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The Commodores finished with four wins last year, but there were signs of improvement and hope from Derek Mason's first season as head coach. For starters, they won a couple SEC games and battled in others, keeping Florida and Ole Miss in attacking distance. With a step up on both sides of the ball in 2016, a bowl game could be in sight for Vanderbilt.
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While Mason still hasn't named a starting quarterback, all signs point to Kyle Shurmur holding that role. Shurmur had his issues in limited time as a freshman (five TDs, three INTs, 103 pass attempts), but he looks set to take a jump with a better overall offense. Trent Sherfield (51 receptions, 659 yards) returns as does 2014's top WR C.J. Duncan, who tore his ACL early last year. That may be enough in itself to give the receiving game a boost.
Running back Ralph Webb has been a mode of consistency in his two years with Vandy, rushing for 1,152 yards and five TDs last year and he should reach those totals yet again. The offensive line is also looking ready, with three starters returning and a unit that looks bigger and stronger than a year ago. The 'Dores brought in a new offensive line coach in January and that has seemed to get the guys up front in line.
While the offense should improve, the defense was already stout last season. The offense could barely score, but the defense was one of the best in the country, allowing just 21 points per game. To go along with that, Vandy returns a good amount of starters from that group, led by linebacker Zach Cunningham, a first-team All-SEC selection.
The quarterbacks looked capable in the spring game, but the defense still dominated the majority of action, allowing two total offensive TDs in the scrimmage. The linebackers may have the most holes, but Cunningham is still there. The line will have plenty of depth with Adam Butler and Jay Woods at the top of that unit. The secondary will also have more depth with Oren Burks holding down his safety position and Torren McGaster and Tre Herndon at corner. If the Commodores can build on last year at all, this group could be dominant.
Things won't be easy for Vanderbilt, though, mainly due to a tough non-conference slate. To get started, the Commodores would like to finally take down South Carolina and that opportunity is waiting for them in the opener. From there, they get three tough non-conference games, highlighted by a trip to Georgia Tech. Deciding their bowl fate may come down to a rough SEC home schedule that includes Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee. To reach six wins, Vandy will probably have to win at least one of those. They came close against the Gators a year ago (9-7 road loss), and this may be the year they finally take that step.
As long as Shurmur makes the expected progress at quarterback, the offense should take a step forward, making Vanderbilt a tough test for any competition they come up against in conference play.
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2016 Vanderbilt Commodores Football Schedule
Sept. 1 vs. South Carolina
Sept 10 vs. Middle Tennessee
Sept. 17 at Georgia Tech
Sept. 24 at Western Kentucky
Oct. 1 vs. Florida
Oct. 8 at Kentucky
Oct. 15 at Georgia
Oct. 22 vs. Tennessee State
Nov. 5 at Auburn
Nov. 12 at Missouri
Nov. 19 vs. Ole Miss
Nov. 26 vs. Tennessee
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