Happy Football Season, y’all.

In just a few short days, the Vanderbilt Commodores will kick off the 2017 season in Murfreesboro against the MTSU Blue Raiders.

With the season upon us, the Hustler sports staff got together to analyze the 2017 Commodores and make their predictions for the upcoming season.

1. What dimension of Vanderbilt’s team do you expect to shine this season? 

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor: The passing game appears ready for a breakthrough in 2017. After the way quarterback Kyle Shurmur and his receivers finished last season, this offense is primed to perform. Shurmur is on year three in the same offense with a group of veteran wideouts that includes Trent Sherfield, Caleb Scott and C.J. Duncan. Factor in a budding stud in Kalija Lipscomb, a strong tight end in Jared Pinkney and a running game that can open up the play action pass, Vanderbilt fans should turn their eyes to the sky this season.

Max Schneider, Assistant Sports Editor: It has to be the run game. Ralph Webb might be the best running back in the SEC, and Khari Blasingame broke out last year in a big way. The two-headed monster that is Vanderbilt’s backfield will take some of the pressure off Kyle Shurmur and open up the play action, which is where Shurmur excels. Expect Webb to make the rushing record untouchable and to have fresh legs with Blasingame behind him. They have the potential to grab 2000 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Jack Fader, Sports Reporter: Jared Pinkney. By all accounts a standout on the offensive ends last year and a major returning contributor, it seems like outside of Ralph Webb, Pinkney might be the Commodores’ most talented offensive player. If quarterback Kyle Shurmur can alleviate Webb by linking up with Pinkney and the rest of Vandy’s receiving corps, the offense will be much more dynamic.

Will Wilson, Sports Reporter: The running game should be really good this year. In the last two seasons, the offense amassed an average of over 150 rushing yards per game with Ralph Webb gaining 2,400 yards in that time span.

2. What is the team’s biggest question mark?

Cutler Klein: Every good offense starts and ends with its offensive line. With the Vanderbilt O-Line graduating two incredibly talented NFL-caliber seniors, Will Holden and Barrett Gouger, the line has been in flux through Fall camp. While there are plenty of returning veterans, like Bruno Reagan and Justin Skule, important spots on the line may fall to freshmen like Devin Cochran. As we saw in the Independence Bowl, when Shurmur can stay on his feet, this offense can shine. But, when he gets knocked down, bad things happen. This offensive line needs to be strong if this offense is to function at a competitive level.

Max Schneider: If Webb and Blasingame are going to have the year people think they’ll have, the offensive line will have to open holes, and that’s the biggest question mark on this football team. The losses of Will Holden and Barrett Gouger are tough to swallow, and leave voids at the tackle and center positions. Justin Skule figures to move to left tackle, with Bailey Granier sliding into the right tackle spot.  The center and right guard positions look to be divided up amongst Bruno Reagan, Sean Auwae-McMoore, and Jared Southers, with Reagan the only guaranteed starter.  For a team that runs right a good portion of the time, a lot will have to be expected from these new starters to hold up the backbone of this offense.

Jack Fader: Defensive Playmaking. Not many teams in the country were lucky enough to have someone as talented as Zach Cunningham lead their defense last year, but the downside of that is not many teams have the burden of replacing a guy like that this year. Add that to the loss of dominant lineman Adam Butler, and there are two massive holes in the Vandy defense that need to be filled. If Derek Mason can work some magic and fill them, Vanderbilt will be much better suited to win some games against a tougher schedule than last year.

Will Wilson: Kyle Shurmur and the passing game is the biggest question mark this season because of inconsistency. Outside of November, Shurmur had only one 200 yard passing game. He threw for over 200 yards in all four November games, including a 400-yard game against Tennessee.

