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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt Football Preseason Mailbag: Can Vanderbilt make a bowl game?

The Vanderbilt Hustler Sports Editorial Board answers questions ahead of the 2023 football season.
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Barrie Barto
Vanderbilt defense celebrates a big stop, as photographed on Oct. 8, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)

Clark Lea and Vanderbilt Football have high hopes for the 2023 season, as they aim to clinch their first bowl appearance since 2018. To do that, the Commodores will need to have a strong showing in their nonconference portion of the season and win at least two or three SEC games. 

Vanderbilt’s season begins on Saturday, Aug. 26, with a matchup against the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors. The Rainbow Warriors are led by junior quarterback Brayden Schager. The last time Schager played the Commodores, he completed 51.4% of his passes and had a 22.8 QBR. The Commodores’ biggest key in winning their game on Saturday is to force Schager into errant throws and collapse the pocket as fast as possible. Before the season starts, our Sports editors wanted to answer all of your questions before Vanderbilt’s first game of the season.

How will Vanderbilt fare in nonconference play? 

Andrew Wilf, Sports Editor: I predict Vanderbilt to go 3-1 in their nonconference slate this season.

Lea’s nonconference record as head coach of the Commodores is 4-3, and I expect that record to improve this season. Vanderbilt’s first matchup of the season comes on Aug. 26 with a clash against Hawaii. Vanderbilt played the Rainbow Warriors last season and won 63-10. The Commodores come into this year’s game as 17-point favorites. According to ESPN Analytics, Vanderbilt has a 90.2% chance of starting the season 2-0. Although Vanderbilt comes into the game as heavy favorites, the Commodores must never forget about their home opener in 2021, when they lost in major upset fashion to East Tennessee State 23-3. 

I predict Vanderbilt to speed past Hawaii and Alabama A&M, ultimately receiving its first loss in Winston-Salem, N.C., when they play the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. This battle will be a great test for the Commodores to match up against SEC-level competition. Although Wake Forest lost star quarterback Sam Hartman to the transfer portal, Mitch Griffis’s precision and strong pocket awareness will be too much for Vanderbilt’s pass defense to handle.

To wrap up their nonconference slate, the Commodores will travel to Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas to play UNLV. The Rebels are led by first-year head coach Barry Odom. He will have junior quarterback Doug Brumfield command the Rebels’ offense. Vanderbilt will need to keep Brumfield in the pocket to win the game.

Jayce Pollard, Assistant Sports Specialist: I believe that Vanderbilt will win at least three nonconference games this season. Hawai’i, Alabama A&M and UNLV should all be double-digit victories that serve more as tune-up games for shots at SEC opponents that will come later in the season. The only game in question is Sept. 9 at Wake Forest. Last season, the Demon Deacons benefited from the last-second return of injured quarterback Sam Hartman. Now that the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes has moved on to Notre Dame, Dave Clawson and Co. will have to prove that the power of the slow mesh transcends elite play under center. A Commodore victory is certainly possible in what portends to be a rebuilding year in Winston-Salem, but do not, under any circumstances, rely on it.

Which games will be Vanderbilt’s most likely SEC wins?

Frankie Sheehy, Deputy Sports Editor: While anything is possible, three of the home games on Vanderbilt’s SEC schedule stand out as especially winnable: Kentucky in the conference opener on Sept. 23, Missouri the next week on Sept. 30 and Auburn on Nov. 4 for Homecoming and Senior Day. I’d also be on upset watch on Oct. 7 when the Commodores visit Gainesville trying for back-to-back wins over Florida.

Kentucky lost quarterback Will Levis, but the Commodores will have to deal with highly touted NC State transfer Devin Leary under center. Missouri is perennially beatable. Florida landed former Ohio State quarterback Jack Miller III in the transfer portal, but he’s a clear downgrade from Anthony Richardson. Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze is entering his first season with the Tigers with low expectations following two straight losing campaigns.

