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July 24, 2013

SEC Preseason Rankings: Day 4

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextraSEC_new_logo

It’s Day 4 of our preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC, which will end Saturday as the two teams at the top of the league entering the fall are unveiled. Until then, we’ll count down the teams, two at a time, from worst to first. The format will involve a “best-case/worst-case” scenario for each team, taking our cues from former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter’s piece from three years ago.

With six teams down, there are only eight left. How will the rankings shake out from here?

Let’s continue answering those questions now. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …

8. VANDERBILT

Things couldn’t have been better for Vanderbilt headed into the summer. The Commodores were coming off consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in school history. James Franklin has the team recruiting at a higher level than ever before. And in a refrain that has become a rallying cry around the program, they were one of two schools in the country (along with Notre Dame) in the “20-20-20 Club,” the Commodores’ name for finishing in the top 20 in three different categories across a range of spectrums: 20th, which was their ranking in the final USA Today poll released last season; 19th, which was the rank Rivals gave their 2013 recruiting class; and 17th, where the university stood in the U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” edition.

But no one cared about any of those things at SEC Media Days. Instead, Franklin was asked numerous questions about an ongoing investigation involving a possible sex crime that occurred at a campus dormitory earlier this year. This investigation led to four football players being kicked off the team, though Franklin refused to answer any question about them beyond saying that the case has not been resolved.

On the field, Vandy brings back a pair of fantastic receivers in Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews, with the latter having the opportunity to set SEC records for catches and yardage this season. But the Commodores have to replace quarterback Jordan Rodgers and running back Zac Stacy, which won’t be easy. The Commodores do return seven starters defensively, which may have to be leaned on early in the season as the offense tries to find its way.

But if they can’t put the off-field issues aside — something the program, unlike others in the SEC, is not used to dealing with — or finding players to step up in the backfield, the Commodores may take a step back this season.Vanderbilt_Commodores

  • Best-case scenario: The Commodores are pushed to the limit against the Rebels in Week 1, but ultimately capture a 28-24 victory. After a laugher against Austin Peay a week later, Vanderbilt faces off against another 2-0 (1-0 SEC) squad in South Carolina. But for the fifth straight year, the Gamecocks take the ‘W,’ pulling away late for a 31-16 victory. The Commodores don’t stay down for long, though, picking up four wins after their initial defeat, which includes an upset at home against a top-10 ranked Georgia squad. Consecutive tough road games — at Texas A&M and Florida, respectively— bump Vandy back down a few notches. However, the Commodores finish the season strong, having no trouble dispatching Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest in their final three regular season games. Going into its Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup against Virginia Tech with a chance at history — a 10-win season for the first time in the Commodores’ annals — Vanderbilt shows nerves early, falling behind 14-10 at the half. But Vandy comes alive in the final 30 minutes, as Matthews hauls in two touchdown passes to propel the Commodores to a 34-21 victory. Franklin once again turns down offers to go to bigger schools, too excited about the things he’s accomplishing in Nashville, Tenn. And the 10-win season, not surprisingly, resonates with recruits, as the Commodores sign their best class ever. Even better, people both inside and outside the program start to ponder the possibility Vanderbilt could make a run at the SEC Eastern Division title in 2014.
  • Worst-case scenario: Vanderbilt come out sluggish in the season and conference opener against Ole Miss, falling to the Rebels 34-20.  The Commodores even their record at 1-1 after walloping Austin Peay, but fall back under .500 after losing on the road to South Carolina. The topsy-turvy season continues, as they put together three straight wins (Massachusetts, Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri) followed by three straight losses (Georgia, Texas A&M and Florida). The Commodores then alternate wins and losses over the final three games of the year, beating Kentucky, losing to a Tennessee team on the upswing and ending with a non-conference victory over Wake Forest. Being relegated to the Music City Bowl in their own town for the second straight year makes it hard for the Commodores to get excited to face North Carolina. And it shows. The Tar Heels walk all over the Commodores in a 45-14 rout, which puts Vandy’s final mark at 6-7. There is talent on the team and a decent recruiting class coming in 2014, but questions begin to emerge as to whether the Commodores have gone as far as they can up the SEC ladder, especially with the Volunteers beginning to rise from the ashes with Butch Jones at the helm. Realizing himself that Vanderbilt may have maxed out its potential, Franklin starts to seriously entertain offers from bigger schools the next time the coaching carousel starts to spin.

