Final SEC Rankings: Vanderbilt wins 9 games, again

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Florida

Vanderbilt football entered the realm of possible SEC East contender in 2014 until James Franklin’s abrupt departure to Penn State but remain strong at No. 7 in Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared last season based on preseason expectations, on-field success, stability, recruiting and program momentum.

Final SEC Rankings of 2013:

14. Arkansas
13. Kentucky
12. Florida 
11. Tennessee
10. Ole Miss
9. Mississippi State
8. Georgia
7. Vanderbilt
6. Texas A&M
5. LSU
4. Alabama
3. South Carolina
2. Missouri
1. Auburn

Enjoy the debate.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4)

Nine wins and another bowl win. The Commodores can get used to this.

Vanderbilt’s made it evident since turning the corner in 2012 that it no longer welcomes the SEC doormat moniker. In fact, the private institution tucked away in Nashville takes pride in being one of the hunted, or at least a quality adversary for the front-running division leaders.

On-field performance: B+; #AnchorDown goes mainstream

When hashtags involving Vanderbilt football are trending, the product on the field is on the upswing. As South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier would say: “These aren’t the same old Commodores.”

At least something to that effect.

SEC record-setter Jordan Matthews leaves the program as the Commodores’ star player, but most importantly, a beacon of hope for a school not well-versed in football success. He’s one of many outgoing seniors that came to Vandy in 2010 with the Commodores coming off a 10-loss season. As a freshman, he suffered the same fate before the next three years yielded growth and welcomed expectations.

Vandy beat SEC heavyweights Georgia, Florida and Tennessee in the same season, a feat that seemed unimaginable considering the state of the program when Robbie Caldwell agreed to quit after a loss to Wake Forest in 2010.

Expectations: A-; Respectable finish noteworthy

Vandy’s emergence under Franklin came full circle with the Commodores drove the length of the field to upend Tennessee in Knoxville, 14-10. In a rivalry that means something to Vanderbilt thanks to recent success, quarterback Patton Robinette faked a jump pass and crossed the goal line from 5 yards out to seize the victory.

A few plays earlier, Austyn Carta-Samuels’ gusty sneak on 4th-and-inches kept the drive alive at the Tennessee 33. The burst provided a glance at the confidence level now instilled inside the program courtesy of its coach.

RELATED: Vanderbilt regular season recap

Coming off the school’s first 9-win season in 97 years in 2012, Vandy repeated history with five consecutive victories following a late-October loss at Texas A&M and played in its record third straight bowl game. Vandy didn’t challenge for the East title, but it could’ve been worse.

Ask Florida.

Coaching: B-; Franklin says goodbye

After losing Franklin, the subsequent hire of Stanford’s Derek Mason as coach catapults the Commodores back into being a defensive-minded football team. No one’s job was tougher than athletic director David Williams’ gig this offseason and by most accounts, Mason was a home run hire.

Mason garnered much of the spotlight during Super Bowl week when Seattle Seahawks star corner Richard Sherman credited his college coach with his development as a player. With a focus on film study Sherman says, Mason picked out the confident playmaker’s weaknesses and helped him become more accountable while he’s on the field.

A fifth-round pick in 2011, Sherman’s recorded the most interceptions in the NFL since being drafted and still asks Mason for advice between games. Sherman’s known for his supreme level of confidence and that’s something he perhaps gathered from Mason who set his goals at Vandy to win the SEC East championship.

Lofty aspirations in Year 1 for sure.

Recruiting: C; Signing class salvaged

As expected, Vandy had a mass exodus of commits in January after Franklin’s announcement he was leaving Nashville for Happy Valley, but Mason and his newly-hired staff saved what they could and even picked up a quarterback from North Carolina in a late switch that could pay dividends early.

RELATED: Vanderbilt’s Signign Day recap

Shawn Stankavage, a pro-style passer from Raleigh, was an East Carolina lean until he picked the Commodores three days before National Signing Day. Scouts say Stankavage, a three-star prospect according to 247Sports, has Johnny Manziel-like mobility with an arm that will continue to improve at the college level.

Four-star defensive tackle and US Army All-American Nifae Lealao (Sacramento, Calif.) is the Commodores’ highest-rated recruit of all time and has the best shot of any newcomer at playing early this fall.

One of Vandy’s top recruits, safety Emmanuel Smith from Murfreesboro, Tenn., was one of the few that stuck around following the Franklin casualties. He’ll have an opportunity to play early in a secondary that’s loaded with underclassmen following the exits of Andre Hal and Steven Clarke.

Program momentum: A-; Mason provides a charge

The buzz surrounding Vandy football’s never been higher and that’s due to the solid foundation built by the previous regime. Mason’s arrived to continue on a championship path set by Franklin and that starts with recruiting. Can the Commodores continue to fight in a well-balanced East without the players? The simple answer is no and it’s up to Mason to convince outsiders that Vandy remains a sustainable success story.

Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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