Tour de SEC 2022: Vandy Crawls into Season With Question Marks
Every week in the lead up to the 2022 season, I'll break down a position group, a Crimson Tide player and an SEC team here on Tide 100.9. Next up is the first SEC opponent on Alabama's 2022 schedule: the Vanderbilt Commodores. Last week's breakdown is linked below.
Couple of trivia points for you to get started.
Vanderbilt football has only finished as a ranked team once. This was in 1948.
The Commodores have since posted just four winning seasons: 1974, 1975, 1982 and 2008.
The program hasn't won a conference championship since 1923, nearly a century ago.
Remember this guy?
Yep, Alabama promptly shut out Vanderbilt 59-0 the following week. Vanderbilt only won two more games the rest of the season. Alabama went on to win a national championship.
That was the last time Vanderbilt played Alabama. Of course, the two teams don't play often anymore, just three times in Nick Saban's tenure. However, it's much funnier to point out that Vanderbilt hasn't scored a point on Alabama since 2007.
Vanderbilt hasn't beaten Alabama since 1984.
Needless to say, there isn't much doubt about what will happen when these two teams take the field on September 24 inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Anchors Are Down and The Ship Ain't Movin'
Clark Lea, a former Vanderbilt fullback that played for the Commodores team that last scored on Alabama, enters his second year as head coach. Taking over a program that was winless during the pandemic season of 2020, the two wins in 2021 were a marked improvement, though neither came against the SEC.
Vanderbilt hasn't won an SEC game since October 2019 against Missouri.
This program is mired in mediocrity, even if Lea is showing some growth. Getting back to the success of the James Franklin era is a task only made more difficult by the resurgence of Tennessee, the invigoration of Kentucky, the strength of Florida and the domination of Georgia in the SEC East. Toss in a truly unpredictable South Carolina squad and Vanderbilt is likely eyeing Missouri in late October for its next real shot at winning another SEC contest.
Still, Lea's improvement on the defensive side of the ball should be noted. The former Notre Dame defensive coordinator made improvements that are more visible rather than statistical. After all, his defense isn't booming with talent.
According to Vanderbilt's athletics website, the Commodores were the only team in the SEC to feature four players with multiple interceptions during the regular season, while as a team, Vandy had eight consecutive games with an interception, matching the longest such streak since 1996.
Hey, it's something.
Lea will take more of a command of the defense this season after losing Jesse Minter to Michigan. An internal promotion of defensive backs coach Nick Howell fills the void at the official coaching position. The expectation for Lea is that some continuity in the staff will aid returning players and the future of the program overall.
That's sure to be a positive as the team won't have to learn a new scheme this year as it did last year and will return the likes of Anfernee Orji, the team's leading tackler in 2021, safety/linebacker hybrid Michael Owusu, and senior cornerback Jaylen Mahoney to, well, "anchor" the defense.
In a defense that is looking for consistency, one aspect this defense must resolve is its pass rush. In 2021, the Commodore defense tallied just 9 sacks on the season. Yes, that was the worst in the country - tied with South Florida.
Offense, One Giant Question Mark
Vanderbilt's biggest obstacle of the Clark Lea era is finding an identity on offense.
Settling on a quarterback is priority number one. In 2021, Lea relied on Ken Seals until a hand injury ended his season. He then turned to Mike Wright for the remainder of the season. Neither truly took the job by force as neither managed to find the endzone at least 10 times through the season. Throw in AJ Swann, an early-enrollee freshman who was the highest-rated offensive player of Vanderbilt's 2022 recruiting class, and this race to be the Vandy QB is on a muddy track.
You know what they say - "If you have two quarterbacks, you have none. If you have three, you have chaos."
In front of any one of these quarterbacks is an offensive line that has to replace three starters from left tackle down to center -- including Tyler Steen, who transferred to Alabama and figures to be the Crimson Tide's left tackle.
The skill positions do return experience, though not much of it was successful. Will Sheppard is likely WR1 having caught 43 passes for 577 yards (each second on the team) and four touchdowns (team-leading) last season.
At running back, the team could look to Re'Mahn Davis, a promising Temple transfer who missed most of 2021 with injury, or Rocko Griffin, who led the team in all categories last season with 145 carries for 517 yards and four touchdowns.
There's some promise for this team moving forward if some questions are answered, but it'll be tough sledding along the way.