Editor’s note: We conclude our annual Crystal Ball series today with Vanderbilt.

I was pleasantly surprised.

I picked Vandy to go winless in the SEC last year and come 3 games short of a bowl berth. The Commodores proved me wrong.

They did so by finding something special at the skill positions. What Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney did in that offense fueled a season that was beyond my low expectations. Derek Mason deserves credit for getting Vandy to a place that few have.

Now the question becomes: Does Vandy have a 6-win floor with Mason now? Or maybe the better question becomes: Does Vandy have higher than a 6-win ceiling now?

The obvious answer would be “yes” for the simple fact that James Franklin showed that Vandy can be relevant. Granted, he also did that when the division wasn’t quite what it is today.

Still, Vandy is trying to make consecutive bowl appearances for the second time in program history. Can Mason do that?

Let’s take our final peek into the crystal ball.

2018 record: 6-7 (3-5), 6th in SEC East

The Big 3

One of my favorite offseason storylines is Vandy’s “Big 3.” Nobody knows how the nickname started, but the thinking is that Vaughn is Kevin Durant, Lipscomb is Steph Curry and Pinkney is Klay Thompson. That Big 3 broke up. This Big 3 all elected to return for their senior seasons.

What’s this Big 3 capable of? A lot. Nobody in the country had a running back, receiver and tight end rank in the top 3 in yardage among their position groups in their respective conferences. Well, nobody besides Vandy.

The more you talk to them and hear them talk about each other, you get the feeling that this group is capable of having some big-time success in 2019. We’re talking about a trio that accounted for over 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns last year. And at 3 different positions.

This has the potential to be like the 2017-18 Ole Miss receivers who would always be worth watching even a random game because each one of them could go off or make a home run play.

Unfortunately for that Ole Miss group, it wasn’t putting up those numbers in the heat of a division title push, which seems like will be the case with Vandy.

What is Riley Neal’s potential?

My guess all offseason has been that Neal will win the starting QB job. Assuming the Ball State grad transfer is indeed named Vandy’s starter, the aforementioned talent at the skill positions will put that much more pressure on him to deliver. He never had a trio like that in Muncie.

But the good news for Neal is that he’s not going to be asked to stretch the field like Tua Tagovailoa, nor will he be put in spots to run 15-20 times in a game. The goal will be accuracy and avoiding negative plays. Defenses are going to dare Neal to beat them with Vaughn causing so much attention up front.

Could that be a blessing? Definitely. Neal has 4 years worth of starts, a handful of which came against Power 5 teams. The speed of the game shouldn’t overwhelm him. But if the offense is being held back because of Neal, he’ll face heavy criticism.

A daunting start

I’m always concerned about teams with brutal starts to the season. Vandy, I’d argue, has the toughest 3-game start in America.

  • vs. Georgia
  • at Purdue
  • vs. LSU

That’s a pair of teams that’ll likely start in the top 7, as well as a road game against one of the most dynamic receivers in America. Good luck!

I’m not joking when I say I think 1-2 would be a major victory. Sure, there’s a bye week sandwiched in there and nobody is going to fault Vandy for losing to Georgia or LSU, but rare is it that a Power 5 team starts 0-3. There’s no time for “getting the feet wet” or “settling into the offense.”

Mason has a tough task ahead of just making sure that his team doesn’t get blown out of the water, and if it does, keeping it together and not letting minds drift to NFL things (that shouldn’t be a major problem with a Big 3 that all could have been playing on Sundays this fall).

Something tells me we’re going to know a lot about Vandy in a hurry.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Georgia (L)

Nashville will be a fun place to be on opening weekend, especially now that we know in-stadium alcohol sales will be allowed. But that Georgia offense should be able to impose its will against a Vandy defense that has question marks galore.

Week 2: at Purdue (L)

It’s not just that Moore is an extraordinary player who can take over any game. It’s that Jeff Brohm always has tricks up his sleeve. I worry what kind of tricks could fool Vandy’s inexperienced defense. And winning at Purdue is no cakewalk. Ask Ohio State about that.

