|Vanderbilt's 2013 schedule|
The SEC title game is Dec. 7 in Atlanta.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.