SDS kicks off a series looking in-depth at teams and their biggest subplots heading into 2014. Finishing us up: Vanderbilt Commodores.

SEC Subplots 2014:

1. Why is everyone discounting Vanderbilt?
Nearly every projection for the SEC East and also the bowl projections have Vanderbilt missing on a bowl game, despite finishing with back-to-back nine-win seasons. Obviously, the biggest aspect of the recent run is gone in James Franklin and his coaching staff. But as Derek Mason takes over the program reins, Franklin recruited very well the last several years, and there’s talent to win now. There’s more talent at Vanderbilt now than there every has been, and Mason has proven he can put together an elite product on defense. Mason even said this preseason that Vanderbilt has more talent than Stanford on defense…the same Cardinal defense that owned Oregon the last two years.

2. Schedule sets up perfectly
The biggest reason you shouldn’t count Vanderbilt out of winning maybe eight games this season is the schedule. Have you seen it? The Commodores play just four preseason top 25 teams and no Power Five non-conference games. Swing games against Ole Miss, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi State are crucial to exceed expectations. The Commodores usually play South Carolina fairly well, and Georgia and Missouri are tough road games. Still, Mason has to be licking his chops to play this schedule, and it’s perhaps the biggest reason Vandy can exceed expectations…again.

3. Talented backfield
The backbone of Vanderbilt’s offense is the running game. Led by a veteran and very versatile offensive line and a deep backfield that features Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow, the offensive base will be the running game. Add in the fact that starter Patton Robinette has some mobility — and now experience, the outlook is promising. Seymour is a bowling ball, and Kimbrow is a big-play threat. However, don’t forget about Ralph Webb, a redshirt freshman from Florida who’s a burner. Vanderbilt will have to run the football, and the good news is they certainly can with the trio.

4. Defensive scheme fits personnel perfectly
Vanderbilt’s defense has been very good last several years under Bob Shoop, but with Shoop’s exit, the strength also exited with four secondary starters. Now, Derek Mason comes in and brings a 3-4 scheme. Former defensive ends Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike have an opportunity to be very good at outside linebacker, and watch out for Adam Butler, the former defensive tackle turned end in Mason’s scheme. Linebackers Darreon Herring and Nigel Bowden should be rock solid, and although the secondary will be made up of new starters, cornerback Paris Head and company should be better than advertised.

SDS Takeaway: Vanderbilt’s rise in the SEC East has paralleled a struggling Tennessee program, and the Vols should struggle again this season. Therefore, Vanderbilt’s chances to get to a bowl game are much better than many want to admit. Yes, the new regime will take some time to create an identity, but the schedule affords the Commodores that luxury.