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Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Season recap: Vanderbilt

By Edward Aschoff


Record: 6-6, 2-6 SEC

First-year coach James Franklin promised changes, and he and his team delivered. The Commodores had attitude, bravado, and were actually pretty fun to watch when they had the ball. The thing that Franklin wanted his team to do was play week-to-week and forget about the woes of the past. And his team did right from the start.

The Commodores began the season 3-0, including a blowout victory at home over Ole Miss. The thing that really caught people’s attention was how aggressive the defense looked under new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. A group used to getting manhandled in the past had new fire and caused headaches for offenses with its ability to force turnovers. Led by star cornerback Casey Hayward, the Commodores had a knack for interceptions. By the end of Week 3, Vandy had as many interceptions returned for touchdowns as offensive touchdowns given up (three). By the end of Week 4, the Commodores led the SEC with 14 picks.

Vanderbilt’s offense had its low points until Jordan Rodgers replaced Larry Smith at quarterback following the Georgia game. From there, Commodores offense took off. If not for some old mistakes that cost Vanderbilt in the past, this team might have ended up with eight or nine wins, but did make it back to a bowl for the first time since 2008.

Offensive MVP: Running back Zac Stacy. He quietly had one of the best seasons of any SEC ball carrier. Stacy finished the year third in the league with 1,136 rushing yards and was second with 13 touchdowns. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry against SEC teams and rushed for 120-plus yards in four of his final six regular-season games.

Defensive MVP: Hayward. Hayward certainly has a future in the NFL and should have had much more than just his five interceptions. He really sparked Vandy’s turnaround season in Week 2 with his game-tying, 50-yard interception-return touchdown late in the win against Connecticut. In addition to the five picks, Hayward finished the year with 14 pass breakups and 54 tackles.

Turning point: When Rodgers replaced Smith in the Georgia game, the offense completely changed. He nearly led Vanderbilt to a major upset in that one, and the offense averaged 32 points with him as the starter. Vandy came close to beating Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee along the way.

What’s next: Vanderbilt will play in its first bowl game in three years when it travels to Memphis, Tenn., for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Cincinnati. Vanderbilt’s offense is on fire, but the Bearcats rank 46th in total defense and sixth in rush defense.