That’s how many Power 5 teams could claim that they had a running back finish among the top 3 in the conference in rushing yards, a receiver finish among the top 3 in the conference in receiving yards and a tight end finish among the top 3 in the conference in receiving yards (among tight ends).
Can you guess which team that was? If you can read the headline, I bet you can guess.
Yes, it was Vanderbilt. That stat in itself is impressive. So why should SEC East teams be aware of that stat?
All 3 players who helped accomplish that feat — Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney — are back in 2019.
Think about that for a second.
We’re talking about Vanderbilt, AKA the school with 1 first-team All-SEC offensive skill player in the past decade (Jordan Matthews did it twice). This is the program that coming into last year, the biggest question mark was who in the world was Kyle Shurmur going to get the ball to?
A year later, Vanderbilt is promoting Vaughn, Lipscomb and Pinkney as their “Big 3,” and quite frankly, I don’t blame them. This is easily the most talent the Commodores have had at the skill positions during the Derek Mason era, and you could make a good case that there’s more elite weapons this year than there was with the 2012 squad under James Franklin.
The difference with that group was that it had a returning starting quarterback (who you might have also later seen on “The Bachelorette”). This group does not have that. Well, Riley Neal was a 4-year starter at Ball State — he got a medical redshirt in 2017 — though in terms of guys who have familiarity in the system with Vanderbilt’s weapons, that’s lacking.
But if we’re talking situations that a new quarterback could walk into, Vandy’s is actually pretty ideal. Vaughn deserves to begin the season as an All-SEC back, which means he’ll be at the top of scouting reports. Teams are going to load up the box and make Neal or Deuce Wallace beat them with their arms.
That means Pinkney and Lipscomb should get more single coverage than players of their caliber normally get. If you scoffed at “players of their caliber,” consider this a reminder of how prolific that duo was last year. Lipscomb is one of 3 returning Power 5 receivers who caught at least 80 balls for 900-plus yards last year. Nobody in the SEC had more receptions than Lipscomb.
Which Kalija Lipscomb (@ThatKid_K) catch was better?
Versus Nevada or MTSU? pic.twitter.com/Cp3k2VlFgb
— Justin Beasley (@JBeasleyWSMV) September 13, 2018
And as for Pinkney, he easily could have gone to the NFL Draft and possibly been a Day 2 guy. But he stayed, and now there’s already people like Todd McShay projecting him as a first-round pick in 2020. People might forget that SEC coaches actually voted Pinkney ahead of Irv Smith Jr. for second-team All-SEC last year.
Part of that was probably due to how well he finished the season for a Vandy squad that needed to close out strong to clinch bowl eligibility. It’s not surprising that Vandy’s Big 3 played its best football during that 4-game stretch:
- Pinkney: 20 catches, 306 receiving yards, 4 TDs
- Lipscomb: 27 catches, 298 receiving yards, 3 TDs
- Vaughn: 71 carries, 506 rushing yards, 6 total TDs
That was with Vaughn leaving the Tennessee game early with a head and shoulder injury (he looked fine a month later when he racked up 243 yards on only 13 carries against Baylor in the Texas Bowl). Not that Vandy needed Vaughn to blow out Tennessee.
I realize that Georgia and South Carolina fans are probably brushing off the idea that Vandy could present a legitimate threat at the skill positions. After all, their teams dismantled the Commodores, unlike the rest of the SEC and Notre Dame.
But who knows if Vaughn’s presence could have made the difference in the second half against Florida (Vandy led by 2 scores went Vaughn went down) or the following week in that 14-7 loss to Kentucky. Shoot, Vaughn wasn’t even the starter in that lopsided loss to South Carolina.
Maybe Vandy’s 3-1 finish to the regular season was the product of Vaughn getting healthy and the Commodores realizing that they actually had a Big 3. Well, not including Shurmur. Including the bowl game, they averaged 37 points after that 7-point, Vaughn-less Kentucky loss.
Obviously we can’t assume that’ll be the new norm with Shurmur gone. But at the very least, it’s clear that Vandy will boast quite the prolific trio.
Or rather, quite the “Big 3.”