August 27, 2007

Five questions heading to Saturday

Incredibly, the new football season starts this Saturday, as the Commodores face off against Richmond at 6:00 pm Nashville time at Dudley Field.

Vandy has less questions heading into this season-opener than any in recent history. With an offensive line that is legitimately two deep, a wide out that everyone ranks as one of the best in the nation, and one of the SEC's most athletic quarterbacks, the Commodore football program seems poised to (finally) break the streak of bowl-less seasons that now stretches over two decades.

Richmond poses little threat to VU opening at 1-0. With just 20 returning juniors and seniors, the Spiders have less raw materials than any opponent on the Dores' schedule. If Earl Bennett can rack up yardage with triple coverage in the SEC, there's likely little Richmond will be able to do to slow him and the rest of the offense Saturday.

Still, there are things Commodore fans can and should look for this Saturday, to see if this may perhaps be a Vandy team that plays into December (or perhaps January).

1. Can Vanderbilt mount a legit running attack?
Last year, Chris Nickson was Vanderbilt's leading ground gainer. That can't - and likely won't - happen again this year, with opposing defenses keying on his every move.

VU had an excuse last year, when Jeff Jennings redshirted after blowing out his knee the prior season. Still, Cassen Jackson-Garrison did little to take up his slack, and with so many QB keepers called from the sidelines, neither Jared Hawkins nor Gaston Miller had much of a chance to establish their ground games.

Vandy has what some believe is the best receiving corps in the SEC this year. If ever there was a time for CJG, Jennings and Hawkins to take the bull by the horns, it is now.

To be honest, Richmond won't offer much if any serious opposition to the VU ground game. Still, Vandy needs to establish some momentum and confidence on Saturday, and give Nick Saban something other than Bennett and Nickson to worry about in his game prep.

Should VU win more games than they lose this year, it will be because someone really stepped up in the run game. With this star-studded O-line, there are no excuses this season. Despite the considerable air attack that VU can mount with Nickson and Bennett, you can't win in the SEC with a one-dimensional offense.

2. How will VU adapt to the new special teams rules?
Five yards doesn't seem like much, until you start to think about how many games Vanderbilt has lost by that margin in seasons past. Moving the kickoff back will almost certainly mean a lot more returns, and potentially many more game-deciding run-backs.

VU may have the league's best field goal kicker in Bryant Hahnfeldt. But last season Vandy still found a way to be the SEC's worst coverage unit in the league. Part time linebacker Patrick Benoist was all that withheld disaster on many kick returns last year, and he'll likely be on the two deep chart on defense this year. And don't forget that Hahnfeldt's torn ACL was the result of a touchdown-saving tackle of his own.

Someone - or several someones - will need to fill Benoist's shoes this season, or Vandy will almost certainly end up on the losing end of the bowl selection process.

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