It's likely that Mizzou will start conference play at either 4-0 or 3-1; as I mentioned in my non-conference previews, Mizzou should be favored in each of the four games, but odds are decent that there will be an upset along the way. That's the way college football works. If Mizzou does indeed trip up, however, the first conference game will be an excellent chance to get that win back. Vanderbilt is sturdy but far from intimidating, and if the Commodores get off to another slow start like last year -- always a possibility considering they'll have a new offensive backfield and defensive line, and they might still be dealing with fallout from a truly gross alleged offseason incident -- they could be ripe for a defeat. This is certainly a winnable game for the Tigers, even if the odds of victory are under 50 percent
Now, make no mistake: There has still been some luck involved; at least, there was last year. Vanderbilt surged to 39th in 2011, but a 1-5 one-possession record kept the Commodores down. In 2012, they sank to just 50th, with a defense that improved slightly and an offense that regressed considerably (especially over the first half of the season), but a 3-1 one-possession record made all the difference. Vanderbilt went 9-4, whipped N.C. State in the Music City Bowl, inked another interesting class of recruits, and enters 2013 with a level of optimism unseen in Nashville since, I don't know, the Red Sanders era in the 1940s?
Now, the margin for error for Vandy is still minimal. It always will be. Great recruiting from Franklin and company still has the Commodores in the bottom half of the league in that regard (ninth in two-year recruiting rank). And their No. 50 F/+ ranking was in the bottom half, as well (eighth). If the close-game breaks go against them, it is going to be difficult to engineer a record better than about 6-6.
But this is a program that won just eight games from 2001-'04 and had only once won more than nine games in a two-year span in this century. To improve to the middle of the pack in the nation's toughest conference, with the threat of making more noise with a couple of lucky breaks, is staggering. College football's newest, smartest underdog strategy is working, and it's making schools like Vanderbilt far less of an underdog.
As you see below, the Commodores couldn't create many opportunities for Zac Stacy (104th in Opportunity Rate) and couldn't keep opposing linemen out of the Vandy backfield on run plays (112th in Stuff Rate). They were solid in short-yardage situations, which paid off at key times, but the line as a whole was pretty disappointing last fall.
In 2013, that should begin to turn around. Another three-year starting tackle, Ryan Seymour, is gone, but six players with starting experience return; plus, we'll begin to get a look at a very highly-touted group of redshirt freshmen that includes four-star tackle Andrew Jelks. Whereas Vandy's 2012 starters on the line were mostly two- and low three-star recruits, the staters in 2014, 2015, and beyond could be high-three- and four-star guys. […]
[Zac] Stacy is gone, but Kimbrow and Wesley Tate could team up to form a nice inside-outside combo. Tate's ceiling is pretty limited, but he's a big body who could certainly be used to soften up defenses. Kimbrow is the potential star, however. If he is able to take on a big load of carries, Vanderbilt's offensive ceiling gets awfully high despite the loss of Stacy and Rodgers.
South Carolina completed seven of 15 passes against Vanderbilt. Missouri completed 14 of 40. Florida completed 11 of 20. Kentucky completed 13 of 35. Tennessee completed 19 of 41. Wake Forest completed 18 of 38.
Despite a mediocre-at-best pass rush, Vanderbilt's secondary came up big for a good portion of the year, and it could again with three returning senior starters. Andre Hal is one of the nation's better ball hawks -- his 16 passes defensed were among the nation's Top 20 -- and safeties Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall were nothing if not steady big-play preventers. If you cannot run the ball, good luck scoring against Vanderbilt through the air.
Vandy's biggest advantage
It's going to be very jarring going from facing the secondaries of Murray State, Toledo, Indiana, and Arkansas, to facing Vanderbilt's. The Commodores' pass rush is no great shakes, but Vandy has top-notch corner Andre Hal, two senior safeties, and a stellar, steady linebacking corps to clean up messes underneath. Here's where we'll truly begin to learn about the ceiling of the Mizzou passing game; even if there are weaknesses, the weak defenses of non-conference play might still allow pretty solid stats.
Mizzou's biggest advantage
While it's also going to be jarring to go from the spread-out attacks of Murray State, Toledo, Indiana and perhaps ASU to Vandy's power-and-bombs offense, Vandy might also not have a very good offense, at least not early in the year. There are certainly some interesting candidates at the skill position -- there is currently a three-way tie for starting running back between Brian Kimbrow, Wesley Tate, and Jerron Seymour, and at the very least, senior Jordan Matthews will test any team's No. 1 cornerback (even if No. 2 receiver, and Missouri-killer, Chris Boyd's status is still uncertain); but Zac Stacy was a special back (he struggled for running room against Mizzou but pulled off a ridiculous stiff-arm in the nearly game-clinching first down run at the end), and it might take VU a while to fully replace his production.
The FO projections are pretty kind to Mizzou, and if you believe them, you believe the Tigers have an excellent chance in this game. In all, I'd say if these teams played 10 times in Nashville, Vandy would probably win six of them, so give me something like Vandy 24, Mizzou 20. But again, if the Tigers slip up early, here's a golden opportunity to get one back.