Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series concludes today with Vanderbilt. 

Let’s try that again.

Last year, Vandy was destined to struggle in historic fashion. COVID issues depleted an already thin roster. An all-SEC schedule was the nail in the coffin.

An 0-9 season resulted in the firing of Derek Mason, who wasn’t able to find the right answer on either side of the ball. Changing coordinators didn’t work. To be fair, there might not have been anything that Mason could’ve put together to keep Vandy’s head above water in 2020. And to be fair, it was consecutive disappointing seasons going back to the failed offense of 2019 — I was a Big 3 believer! — that should’ve at least gotten Vandy to a bowl game instead of a 3-9 season with a 24-point loss to UNLV.

The bar is low for Clark Lea, who quietly put together 3 consecutive top-15 defenses as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. The Irish didn’t win on the biggest stage, but Lea was there for a 33-5 stretch. And he was at least the only defensive coordinator who held Steve Sarkisian’s Alabama offense under 35 points, so there’s that.

Obviously, the talent at Vanderbilt will be a bit different. The long-term future of the former Vandy fullback — he brought his helmet to SEC Media Days — could be determined by what he continues to do off the field to get the university more on board with the idea of spending on athletics like the rest of the SEC. We don’t have an answer to how that’ll look 5 years from now.

So for today, let’s stick with the 2021 outlook for Lea’s Year 1 in Nashville.

The QB situation seems … fluid

I mean, Lea stepped in and removed all the numbers from the jerseys. Granted, they all (I believe) eventually got them back in fall camp. But still. That shows you how committed Lea was to starting over from scratch with the personnel. I suppose when you don’t win a game and your lone All-SEC selection (Dayo Odeyingbo) is off to the NFL, you can do that sort of thing.

That was significant at quarterback, where Ken Seals started every game as a true freshman. Considering the talent around him, Seals actually performed adequately. Completing 65% of his passes for 6.7 yards per attempt with a positive touchdown-interception ratio (12-10) couldn’t have been easy against an all-SEC schedule with Vandy’s personnel.

There were moments when Seals really looked like he could become one of the league’s better quarterbacks:

But even Seals came in needing to prove he was worthy of being the starter because when your team ranks No. 126 out of 128 FBS teams in scoring offense, well, that’s to be expected.

Lea didn’t want to come out and name a starter. Seals and classmate Mike Wright battled throughout the offseason to earn the right to start in David Raih’s offense. It sounds like we could see both quarterbacks involved early in the season, as well.

As special as Wright showed he could be in high school — he exploded for 50 touchdowns as a senior in 4A in Georgia — Seals can make all the throws needed to maximize Vandy’s receivers. There are some legit targets in Cam Johnson (545 receiving yards in 2020), Cam Pierce, Amir Abdur-Rahman and there are some high expectations for Will Sheppard to take the next step as a sophomore. There’s also Ben Bresnahan, who developed into a reliable red-zone target last year.

Can Seals develop as a downfield passer, where he was on target only 38.7% of the time? Or will he regress and Vandy turn to Wright’s playmaking abilities as a dual threat? Time will tell.

It doesn’t seem like any position battle at Vandy is truly over.

Will we see Clark Lea’s impact on this defense at all in Year 1?

Here’s what I mean by that. Is Lea about to have a top-15 defense like he did every year in South Bend? No, but there’s a difference between that and looking like the same group that didn’t have a chance in 2020. Part of that was depth, yes, but part of it was guys being out of position to make plays.

Lea’s 4-2-5 should put Vandy’s defense in some better spots. Like, don’t expect this group to only have 13 sacks like it did in 9 games in 2020. Only 2 players (Andrew Mintze and the aforementioned Odeyingbo) had multiple sacks, and they’re both gone. So why should that turn around?

For starters, Elijah McAllister returns after he missed all of last season with his second ACL tear. In 2019, he had 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble and a defensive score. He’ll bring pressure off the edge that was missing throughout 2020.

In Lea’s scheme, linebacker Anfernee Orji is also expected to be put in some better spots to disrupt plays in the backfield. Defensive tackle Daevion Davis, who represented the Commodores in Hoover, had a dominant fall camp and is expected to be a potential All-SEC guy.

There are some encouraging signs in Lea’s front 6. Depth, however, could be the thing that derails things in SEC play.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. East Tennessee (W)

Don’t be surprised if Temple transfer Re’Mahn Davis gets rolling in what’ll be Vandy’s most favorable matchup of the season. We should also see plenty of Wright in this one. A 250-yard rushing performance lifts the Commodores to their first 1-0 start in 3 years.

Week 2: at Colorado State (L)

The Rams return 83% of last year’s production, albeit from a team that played a limited season and went 1-3. That was also Year 1 with a new coach. Traveling out to Fort Collins and dealing with the altitude, I worry about Vandy keeping its foot on the gas for 4 quarters. Instead of sticking with the passing game that works early on with Johnson and Pierce, Vandy’s run game gets stuffed and Todd Centeio leads a Colorado State comeback. Maybe it’s not quite as drastic as when CSU scored 17 unanswered in the 4th quarter to beat Arkansas in 2018, but in the end, the result is the same.