7. OLE MISS

Few teams in the country enter the fall with as much momentum as Ole Miss does — and for good reason. Hugh Freeze led a remarkable turnaround in his first year in Oxford, Miss., taking a team that was 2-10 in 2011 (and on a 16-game SEC losing streak at the start of last season) to a 7-6 overall record, a win over arch-rival Mississippi State and a victory over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. To top things off, the Rebels signed one of the nation’s best recruiting classes in February, headlined by the consensus top player in the country, Georgia defensive end Robert Nkemdiche.

And it doesn’t hurt that the Rebels bring back a whopping 19 starters from last season, including every player on defense and their leading passer (Bo Wallace), rusher (Jeff Scott) and receiver (Donte Moncrief) offensively.

With the roster carryover eliminating any concerns about positional battles, Ole Miss’ biggest challenge will be its schedule. The Rebels play four of their first five games on the road, including their season and SEC opener against Vanderbilt on Aug. 29.

Should they be able to navigate those first five games unscathed, the Rebels’ season might actually be able to live up to the sky-high expectations their fans (and some media pundits) have foreseen.OleMissLogo

  • Best-case scenario: Ole Miss ends three seasons of frustration against Vanderbilt, as the Rebels go on the road and knock the Commodores off in the season opener 34-20. After a easy win against Southeast Missouri in Week 2, the schedule picks up when they head to Austin, Texas, to take on the Longhorns. It proves to be a difficult test, but the Rebels survive to take a 23-20 win, as Robert Nkemdiche comes up with the first signature play of his collegiate career, stopping Texas running back Johnathan Gray on fourth-and-2 on Texas’ final drive. But with excitement through the roof, the Rebels finally meet their match against two-time defending national champion Alabama. The Crimson Tide show the Rebels they still have a little farther to go to get into the upper echelon of the sport, winning 37-24 in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Ole Miss splits a pair of back-to-back home slobberknockers versus Texas A&M (close loss) and LSU (close win). With the toughest part of their schedule behind them, the Rebels cruise through their last four games, running away from arch-rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl 41-21. While Ole Miss’ third-place finish in the SEC West doesn’t get them to a BCS bowl, the Cotton Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize. In Dallas, they run past the Cowboys of Oklahoma State to finish 11-2, setting a single-season school record for wins. Though Freeze is rumored for every bigger job — both collegiate and pro — that comes open, he declines, opting to stay and continue building his program. The Rebels’ good fortune continues as they put together another top-10 recruiting class for 2014. Meanwhile, Mississippi State limps to a 4-8 record, with no signs of regaining the upper hand against their Egg Bowl nemesis.
  • Worst-case scenario: The Commodores have their number once more in the season opener, slipping past the Rebels in a back-and-forth contest that ends 28-24 in favor of the hosts. A dominant win against Southeast Missouri means little in the ensuing five-game stretch, which proves the Rebels aren’t ready for the big time just yet. Ole Miss drops all five games (Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU), meaning just one more loss will knock them out of the running for a bowl. The Rebels recover by winning their next four, but at 5-6, need a victory in the Egg Bowl to extend their season by one more game. That wish goes unfulfilled, as the Bulldogs put the capper on the Rebels’ underachieving 2013 campaign. With a chance to score the go-ahead touchdown in the game’s final minute, a pass intended for Moncrief instead ends up in the hands of the Bulldogs’ Nickoe Whitley, the only returner in the MSU secondary from the year prior. Freeze’s “miracle worker” image loses some of its sheen in the aftermath of the disappointing season, and it shows on the recruiting trail, as the Rebels’ class lands outside the top 30 in the country. And to make 2013 doubly-dismal, the Bulldogs rebound to post their third eight-plus-win season in Mullen’s five-year tenure.

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