high for a team that went 6-6 in the regular season. But how many times have the Commodores won six games in the regular season, and how many times have they played in a bowl game? In his first season, James Franklin came in and completely changed the culture at Vanderbilt. He also brought an edge to the program that should serve it well for years to come. It wasn’t just Franklin, either. His staff is excellent. Look at the job offensive coordinator John Donovan did with a unit that ranked 112th nationally in scoring offense last season. The same goes for offensive line coach Herb Hand, who was the only holdover from the previous staff. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is one of the brightest defensive minds out there. It’s a staff that wasn’t shy about trying new things, either, and they obviously pressed all the right buttons with this team – only the fifth in school history to play in a bowl game.