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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 Mailbag: Can Vanderbilt compete in the SEC?

With SEC play around the corner, the Hustler Sports Editorial Board answered all of your Mailbag questions.
Nikita Rohila
AJ Swann lifted up by Bradley Ashmore against the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors, as photographed on Aug. 26, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

Since The Hustler’s last mailbag, a lot has happened with Vanderbilt Football. The Commodores sit at 2-2 entering SEC play, thanks to home victories against Hawaii and Alabama A&M. Vanderbilt is on a two-game losing skid, though, after falling to Wake Forest and UNLV, committing seven turnovers in those two games combined.

As has been echoed by the entire organization, Vanderbilt’s goal for this season is to make its first bowl appearance since 2018. After falling twice in nonconference play, Team 3 will now need to win four league games in order to reach that goal. The margin of error in the SEC is extremely thin, and Vanderbilt will hope to compete in college football’s most competitive conference.

Vanderbilt’s SEC journey begins on Saturday with a home matchup against the Kentucky Wildcats. Clark Lea and co. will hope to muster up magic and defeat the Wildcats for the second straight year.

What will it take for Vanderbilt to be competitive in the SEC?

Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor: A complete 180. After two worrying performances against Hawaii and Alabama A&M, the Commodores have rightly struggled and fallen to two superior opponents in Wake Forest and UNLV. In year three of head coach Clark Lea’s tenure, discipline continues to be an issue as timely turnovers, penalties and timeout calls have proven insurmountable in the last two weeks. Through four weeks, the Commodores rank 111th out of 130 qualifying FBS teams in penalty yards allowed per game. Not ideal. Following key departures along the front seven and in the secondary, Vanderbilt’s defense ranks in the back half of the FBS in both rushing yards and receiving yards allowed per game. Considering the Commodores have faced off against just one Power 5 opponent, the poor defense is absolutely a point of concern. Offensively, QB AJ Swann and the wide receiver group have shown a good rapport, but miscommunication and inconsistency have already led to seven offensive turnovers through four games. If Team 3 wants to reach its goal of a bowl appearance this season, a lot needs to change on both sides of the ball as Vanderbilt enters conference play.

Jayce Pollard, Assistant Sports Specialist: Vanderbilt probably won’t find a way to be competitive in the SEC this season. That’s the hard truth. Athletics should take a serious look at how it’s building this program and realistic goals. While Vanderbilt would require extraordinary luck to ever be 9-3 or better, it’s realistic to be competitive for bowl games. Other academically rigorous institutions like Duke, Northwestern and Stanford have done it in the past decade. The Blue Devils just knocked off Clemson in their second year under Mike Elko, the Wildcats went to the Big TEN title game three years ago and Stanford was competing for CFB Playoff berths in the last decade. Vandy United and facility investments are a great development, but being competitive in the transfer portal era is going to require serious NIL money. Generating that kind of donor support — as well as the fan support needed on Saturdays to fill the stands — means creating an exciting product. This offense is not that. Give fans and donors something to buy into. Vanderbilt cannot, and will never be able to, win games in the SEC simply by being more physical than its opponents. It’s time to face the facts.

Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst: To echo Jayce’s point, being competitive in the SEC was never the goal this season. Even in a down year for the conference, Vanderbilt never stood a chance at qualifying for an SEC championship while playing in the same division as Georgia. From day one of spring practice, the clear objective of this season was to qualify for a bowl game. With last week’s loss to UNLV, Vanderbilt will need to steal three wins in the SEC to even sniff postseason consideration. Last season, Vanderbilt was able to upset Kentucky and Florida in consecutive weeks to keep its bowl hopes alive. To emulate those results, the Commodores need to find a way to play with the same offensive consistency as they did with Mike Wright under center in 2022. While the defense has been subpar this year, you can probably count on a few big-time turnovers from guys like C.J Taylor and De’Rickey Wright to keep the Commodores alive in close games. But, to win those games, Vanderbilt will need to drive the ball down the field in crunch time. The Commodores simply couldn’t execute their offense when it mattered most against Wake Forest and UNLV, and it cost them those games. To have a chance against the SEC’s mid-tier teams, offensive coordinator Joey Lynch and Swann need to find a formula they can replicate consistently.

Has AJ Swann lived up to expectations?

Jonah Barbin, Assistant Sports Specialist: No. Not to say that Swann can’t turn things around as the season unfolds, but the early season returns are less than inspiring. The second-year quarterback has a strong receiving corps led by Will Sheppard, Jayden McGowan and freshman standout London Humphreys. Lea’s first quarterback recruit also had the benefit of facing a trio of below-average defenses in Hawaii, Alabama A&M and UNLV in three of the first four games this season. Yet, Swann has played mistake-riddled football, allowing teams to stay in games and even upset the Commodores early this year. Against Alabama A&M and UNLV combined, Swann only completed 50.5% of his passes. He also posted an average QBR in those games of 30.55. That’s simply not good enough to get it done, especially considering the ferocious SEC defenses that wait in the wings. Swann did play better against Hawaii and Wake Forest but still committed critical turnovers that cost the Commodores dearly against the Demon Deacons. If Swann is going to find the second-year success that so many anticipated coming into this campaign, he is going to have to be more decisive, take care of the football and use his legs to burn teams dropping back into coverage.