Pollard: Missouri should be circled on Vanderbilt fans’ calendars as the most likely spot for an SEC win. Last season, the Commodores almost pulled off a comeback in Columbia against a Tigers squad that arguably overachieved by going 6-7. This year, Eli Drinkwitz’s offense will need to fill the void caused by the departure of leading receiver Dominic Lovett. If AJ Swann can improve upon his abysmal performance in last year’s matchup, the Commodores should be in good shape to score more than 14 points and perhaps clinch the victory.

That said, as a truly wild take, it may be possible for Vanderbilt to pull off an upset against Ole Miss this year. The Commodores catch Lane Kiffin’s squad right after a match at Auburn and before consecutive weeks against Texas A&M and Georgia. If there was ever a time to catch the Landsharks sleepwalking, it would be then.

Which position groups are you most excited to see this season?

Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst: After starting as a huge question mark in 2022, Vanderbilt’s wide receiver room is downright scary this year. Last year’s leading receivers Will Sheppard, Jayden McGowan and Quincy Skinner are all back with another offseason of experience under their belt. Each brings a unique skill set to the position and strong existing chemistry with quarterback AJ Swann. Sheppard is a textbook possession receiver, who used his 6’3” frame and crisp route running to dominate the red zone with nine touchdowns (second in SEC) and 776 receiving yards (ninth in SEC) last season. McGowan is a twitchy gadget receiver who tacked on 50 rushing yards in addition to his 450 receiving yards out of the slot. Compared to his counterparts, the 6’2” Skinner is more of an unknown. The junior needed some time to break out, but he really found his stride towards the end of last year, making the catch of the year to set up a victory against Kentucky. Gamarion Carter also returns as one of the fastest players on the entire team. In a huge second year, Swann will have plenty of options to move the ball downfield. 

Aiden Rutman, Deputy Sports Editor: Karp’s definitely right here; the receiver room on West End is dangerous. That said, there’s another positional group on the other side of the line of scrimmage that might be getting overlooked: the linebacker corps. It feels relatively contradictory to be hyping up a group that just saw its best player — Anfernee Orji — depart for the NFL this spring. Still, this batch has the talent and depth to make a serious difference. Start with CJ Taylor, who burst onto the college football scene towards the end of last season with electricity. The hyper-athletic junior out of McMinnville, Tenn., recorded 59 total tackles along with 2 fumble recoveries, 5 passes defended and an interception last season, and he’s projected to take another step forward this season. Former Clemson transfer Kane Patterson will return for a graduate season after a promising first year in the Black and Gold saw him record career-highs across the board, including 2.5 sacks. Recently named captain Ethan Barr is a guy with a ton of starting experience and should serve as one of the leaders of this defense. Kane’s younger brother, Langston, had an excellent camp and should provide depth with the upside to be a starter further down the line.

Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor: Despite historical struggles, I’m extremely excited to see Vanderbilt’s pass rush this fall. With the return of Miles Capers, who was slated to be Vanderbilt’s top pass rusher heading into last season before going down with an ACL injury during fall camp, the group is deeper than it has been in past seasons. Darren Agu, Capers’s immediate replacement last year, looks poised for a breakout sophomore season after a strong showing during fall camp and Vanderbilt’s spring game. Transfer Aeneas DiCosmo, a former four-star recruit and starter at Stanford, should hit the ground running after an impressive spring while also bringing an air of experience to what is ultimately a young group. Behind those players, Yilanan Ouattara, Devin Lee and BJ Diakite should all benefit from another year of development under Lea. 

Especially with the Commodores eyeing a bowl appearance at the end of the season, their ability to win at the line of scrimmage in tough SEC matchups will be critical. With a healthy mix of experience and young potential, I’m excited to see what progress the pass rush can show this year. 

How will Vanderbilt’s running back room fare with the departure of Ray Davis?

Wilf: Ray Davis leaves Vanderbilt with big shoes to fill. The running back ran for 1,042 yards, which was the fourth-best in the SEC in 2022. He also helped lead Vanderbilt to upset wins over Kentucky and Florida with 251 rushing yards across both games.

Davis’s presence as a Commodore will be missed, but I predict Vanderbilt’s running back room will fare well behind the committee of running backs in Patrick Smith, Chase Gillespie and Sedrick Alexander. 

Smith will likely get the majority of the snaps in the backfield this season. The junior has shown that he has a lethal playmaking ability. He played in eight games in 2022 and rushed for 151 yards on 56 carries. Gillespie and Alexander will compliment Smith with young legs and agility.

Jonah Barbin, Assistant Sports Specialist: While losing the services of Ray Davis is undoubtedly a loss for this Commodore squad, the trio that will step up in his absence provides great cause for excitement. Headed into a Week 0 bout with Hawaii, Patrick “Cheeks” Smith is listed as the No. 1 running back on this squad.

Smith, a junior, comes in as the most experienced back here and has both started games and made key contributions as a backup. He started three contests as a freshman and averaged 4.41 yards per carry in 2021, a mark that the Commodores would love to see him reproduce. Last season, Smith scored against South Carolina and turned in his best performance of the season in Vanderbilt’s upset of Florida. Learning from Smith will set the two guys slotted behind him up for success as the season unfolds.

Behind Smith will be sophomore Chase Gillespie. As a freshman, Gillespie only made four appearances, playing in each of Vanderbilt’s nonconference matchups, but he made the most of his time on the field. In Week 0 at Hawaii last year, Gillespie ran for 63 yards on just 11 carries. He concluded that four-game showing averaging a strong 4.37 yards per carry. With another year under his belt and perhaps a few more snaps coming his way, Gillespie could thrive.

Sedrick Alexander, currently slotted as the third running back on Vanderbilt’s depth chart, is a true freshman with extreme upside. He’s a player that could see his workload jump catastrophically as he continues to get reps under his belt. Alexander is coming off a high school career in which he set the Austin Independent School District career rushing and career touchdown records, racking up 5,286 rushing yards and 75 touchdowns.

It makes it all the more exciting that these running backs will be complemented by an excellent wide receiver group and an offensive line with three starters that allowed a combined two sacks all of last season. The ground game will be critical to the success of the 2023 Commodores, and Coach Lea has put his team in a position to succeed.

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About the Contributors
Andrew Wilf
Andrew Wilf, Former Sports Editor
Andrew Wilf (’24) is Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He is from Livingston, N.J., and is majoring in history and minoring in business. He joined the sports staff his freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Assistant Sports Editor and Deputy Sports Editor. Beyond writing for The Hustler, he is also the host of Anchor Analysis, Commodore Clash and Live From West End. In his free time, Andrew enjoys watching the NFL and playing golf. He can be reached at [email protected].
Anish Mago
Anish Mago, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
Frankie Sheehy
Frankie Sheehy, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Frankie Sheehy ('24) wrote for The Hustler Sports section and graduated from the College of Arts and Science with majors in economics and law, history and society. He was also the president of the Vanderbilt Chess Club and a superfan of the Chicago White Sox. You can reach him at [email protected].
Aiden Rutman
Aiden Rutman, Sports Editor
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
Brandon Karp
Brandon Karp, Senior Staff Writer
Brandon Karp ('25) is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is studying human and organizational development and political science in Peabody College. You can reach him at [email protected].
Jonah Barbin
Jonah Barbin, Sports Podcast Producer
Jonah Barbin (‘25) is majoring in human and organizational development and cinema and media studies. In addition to writing about sports, you can catch him acting, scouring the fantasy football waiver wire, playing golf and fantasizing about what Odell Beckham Jr.’s career would have been if the Giants never traded him. You can reach him at [email protected].
Jayce Pollard
Jayce Pollard, Non-revenue Sports Specialist
Jayce Pollard (‘25) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in public policy and economics and minoring in data science and Spanish. Outside of writing for The Hustler, you can catch Jayce trying to learn the rules of soccer, hating on the Arkansas Razorbacks and being chronically on Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected]
Barrie Barto
Barrie Barto, Editor-in-Chief
Barrie Barto ('25) is majoring in medicine, health & society with neuroscience and communication of science & technology minors in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Photography Director. When she's not strolling around campus with her camera, you can find Barrie cheering on the St. Louis Blues or tracking down the best gluten-free food in Nashville. She can be reached at [email protected].
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