Vanderbilt didn’t get to a bowl game in 2015, but they improved dramatically from Head Coach Derek Mason’s first year. The Commodores went 4-8, but managed to knock off SEC East rivals Kentucky and Missouri. They also showed that on any given day, they could play with the big boys, nearly beating Florida on the road. However, inconsistency was still a major problem for the Commodores. Quarterback play was a huge issue, and outside of Ralph Webb, there wasn’t a ton of production from the running game. This year, the Commodores should have some solutions for their areas of need.
Speaking of Webb, he may be the most underrated running back in the SEC. He’s recorded more than 2,000 total rushing yards the past two seasons. Don’t expect him to fly under the radar on Thursday night. South Carolina’s defense, absent star linebacker Skai Moore, could be ripe for the picking. The defense was ranked top 10 in efficiency last year. With eight starters returning, that unit should be strong again this season. The offense remains a question mark. It has been a problem area for Coach Mason since he arrived, and the revolving door at the quarterback position hasn’t helped. Kyle Shurmur impressed his coaches last season as a true freshman and took over Vanderbilt’s offense in the second half of the season after Johnny McCrary faltered.
The Commodores are depending on Shurmur to play more consistently now that he has a season under his belt. Their alternatives at quarterback are average and largely unproven. Mason has already named Shurmur the starter for 2016. The hope is that Shurmur can keep the job all season. The freshman threw for 503 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions last year. He, along with the entire offense, will have to improve if the Commodores want to take the next step.
True freshmen Brandon McIlwain and Jake Bentley both have star potential for the Gamecocks. Playing well now will be a tall order, particularly with limited skill talent around them. McIlwain and senior Perry Orth are both slated to play in this contest.
It’s important for Vanderbilt to get off to a fast start, beginning with South Carolina. After that, it’s three straight non-conference games. While those won’t affect their SEC record, they will have a significant impact on their chances of making a bowl game. The Commodores play Ole Miss and Tennessee the last two weeks of the season. If they want to play in a bowl game, they’d better get to winning, and fast. This season ought to be a very interesting one.