Frankie Sheehy, Deputy Sports Editor: It really depends on your expectations. If you thought Swann was going to complement the receivers to create a passing offense that could be in the top half of the SEC, I don’t think that was realistic. He’s had a few really nice runs of games. Fine. But Swann started as a third-stringer, struggled against top competition last year and played poorly in the Black & Gold Game. He’s an inconsistent quarterback on an inconsistent roster. Swann has shown really good flashes at times. However, he has never been a mistake-proof quarterback, and I don’t see him becoming one overnight.

Karp: While I haven’t been blown away by Swann’s performance this season, I think it’s unfair to blame him for the offense’s struggles. Yet, Swann is far too robotic while going through his progressions, at times clearly choosing a receiver to target before the play develops. Like many young quarterbacks gifted with extraordinary arm talent, he has way too much confidence in his ability to make difficult throws into tight coverage. Swann’s four interceptions are the most of any SEC quarterback, and he’s gotten away with a handful of other would-be picks that were dropped. But for all these turnovers, there are three or four jaw-dropping dimes per game that remove any doubt that Swann is the best quarterback on this roster. Running the ball on first and second down to start off every drive is not doing him any favors, though. Neither is a poor offensive line and a running back play. The coaching staff needs to find a way to get Swann into a rhythm earlier in games to boost his confidence and eliminate the indecision and forced throws that are slowing his development. 

Which player has impressed you most thus far?

Andrew Wilf, Sports Editor: Through all the struggle and uncertainty surrounding the team, one strong bright spot has been the wide receiver room. The group has been consistent play-makers and is led by Sheppard, who has taken the No. 1 receiver role and run with it for the second straight season. The senior scored two touchdowns in Vanderbilt’s first three games and leads the FBS with six receiving touchdowns. His 36 points this season also lead the Power 5 and he ranks fourth in the SEC with 314 receptions. As conference play is around the corner, I expect Swann to consistently look for Sheppard as a safety valve.

Mago: Amid a rather disappointing start to the season for the Commodores, Humphreys has represented Vanderbilt’s brightest spot so far. The Nashville native joined a crowded and extremely talented wide receiver group as a freshman but has shined as a result of his speed and rapport with Swann. After acclimating in his first two games — still catching a 32-yard touchdown pass against Hawaii, the freshman speedster broke out in Vanderbilt’s loss to Wake Forest, racking up 109 yards and a touchdown en route to SEC Freshman of the Week honors. To follow up that performance, Humphreys posted a team-best 102 receiving yards and a touchdown against UNLV in his first collegiate start. Even while competing for targets with Sheppard, McGowan and Quincy Skinner Jr., Humphreys has added a much-needed deep threat to Vanderbilt’s offensive arsenal. Expect Humphreys to keep ascending as he gets accustomed to life in the SEC and continues to build his chemistry with Swann. 

Barbin: I’ve been talking about him all year, but give me Sedrick Alexander. While his numbers don’t jump off the page, the true-freshman’s explosiveness, speed and raw athleticism are undeniable. Because of how Lea has handled this running back room, I think, for the most part, neither Alexander, Patrick Smith nor Chase Gillespie has truly had a chance to get in a rhythm during a game yet. In the only game where Alexander got more than 10 carries, he put up exactly the kind of stat line I would expect from the young star. Alexander carved up the Alabama A&M defense for 87 yards, two scores and a jaw-dropping average 7.3 yards per carry. His lackluster numbers in the other three affairs can be chalked up to under-usage and being run in situations where the box was stacked. If Lea decides to commit to the rookie and use him early and often, the sky’s the limit for Alexander.

Which player has underperformed and should be out of the starting lineup?

Wilf: Center Julian Hernandez has had a shaky start to his season. Hernandez had a solid showing in both the Hawaii and Alabama A&M games. When Vanderbilt traveled to Winston-Salem, N.C., to play the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Hernandez had two shaky snaps that influenced the narrative of the game. The week later, Vanderbilt played against UNLV, and Hernandez missed several blocks and had one errant snap. The Florida native will need to pick up his act quickly and play like he did in 2022 for the Vanderbilt offense to play complementary football moving forward.

Pollard: I’d like to see Alexander cutting into more of Patrick Smith’s carries. Smith has played about as well as can be expected given Vanderbilt’s offensive line. However, with this season’s bowl hopes basically already gone, it’s time to pivot toward setting the team up for success in the future. That goal means giving younger players like Alexander more opportunities to develop their obvious talent. Say what you want about Swann, but he’s playing better this year due to having played in so many games last season. Vanderbilt should adopt the same policy with its running back room and start building for the future.

Sheehy: For the most part, I agree with giving Alexander more carries. I would also like to see Humphreys get more targets. The latter seems more likely, as he was listed as a starter in this week’s depth chart. Of course, Vanderbilt’s most pressing concerns are on the other side of the ball. There are a lot of players on defense that worry Vanderbilt fans. Unfortunately, I just don’t think the Commodores’ roster is deep enough to swap people out. BJ Anderson was one of the scapegoats against Wake Forest, but the secondary struggled without him, too. That said, sophomore corner Trudell Berry will probably start, even though Anderson is now back from his illness. While it’s a natural instinct to look to the bench, Vanderbilt’s improvement will probably have to come from the guys already on the field.

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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].
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]
Nikita Rohila
Nikita Rohila, Senior Staff Photographer
Nikita Rohila ('25) is from a small town in Arkansas and is majoring in psychology and medicine, health and society in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Deputy Social Media Director. During her free time, she enjoys roaming around the city and getting cinematic-style shots for her photography account! You can reach her at [email protected].
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