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Top 25 team preview: No. 23 Vanderbilt Commodores

Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Jordan Matthews led the SEC in 2012 with 94 catches and should be Vanderbilt's best weapon again.

Vanderbilt's 2013 schedule
DateOpponent
Aug. 29vs. Ole Miss
Sept. 7vs. Austin Peay
Sept. 14at South Carolina
Sept. 21at Massachusetts
Sept. 28vs. UAB
Oct. 5vs. Missouri
Oct. 19vs. Georgia
Oct. 26at Texas A&M
Nov. 9at Florida
Nov. 16vs. Kentucky
Nov. 23at Tennessee
Nov. 30vs. Wake Forest

The SEC title game is Dec. 7 in Atlanta.

Top 25 Previews
1
Alabama
By Lars Anderson
 
2
Stanford
By Stewart Mandel
 
3
Texas A&M
By Stewart Mandel
 
4
Ohio State
By Stewart Mandel
 
5
Oregon
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
 
6
South Carolina
By Thayer Evans
 
7
Louisville
By Zac Ellis
 
8
Notre Dame
By Lars Anderson
 
9
Florida
By Andy Staples
 
10
Clemson
By Zac Ellis
 
11
Texas
By Stewart Mandel
 
12
Georgia
By Lars Anderson
 
13
Florida State
By Andy Staples
 
14
LSU
By Lars Anderson
 
15
Michigan State
By Ben Glicksman
 
16
TCU
By Dan Greene
 
17
Baylor
By Elizabeth McGarr McCue
 
18
Michigan
By Ted Keith
 
19
Oklahoma
By Richard Deitsch
 
20
Boise State
By Lars Anderson
 
21
UCLA
By R.J. Rico
 
22
Northwestern
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
 
23
Vanderbilt
By Zac Ellis
 
24
Northern Illinois
By Martin Rickman
 
25
Virginia Tech
By Zac Ellis
 

Can Alabama make a run at a third straight national title? Can Ohio State replicate last year's 12-0 campaign? Can Oregon maintain its standard of success under new leadership? With the college football season approaching, Sports Illustrated unveils its preseason Top 25.

For more college football preview content, check out SI's 2013 schedule guide, four teams that can beat Alabama package, preseason All-America Team, media roundtable and much more.

The case for

Vanderbilt finished last in the SEC in total defense in 2010, the year before James Franklin's arrival. Since, the fiery coach has elevated the unit to sixth in '11 and fifth last year, when the Commodores held SEC opponents to 250.0 yards -- and 10.9 points -- per game. They're likely to be as stingy this year. Six starters return, including key contributors such as senior defensive end Walker May, senior linebacker Chase Garnham and senior corner Andre Hal.

Jordan Matthews led the SEC in 2012 with 94 catches, and Vandy is at its deepest along the offensive line, with senior left tackle Wesley Johnson (a three-year starter who has never been flagged for holding), junior center Joe Townsend and junior right tackle Andrew Bridges. Depth, an issue in Franklin's first two seasons, has improved at every position, and the coach has all but erased Vanderbilt's image as a conference doormat, exemplified by the program's nine-win season -- its first in nearly a century -- in 2012.

The case against

Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels -- a former starter at Wyoming -- has played sparingly since 2010 (14-24, 220 yards). Also, the program's career rushing leader, Zac Stacy, is gone, and there is no apparent successor. What's more, four since dismissed players were charged with rape this August, casting a pall over the entire program.

Schedule analysis

The Commodores will know a lot by Week 3: They face Ole Miss in a Thursday-night home opener, then travel to Columbia two weeks later to meet the sixth-ranked Gamecocks. Vandy will need to steal at least one SEC victory on the road to match last season's total of five conference wins.

Key stat

9.5: The FBS teams that beat Vanderbilt last season average 9.5 wins. Meanwhile, the Commodores toppled teams that won an average of only 5.25 games in 2012. Franklin must find a way to hang with the SEC's best if his program hopes to progress.

Breakout player

DE Kyle Woestmann: As a sophomore, Woestmann recorded six sacks in the final seven games, all Commodores victories, two of them (and a forced fumble) coming in a 38-24 Music City Bowl win over NC State. He may be even better this year.

Freshman to watch

WR Jordan Cunningham: Few receiving duos are as talented as Chris Boyd and Matthews, but the depth behind them is slim. That's why Cunningham, the crown jewel of Vanderbilt's 2013 signing class, could see meaningful minutes immediately. A four-star prospect from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Cunningham was an all-state selection after catching 53 balls for 817 yards and leading University School to its first Class 3A state title.

X-factor

The run game: Stacy was a workhorse in the Vandy backfield last season, but the rushing attack will have a different look after his departure. Franklin will likely utilize a committee of running backs; during spring practice, sophomores Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour and junior Wesley Tate shared duties on the ground. All three backs boast on-field experience, but the offense will need to adjust to a trio of rushers while the passing game finds its footing behind a new quarterback. If the 'Dores struggle to replace Stacy's consistency, the entire offense could suffer.

Projected 2013 stats (By RotoWire.com)

QB Austyn Carta-Samuels: 2,340 passing yards, 17 TDs; 270 rushing yards, 3 TDs

RB Wesley Tate: 810 rushing yards, 12 TDs; 165 receiving yards, 0 TDs

WR Jordan Matthews: 1,100 receiving yards, 8 TDs; 45 rushing yards, 1 TD

Coach speak: James Franklin

SI: This is your deepest team since arriving at Vanderbilt. Did you notice a difference in the spring?

JF: You're starting to see recruiting affect our team. We had seven scholarship offensive linemen last year; now we have 14. It makes a difference, and you're seeing bigger guys across the roster. We feel good about the direction we're going.

SI: You wore T-shirts during spring practice with CHIP printed on the shoulder. What were you saying?

JF: That's just who we are. We're a blue-collar program. We have a chip on our shoulder and an underdog mentality in this league.

SI: You lost Jordan Rodgers at quarterback, a two-year starter. Is Austyn Carta-Samuels ready?

JF: I've been pleased with his leadership and work ethic. He has a strong arm and a natural feel for the game. He has a chance to have a really good year.

SI: Can this roster make noise in the SEC East?

JF: In our first year we thought we could win. Last year we believed we could win. Now there's an expectation, not only externally but internally.

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