Week 3: Bye

Week 4: vs. LSU (L)

I am looking forward to seeing what Lipscomb and Pinkney can do against that LSU secondary. But I fear that the Tigers get out to an early lead and Vandy is forced to be 1-dimensional. That’s not something I want Neal to be against an elite SEC defense.

Week 5: vs. Northern Illinois (W)

Neal will face a familiar MAC foe (probably). Go figure that he has 149 career pass attempts against the Huskies. Unfortunately, he has 0 wins. Fortunately, he has better weapons around him this time.

Week 6: at Ole Miss (W)

I have questions about an extremely inexperienced Ole Miss offense. Will they be up to speed by Week 6? Perhaps, but I see this game turning into a shootout that favors the team with the proven skill players.

Week 7: vs. UNLV (W)

I might have doubts about Vandy’s secondary performs without Joejuan Williams and Donovan Sheffield, but against a 4-win Mountain West team? The Commodores should be able to score at will to the point where it won’t matter.

Week 8: vs. Mizzou (L)

This is a winnable game against a Mizzou team that starts the year with an extremely favorable schedule. But a balanced attack doesn’t play into the Vandy defense’s hand. The Big 3 went off against Mizzou last year, and could easily do so again. Unfortunately for Vandy, the Tigers have a Big 3 of their own in Kelly Bryant, Larry Rountree and Albert Okwuegbunam, and they ultimately get the last laugh.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: at South Carolina (L)

Am I making too big of a deal of Vandy’s defensive issues? Maybe. That unit ranks No. 119 in percentage of returning production (4 of its top 5 leading tacklers are gone). By this point, that’s not an excuse. But I still have concerns about Jake Bentley picking apart this defense en route to a high-scoring victory.

Week 11: at Florida (L)

Vaughn said that the Commodores “let Florida slide” last year when they blew a double-digit lead after he exited the game with an injury. At Florida this time, though? I don’t think the Gators will take Vandy as lightly as they did last year. Todd Grantham’s pressure proves to be too much and Vandy struggles to get the skill players involved enough to pull off the upset.

Week 12: vs. Kentucky (W)

Ah, but this upset? Yeah, let’s call it now. It’s a legit upset because I have Kentucky winning 8 games in the regular season. I think Vandy’s weapons exploit that Kentucky secondary at home. C.J. Bolar, who had the team’s only offensive spark in last year’s defensive struggle, gets it going again in an impressive victory against the Cats.

Week 13: vs. East Tennessee State (W)

Are cupcakes still all the rage? Or are donuts becoming the new trend in the dessert market? I don’t know. Whatever the case, Vandy eats an ETSU cupcake in a few big bites.

Week 14: at Tennessee (L)

The streak finally ends. Tennessee should finally have the size to impose its will a bit on the offensive line. That helps in a major way for Jim Chaney’s balanced attack. In a do-or-die game for Vandy’s postseason hopes, a bid for consecutive bowl berths come up just short.

2019 projection: 5-7 (2-6, 7th in SEC East)


Before Vandy fans yell at me for this projection, let me just remind you that I was wrong last year. By a good amount, too. Maybe a 5-win projection will be way off this year, too.

The problem is I can’t get past the defensive issues. I worry about who is going to cover what’s an extremely talented group of opposing receivers. And that run defense that ranked No. 94 last year could easily take a step back with those key defensive contributors gone.

Mason just got an extension, but with a new athletic director in town, every postseason berth from now on is massive. I’m not saying Mason would be out if he doesn’t reach the postseason, but I am saying that when the person who hired you is no longer there, you better impress in those first couple of seasons.

This could wind up feeling like a year of missed opportunities. Missed because a trio of skill players this good doesn’t come around very often. This offense has a chance to do some historic things by program standards.

I believe that’s a realistic possibility, but more realistic to me is another losing season in conference play and a frustrating end to 2019.