COACH: Bobby Johnson (11-35 in four seasons at Vanderbilt, 71-71 in 11 seasons overall)
LAST YEAR: 5-6 (1-7 SEC Eastern Division)
EXPERIENCE: The Commodores return 15 starters and 40 lettermen.
TEAM STRENGTHS: Earl Bennett (6-1, 205, sophomore) ranks with Sidney Rice of South Carolina and Dallas Baker of Florida as the best wide receivers in the Southeastern Conference. His final numbers were good --- 79 catches, 876 yards, nine touchdowns --- but it's what he did in the last four games that really stood out. In the last four contests, Bennett averaged 12 catches, 136 yards and two touchdowns per game. He will draw the double team every game and that should free up Marlon White (6-4, 205, senior) to have a very good season. White finished last year strong, hauling in 34 passes for 350 yards and six touchdowns. Most of his receptions were dinks and dunks last year but this year he's expected to be used downfield far more often.
If Jeff Jennings (6-1, 225, junior) has recovered from ACL surgery then he gives Vandy a great 1-2 combination to go with Cassen Jackson-Garrison (6-1, 225, junior). Jackson-Garrison ran for 539 yards and eight touchdowns last year while Jennings had 448 for seven scores. Jennings and Jackson-Garrison are tough between the tackles. Redshirt freshman Jared Hawkins (5-10, 195) has an element of speed that was missing last year.
Tackles Brian Stamper (6-6, 305, senior) and Chris Williams (6-6, 320, junior) are both excellent in pass protection. They are the experienced leaders on an offensive line that has no experienced depth past the starters. Stamper didn't allow a single sack in 2005 and he was selected second team All-SEC.
There is talent at linebacker and in the secondary. Jonathon Goff (6-4, 240, junior) and Kevin Joyce (6-3, 225, senior) will carry on Vanderbilt's tradition of outstanding linebackers. Converted safety Marcus Buggs (5-11, 230, junior) brings a lot of speed and athleticism to this unit. Strong safety Reshard Langford (6-2, 215, sophomore) not only is a ball hawk, but he earned a reputation as one of the SEC's hardest hitters last year. Corner Josh Allen (5-9, 182, sophomore) started seven games as a freshman last year and Jared Fagan (5-9, 180, sophomore) got plenty of snaps so Vandy feels very good about the corners. Redshirt freshman free safety Ryan Hamilton (6-1, 205) drew raves from the coaching staff in the spring.
Special teams are in good shape with Bryant Hahnfeldt (5-11, 185, sophomore) handling both the punting and placekicking. He averaged 41.2 yards per punt last year and nailed 12-17 of his field goals with a longest of 48 yards.
TEAM WEAKNESSES: Chris Nickson (6-1, 210, sophomore) threw all of three passes last year backing up Cutler, who was a first rounder in the NFL draft. He's an excellent runner and his arm is very strong but unfortunately the ball tends to sail a lot on him. If he can't show more accuracy, then freshman MacKenzi Adams (6-2, 205) will get thrown into the fray early on.
Vandy feels good about guards Josh Eames (6-5, 305, junior) and Merritt Kirchoffer (6-5, 315 junior) and center Hamilton Holiday (6-4, 295, junior) but if anyone on the starting offensive line goes down, there is hardly any experience among the backups. An injury could be dicey.
The Commodores gave up 169 rushing yards per game last year (10th in the SEC) and unless the defensive line shows remarkable improvement, it could be another long, tough year. The Commodores got no push up front last year and it showed with an SEC-low 14 sacks. If the Commodores can't get better productivity up front then the defense is going to spend a long, long time on the field.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS IN 2006: Either Nickson or Adams has to show he's capable of taking over for Cutler. Vandy has enough skilled athletes and good offensive linemen that there should be very good production if the quarterbacks can do their part. Nickson has the most experience and he's the better runner but Adams is the better passer of the two. One of them has to assert himself and prove that he can lead the team. More importantly, one of them has to prove he can consistently get the ball in Earl Bennett's hands. He's got serious playmaking abilities.
The starting five on the offensive line could be a very good unit but there is no depth. Stamper and Williams have to stay healthy.
Any kind of push up front on the defensive front four would take the burden off a fine set of linebackers and what is potentially the best secondary Vandy has had in years. Vandy gave up 40 touchdowns last year in 11 games. For the Commodores to have any chance of a winning season they have to cut at least 10 off that total in 2006.
THE SCHEDULE: It's a killer. Start with Michigan and Alabama on the road. That's not a nice way to start a season even for good teams and Vandy certainly doesn't qualify as good. The Commodores get South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee at home and Georgia is on the road. There are winnable games against Tennessee State and Temple at home and Duke and Kentucky on the road.
OUTLOOK FOR 2006: For Vanderbilt to have any chance of duplicating the success of last season (5-6) then a quarterback has to show the way. Nickson and Adams have potential and if one of them can show any kind of consistency then Vandy will have a chance to win some games with its offense. Earl Bennett needs to get the ball in his hands 10-15 times a game and it's up to Nickson and Adams to make sure he gets the ball. If the quarterbacks can't get it done, then it's going to be a long, long year. Even though the talent at linebacker and in the secondary is very good, the defensive line is really, really bad so don't expect the Commodores to be in much less win any low-scoring struggles. With a schedule that starts so brutally, if Bobby Johnson can get five wins out of this bunch he should be a candidate for SEC Coach of the Year.
NEXT UP: South Carolina, November 11, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium