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Key stretch: Vanderbilt

VANDERBILT

Key stretch: Northwestern (Sept. 4), LSU (Sept. 11), at Ole Miss (Sept. 18), at Connecticut (Oct. 2).

Analysis: The new-look Commodores under the tutelage of interim coach Robbie Caldwell, who takes over for the retired Bobby Johnson, will be tested right away. Vanderbilt’s first four opponents played in bowl games a year ago, beginning with Northwestern. The Commodores need something good to happen early in the season to build a little momentum and help restore some confidence. The onus is going to be on the offense to score some points. There was far too much pressure on the defense a year ago to keep teams under 20 points if the Commodores were going to have any chance to win. The one big difference in this schedule is that Vanderbilt does get a bye week prior to its trip to Connecticut. The Commodores played 12 straight weeks a year ago without a bye.

Prediction: Northwestern lost several key players from last season’s Outback Bowl team, and getting the Wildcats at home gives the Commodores a chance to kick off the season the right way. Again, it gets back to having a pulse on offense. Johnson said during his retirement press conference that the Commodores already had a good plan in place for Northwestern. Whatever happens in the opener, winning at LSU that next week is probably too much to ask. And then comes a trip the next week to Ole Miss before the bye. The Commodores need to avoid going into that Connecticut game 0-3, because an 0-4 start would almost certainly ensure another long season in Nashville. Here's betting they manage a win somewhere in that opening four-game stretch.