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Why Vanderbilt will -- or won't -- make a bowl game

Will greater familiarity with second-year coach Derek Mason lead to better results on the field for Vandy? AP Images/Mark Humphrey

After three years of arguably the best football Vanderbilt's program has ever seen, the Commodores fell flat in Derek Mason's first season as head coach in 2014.

Three straight bowl trips were followed by a disastrous 3-9 season in which the Commodores were 0-8 in conference play. There was no confidence, little leadership and Vandy rarely found itself in any of its SEC games. This team even started the year with a 37-7 loss to Temple at home.

So can Vandy turn it around in 2015?

Here's a look back at the rest of this series from the SEC.

Why Vanderbilt will make a bowl game:

  • Young, hungry defense: While the offensive side of the ball is a major work in progress, the Commodores like the makeup of their young but feisty defense. Vandy returns nine starters on this side of the ball and that defensive line could be an issue for opponents at times. Adam Butler has been solid in the middle since moving over from the offensive line, while Caleb Azubike might be the team's best athlete and he's moving back to the defensive end spot. At noseguard, you have potential rising stars in Jay Woods and Nifae Lealao. The star of this side might be sophomore linebacker Nigel Bowden, who led the team with 78 tackles last year and will play alongside seniors Stephen Weatherly and Darreon Herring. Sophomore safety Oren Burks is one to watch in Vandy's secondary, along with junior Torren McGaster at corner. Mason is also taking over as the defensive coordinator so he can be more hands-on with that side.

  • Unity: Let's face it, this team was done before it even stepped on the field against Temple. After having a completely different mindset under the incredibly successful James Franklin, the Commodores didn't find much of a rhythm with Mason before the season. As the season progressed, guys developed more chemistry with Mason. Now, things are completely different inside the locker room. Unity is growing and guys are buying into Mason's philosophy. He also changed his offseason program to better accommodate his players both mentally and physically. Talent goes a long way, but so does chemistry, and the Commodores believe they have more chemistry than they've had since Mason arrived.

Why Vanderbilt won't make a bowl game:

  • Lack of offensive playmakers: Running back Ralph Webb was one of the top statistical SEC backs last season, but he can't do it all himself. Getting close to 1,000 yards was great, but he needs help both at running back and receiver. There just isn't much depth behind him. Dallas Rivers was thrown into the fire as a freshman last season and had a decent spring, but he averaged 3.6 yards per carry and didn't have a run longer than 12 yards. After that, there's not much at running back. As far as receiver, Vandy doesn't have a legit SEC receiver right now. C.J. Duncan averaged 15.8 yards per catch and led all wide receivers with four touchdowns last year, but he might have to play more running back this fall. Tight end Steven Scheu led the team with 39 catches and 525 yards last year, but he left spring early with a leg injury and his status to start the year is unknown. If Vandy's offense is going to test opponents, it has to get a lot more out of its very unproven receivers. Vandy returns just three players with double-digit catches from 2014.

  • Quarterback issues: New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has his hands full here. Stephen Rivers transferred after a less-than-impressive year and Patton Robinette retired due to health reasons. That leaves sophomore Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck to immediately compete for the starting job this fall. Freshman Kyle Shurmur could be the future at quarterback, but Mason would like to redshirt him. The Commodores had four different starters under center last season and McCrary was the best statistically, but he didn't mount any sort of lead over Freebeck during the spring. Freebeck could take this job as more of a pro-style passer. But what happens if neither takes the torch? Maybe Shurmur has to play. What does Vandy stand to lose by starting someone who might have the most talent, even if he is incredibly green?

  • Unfriendly road trips: After starting the season with three straight home games, Vandy must go on the road to Ole Miss, Middle Tennessee and South Carolina. After that, two of the Commodores' next three games are on the road (Houston and Florida). The season ends with a trip to Knoxville to face rival Tennessee. It's bad enough that the conference road games are tough but having to play two of those incredibly important nonconference games away from Nashville is brutal for a team looking to recover from last year's nightmare.