3. What player needs to step up for the team to succeed?

Cutler Klein: Oren Burks is my pick here. In the absence of Zach Cunningham, this defense will need senior leaders to step up. Burks has been around the block and can come to the ball in so many different ways. He’s a linebacker and defensive back wrapped up into one player. Burks is versatile enough and seasoned enough to make an impact and ease the burden of losing Cunningham.
Max Schneider: It’s hard to say any one player can make a team succeed, but if any position can, it’s the quarterback position. The last time Vanderbilt had that kind of quarterback play was with Jordan Rodgers. This year, Shurmur has a full season under his belt, and has the opportunity to make strides and capitalize on his mistakes in 2016. Ball security is the number one priority for Shurmur, and if he can protect the football and show even flashes of the dimes he was dropping in the Tennessee game, this team could shock people in the SEC.
Jack Fader: Oren Burks. As the Commodores came into the 2016 season, Burks was talked about almost as highly as Zach Cunningham. After a somewhat disappointing season for Burks, he enters his senior season with something to prove. A leader in the locker room, I have no doubt that Burks can and will make some big plays from the linebacker position this season.
Will Wilson: Whoever starts at inside linebacker is the player that needs to step up for the team to succeed. He will have to replace 2nd round pick Zach Cunningham and his conference-leading 125 tackles from last year.

4. Best case/worst case scenario for the team this season?

Cutler Klein: Best case scenario, and I’m not kidding here, this team could win the SEC East. The East is noticeably open this year, and Vanderbilt fits right into the fray. Vanderbilt has Georgia, Kentucky and Mizzou at home, as well as Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee on the road. If Vanderbilt can steal four or five of those games with a potent offense and stout defense, they could be in the running to go to Atlanta to get beat down by Alabama in December. Worst case scenario, this offense regresses from last season, rendering their last two regular season games of 2016 a fluke. In addition, the defense cannot replace Zach Cunningham, and they give up far too many points. Vanderbilt wins four or five games and misses a bowl.

Max Schneider: Looking up and down this schedule, there’s only one game that seems unwinnable, and that’s on September 23rd when Alabama comes to town.  Beyond that, every game is a winnable game. 9-3 would be shocking, but it is a realistic best case scenario if you figure Vanderbilt can defeat Georgia and Kansas State at home, and can take two out of three on the road from Ole Miss, South Carolina, and a Tennessee team without Josh Dobbs. Worst case scenario features losses in those games, plus losses to Kentucky and Missouri, putting this team at about 4-8.

Jack Fader: Best Case: The offense gels like it did in the last two regular season games last year, the defense rebounds from the losses of Cunningham and Butler and the Commodores win 8 games, including a huge early win at home over nationally-ranked Kansas State. Worst Case: Shurmur struggles the same way he did last year, the defense struggles mightily without Cunningham and Butler, and demoralizing early losses to Kansas State and Alabama set the team up for disaster during their tough October stretch.

Will Wilson: The best case scenario for Vandy this year is getting to the SEC championship. The worst case is 10-12 games where neither team gets to 14 points, and each offense struggles to get past midfield.

5. Record prediction?

Cutler Klein: Given Vanderbilt wins all the games it should win, and springs a couple of upsets, the Commodores will go 7-5 and go to a better bowl game than Shreveport (granted, it’s kind of a low bar).

Max Schneider: The Commodores have improved over last year, and will play in a lot of tough, yet winnable games. The problem this team has had is that it shows no consistency from week to week. Pulling off three wins in a row just doesn’t seem that likely unless they can really get solid play at the quarterback position, so staying at 6-6 seems in the cards. This team can very feasibly get to six wins and another bowl game, and may surprise people with more, but until they show that level of consistency, 6-6 is the expectation.

Jack Fader: 6-6. The Commodores will win their first two games, then drop their next two to very good football teams at home. They split the next four, picking up wins against USC and Ole Miss, then beat Western Kentucky to get to 5 wins. Kentucky and Tennessee will be too much for the Dores to handle, but they will salvage 6 wins by beating Mizzou at home the week before traveling to Knoxville. And who knows, the confidence from securing a bowl berth the week before could allow them to be Champions of Life again at the hands of the Vols.

Will Wilson: 8-5 after winning a bowl game.

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