As another off season of College Football material kicks off, this year marks the third year I’ll throw my hat in the ring and look at a number of topics and categories. In the process I’ll look to do everything from predicting next year’s 25 best teams, identify the games of the year, narrow down the Heisman field, identify those replacing 2012′s stars and ultimately make predictions for each league, culminating in a national championship pick. They’ll be many things I’ll be ridiculed for. There will be a number of things that will surprise some people. Ultimately you’ll come away from the next 6 months of material as ready for the college football season as I can possibly make you. While I’ll be sure to miss on things I would like to remind the skeptics I did correctly predict the same number of bowl teams preseason as Phil Steele a year ago as well as top him in BCS Bowl participants predicted before the year. Nonetheless I’m not putting out any magazines soon so keep buying his for the top preseason coverage available.
The key in any top 25 poll is understanding the premise on which the poll is based because not all top 25 polls are built the same way. Some people choose to rank teams 1-25 based on where they think teams will be ranked at year’s end. If they think a team will lose 5 games they won’t rank them. While that may seem logical I’ve never been a proponent of that style of poll and it has never been, nor will ever be, how I choose to do my top 25 polls. My polls reflect the 25 teams entering 2013 who I think are the top 25 teams on a neutral field if the country played a round-robin. If a team is likely to max out at 7 wins that doesn’t give me the urge to rank a nine-win team over them if the nine-win team is from a much weaker league. With that covered, let us continue the top 25 for 2013 as the official kickoff of the off season coverage here at The Sports Headquarters.
*Returning Starters Figures from Phil Steele’s Blog
Teams already ranked:
#25. Fresno State Bulldogs
Coming in at #24…
#24 Vanderbilt Commodores
2012 Record: 9-4
Conference Finish: 4th in SEC East
Bowl: Won Music City Bowl 38-24 over NC State
2013 Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Starting with the Umass game in late October the Vanderbilt offense came on strong late in the season scoring at least 27 points in each of the final six games and 38+ in five of those. With that said, that also correlated with the lightest portion of its schedule after the offense failed to do much of anything early in the year against the SEC East elite. James Franklin and the offensive coaches know they will need more from the offense in its key SEC East games if they have any desires of chipping its way into the top three of the SEC East which South Carolina, Georgia and Florida appear to have a stranglehold on.
The biggest area of concern going into 2013 will be replacing the quarterback position after the graduation of Jordan Rodgers. While Rodgers didn’t rewrite NCAA record books last season he was very efficient with a 3:1 TD:INT ratio (15 TDs, 5 INTs) and minimized mistakes which often prove fatal in SEC play. Austyn Carta-Samuels figures to get the starting nod in 2013 and while his attempts were few last year, this is a player who has experience as a starter going back to his time at Wyoming where he was Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year. Carta-Samuels won’t be short on talent around him either with the return of Chris Boyd and more importantly Jordan Matthews who was considered a high possibility to skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
The duo of Matthews and Boyd last season combined for 2,097 receiving yards on 144 catches for 13 TDs. To give you an idea of their importance to the passing game, no other player caught more than 12 passes. Matthews decision to return to school could be the difference in 2-3 wins in projections for this squad. The passing game will have to build the chemistry the duo had with Rodgers but as a whole Carta-Samuels is inheriting one of the better WR duos to all of the SEC. Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow split most of the duty behind lead back Zac Stacy and spring practice should be a stiff competition for the backfield carries. On the offensive line the Commodores return three starters from a year ago.
The Commodores defensively in 2012 made the necessary strides to become an upper echelon team in America with a unit that finished the season ranked 18th. It can’t be denied that the defense gave the team chances to win both the opener against South Carolina and a week two game against Northwestern had the offense been able to do a little more. The secondary finished 2012 ranked 13th in pass defense (yes, partly attributable to the run oriented SEC) and figures again to be a strong suit for the Commodores in 2013. Three starters are back in the secondary, most notably safety Kenny Ladler who led the Commodores with 90 tackles a season ago and Andre Hal who led the team with 16 passes defended and picked off two passes.
A revamped front seven that loses four starters will be the focus coming into 2013 though the majority of the team’s leading tacklers are back. Chase Garnham returns for his senior season at linebacker after a monster junior year where he was second on the team with 84 tackles, 12.5 of which were for a loss. Garnham added six and a half sacks as well, the only player on the team with more than three on the year. Despite a 36th ranking nationally in sacks, that still only tied for sixth best in the SEC. Getting after the passer is a key in the SEC and can often lead to turnovers that change the complexion of games.
Vanderbilt has a very good defense that if it can take that next step to being great makes them a handful for just about any opponent in the SEC. Two areas the Commodores need to clean up from 2012 that if duplicated in 2013 could spell doom are turnovers and penalties. Vanderbilt just didn’t turn opposing offenses over in 2012 and for an offense that isn’t explosive and breaks in a new quarterback, those turnovers are huge. The Commodores also ranked around the middle of the country in penalty yardage at nearly six per game. Correct those two things on defense and this team should wind up with another stellar season.
The schedule has some landmines on it in 2013 and Vanderbilt’s season will be made or broken depending on how it handles a tough middle stretch. For starters the Commodores draw annual rival Ole Miss in the opener, an early season game between two SEC teams trying to move into the upper-tier of the conference and Texas A&M as its two SEC West opponents. In division play they travel to South Carolina in the third game of the year, a game which if they lose could put them behind the eight ball most of the year trying to get back in the race. These first two SEC games vs South Carolina and Ole Miss will tell us quite a bit about Vanderbilt. With that said the front of the schedule is manageable with four very winnable games.
The brutal stretch comes in late October-early November where the Commodores host Georgia, travel to A&M the next weekend then after a bye travel to Florida. Anything less than 2-1 in those three (and 3-0 may be needed) and Vanderbilt can forget about contending for the SEC East crown. The back end of the schedule with Tennessee, Kentucky and Wake Forest should serve as “bowl clinching” games one of those weeks. It’s a pretty tough schedule that could make an 8-4 repeat about the best Vanderbilt could ask for. Nonetheless Vanderbilt should be a pretty good football team in 2013 who goes bowling and beats up on some poor opponent unlucky at drawing the SEC’s “#6 or 7″ team.
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