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2021 Vanderbilt college football preview: Commodores take a unique approach in new era

Vanderbilt hit rock bottom last season, and the Commodores have some early momentum with the new staff.

Florida v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The Vanderbilt Commodores bottomed out in the 2020 season, but there seems to be a great deal of momentum starting out with a new staff. Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea is the new head coach, and he made a unique hire with Barton Simmons, who had been working in media at 247Sports. Few people understand recruiting the way he does, and he will have a general manager role with the program.

Expectations are about as low as they can be for a Power 5 program heading into this season, but the fan base should be optimistic with the people they have in place in key roles. Vanderbilt has not finished .500 or better since since 2013 when James Franklin led this team to a second consecutive nine-win season.

But this is a total rebuild at one of the toughest jobs in college football. Let’s not even grade Lea’s performance until at least 2024.

2020 Season Review

  • 0-9 SEC (7th in East)
  • Lost six of their nine games by 21 points or more, fired Derek Mason in late November

2021 Talent

2021 247Sports Composite Ranking: 49
ESPN Returning Production: 66% overall (78th): 75% offense (50th), 57% defense (102nd)
Returning Talent Index: Negative, 13th in SEC
Returning starters: 9/11 offense, 8/11 defense
* All rankings out of 130 FBS schools

Key Player

Quarterback: Ken Seals (Sophomore)

Ken Seals was thrown into the fire as a true freshman in 2020, and he actually played quite well. Quarterback was not the issue for a team that finished 0-9 and struggled to be competitive last season. Without anything close to a normal offseason, Seals completed 64.6% of his passes for 1,928 yards with 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He is not much of a rushing threat, but the Commodores could have their quarterback for the next few years if he continues to develop.

Offense (non-QB): WR Cam Johnson (Senior)

Wide receiver should be the biggest strength on the offense with all the major playmakers returning at the position, and Vanderbilt should be led by Cam Johnson. He was far and away the team’s best receiver in 2020 with 56 catches for 545 and three touchdowns. Johnson and Seals developed a solid chemistry, and that should continue to grow especially with a much more normal offseason.

Defense: LB Anfernee Orji (Junior)

Lea is a defensive-minded head coach, but so was Derek Mason, so we will see how improved the Commodores will be on that side of the ball. It is certainly possible this group will be the same as last season or even worse, but there are a few talented individuals on the unit. Anfernee Orji finished with 66 tackles in nine games last season with 1.5 for loss and a sack and a forced fumble. For Vanderbilt to have much success on defense, they will need to be more opportunistic through turnovers or getting to the quarterback much more often than they did in 2020.

Team Stats Projections

2020 SP+ final: 120th overall: 121st offense, 106th defense, 117th special teams
2021 SP+ projection: 108th overall: 104th offense, 107th defense

Odds from DraftKings Sportsbook

To win national title: +100000
To win SEC: +50000
Win total: 3 (Over -148, Under +115)

2020 Against The Spread: 4-5-0
2020 Point Total: Over 4-5-0

2021 Vanderbilt Schedule

2021 Vanderbilt Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV
Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV
Saturday, Sep. 4 ETSU 8:00 pm/ESPN+
Saturday, Sep. 11 at Colorado State 10:00 pm/CBSSN
Saturday, Sep. 18 Stanford TBA
Saturday, Sep. 25 Georgia TBA
Saturday, Oct. 2 UConn TBA
Saturday, Oct. 9 at Florida TBA
Saturday, Oct. 16 at South Carolina TBA
Saturday, Oct. 23 Mississippi State TBA
Saturday, Oct. 30 Missouri TBA
Saturday, Nov. 6 OPEN TBA
Saturday, Nov. 13 Kentucky TBA
Saturday, Nov. 20 at Ole Miss TBA
Saturday, Nov. 27 at Tennessee TBA