Week 3: vs. Stanford (L)

Let me be the first person to make the joke that both schools are extremely smart. As for the actual football game, I think again, Vandy gets out to an early lead against an inexperienced Stanford team making a long trip east. Big runs from Davis set up scores from Abdur-Rahman and Bresnahan. But once again, Vandy collapses down the stretch. David Shaw’s team continues what it did in 2020. That is, make smart plays late and win close games. Lea’s first game against Power 5 competition turns out to be a day of missed opportunities.

Week 4: vs. Georgia (L)

I’m thinking 75-25. Oh, I thought you asked me about the ratio of Georgia fans to Vandy fans. Shoot, that might also be the score. Actually, is Vandy gonna hit 25? Not unless it’s via a couple of non-offensive touchdowns. The Kendall Milton breakout game happens in Nashville and Georgia cruises. Lea’s SEC debut is an ugly one.

Week 5: vs UConn (W)

For the first time in the young season, Seals dominates. That depth in the passing game proves to be a nice luxury for the second-year signal-caller. Randy Edsall’s team hasn’t finished in the top 100 in FBS in either scoring offense or scoring defense since he’s been there (he’s entering Year 5 but they didn’t play games in 2020). What else has Edsall’s team failed to do? Beat a Power 5 team. Vandy wins the battle in the trenches and ends the 3-game losing streak.

Week 6: at Florida (L)

Could Vandy build on the UConn win with some more offensive firepower? Unfortunately, no. I’m pegging this one as a Demarkcus Bowman breakout game. Against an improved, but still subpar Vandy defense, Florida’s ground game takes over. The Clemson transfer by way of nearby Lakeland scores twice and the Gators roll.

Week 7: at South Carolina (L)

One day, it’s not crazy to think that Lea’s defense will feast on one-dimensional offenses. This won’t be that day. MarShawn Lloyd has the biggest game of his young career and gives South Carolina fans all sorts of clips for his pre-2022 hype video. Consider this another game in which the Gamecocks are fortunate to have some dudes in the trenches, where Vandy is clearly still lacking.

Week 8: vs. MSU (L)

A big Re’Mahn Davis game unfolds in Nashville. So why not a win for the home team? Something tells me a week removed from facing Alabama, MSU’s offense will appreciate having time to actually take a breath. Jo’Quavious Marks and Jaden Walley both have huge days against a still rebuilding Vandy defense.

Week 9: vs. Mizzou (W)

Hey now! In a game that the Tigers are expected to win comfortably, they instead fall victim to a sleepy start and a Vandy defense that’s ready to roll. Connor Bazelak sees too much pressure and instead of taking sacks, he has a 3-interception day in Nashville. Even though Vandy’s offense struggles to sustain scoring drives, it’s turnovers that fuel a wild win for the Commodores. Lea is on the board in the SEC and Eli Drinkwitz is wondering how his team came out of the bye week so flat. Vandy, however, goes to the bye week with its first SEC win in 2 years.

Week 10: Bye

Week 11: vs. Kentucky (L)

Kentucky and Vandy might not exactly be fighting for an SEC East crown in this one, but the road squad will have plenty to play for with bowl eligibility on the line. Vandy has no answer for Wan’Dale Robinson, who posts his best game of the year in what ends up being a late push for the Paul Hornung Award. The opportunity for some post-bye week momentum slips away from Lea and Co.

Week 12: at Ole Miss (L)

The good news for Vandy? Elijah Moore is gone. The bad news for Vandy? Matt Corral is not. He continues his stellar season, and this ends up being the defensive performance that gives Ole Miss fans optimism about the future, especially on the defensive line. Demon Clowney and highly touted Tywone Malone get into the backfield several times and stall the Vandy offense. It’s a major bounce-back game for the Ole Miss defense while the Commodores’ offense wastes a prime chance to get some late-season mojo going.

Week 13: at Tennessee (L)

Can Vandy spoil Tennessee’s bowl hopes? Not quite. For the second consecutive week, the Tennessee defense shows up with its best performance of the year. Alontae Taylor and Jeremy Banks both get takeaways against a Vandy offense that isn’t really built to play from behind. This still ends up being a relatively high-scoring affair, but Vandy’s offense comes too late. Instead of this being reminiscent of the 2018 game wherein Tennessee loses bowl eligibility against the Commodores, this time, the Vols get win No. 6.

2021 projection: 3-9 (1-7), 7th in SEC East


The only way to go is up. That’s the good news for Lea. If this projection plays out, he’ll get to celebrate a win against a respected SEC team in Nashville. The defensive improvement will be there in flashes.

Of course, the bad news is that there’s a long way up to go. Like, there’s a long way up to go just to become a middle-of-the-pack SEC East team. It would help if Raih and Joey Lynch could turn Vandy into at least a decent passing offense. If they’re going to be trailing in a lot of these SEC games as many expect, there will be no shortage of reps. In the immediate future, the run game and the inability to get off the field on third down could be what dooms Lea’s Year 1.

Lea shouldn’t be expected to step in and do what James Franklin did in his Year 1. The East is in a different place now than it was at a decade ago, especially at the top. The talent disparity will be too significant in SEC play. That prevents Vandy from even flirting with bowl eligibility.

However, Lea establishes his defensive culture and he appears to have his signal-caller of the future in Seals. The rebuild is in full effect in Nashville.