SEC PREVIEWS: A new day in Nashville

Nelson Chenault -US PRESSWIRE

As if winning five straight national titles wasn't enough to declare the Southeastern Conference's college football supremacy, the league managed to take it one step further last season when the BCS title game matchup between Alabama and LSU guaranteed a sixth straight national champion from the SEC before the championship game was even played.

So how does seven in a row sound? Well it will be hard to bet against the SEC continuing its dominance, especially with LSU returning 15 starters from last year's squad and BCS champ Alabama still loaded on the offensive side even with the loss of standout running back Trent Richardson.

Yet the big story in SEC Football 2012 is the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, something that figures to make it even tougher to get through the league schedule unscathed. While neither Mizzou nor the Aggies are expected to contend for SEC divisional titles, they both bring solid programs to the league. Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the country five years ago before losing to Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game, and A&M's Kyle Field is one of the most difficult venues in the country for visiting teams, something Florida, Arkansas and LSU will have to contend with this fall.

The Scout.com publishers believe that LSU and Georgia will repeat as division champions this year with LSU picked to win the SEC Championship. Previews of all 14 SEC teams are about to be featured on GamecockAnthem.com and we start with Kentucky, the predicted last team in the SEC East.



SEC EAST

VANDERBILT (PREDICTED FINISH: 6TH IN EAST)


It's a new era at Vanderbilt, which competed in its second bowl game in four years and recently announced plans to construct a multipurpose center which will house a state of the art indoor football practice facility. Going to bowls and spending boatloads of money for facilities hasn't been the norm for a program that has been to just five bowls in its history.

A big reason for the change at Vanderbilt is head coach James Franklin, who ignored the pundits who told him the things that couldn't be done at the Nashville school.

Franklin was told he couldn't recruit great players to Vanderbilt. He responded by nabbing two four-star recruits in his first class in which he only had two months to recruit. He was also told he couldn't produce on the field, but coached an offense that scored the most points by a Commodore team since 1915.

The Vanderbilt nation and city of Nashville have embraced Franklin's enthusiasm and success with open arms. In April more than 8,000 fans attended the Commodores' spring game. That may not seem like much but you have to consider that Vanderbilt is a small private school with slightly more than 6,000 undergraduates. In recent years crowds of 1,000 or less witnessed spring games.

One real eye opener for the emergence of the Commodore program happened on May 2. On that day the program received news that 2012 season ticket sales had already exceeded the 2011 total--- just one week after season ticket packages went on sale.

Franklin has more weapons to work with as he enters his second season. The program lost just two starters on offense and four on defense.

At quarterback Vanderbilt returns redshirt senior Jordan Rodgers who replaced veteran Larry Smith as the starter beginning with the Army game. Rodgers passed for more than 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns while playing in every game. The backup will likely be redshirt junior Austyn Carta-Samuels who sat out last season after transferring from Wyoming.

A big reason for Vanderbilt's success offensively in 2011 was the play of tailback Zac Stacy. The Alabama native rushed for 1,193 yards and set single-season rushing records for both yards and touchdowns (14). Warren Norman, the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year, sat out last season while recovering from an injury suffered during the 2010 season. He participated in limited drills during the spring. Junior Wesley Tate and incoming freshman speedster Brian Kimbrow will also play at the position.

Junior Jordan Matthews, who caught 41 passes last season, headlines an ever-improving Commodore receiving corps. Redshirt sophomore Chris Boyd (31 catches) and Jonathan Krause (23 catches) will also get playing time. Veteran tight end Austin Monahan and Steven Scheu will continue their battle in the fall to replace Brandon Barden. Kris Kentera, a former quarterback converted to H-back, was one of the biggest surprises of the spring due to his spectacular catching ability.

The offensive line has been a sore spot for Vanderbilt the past few seasons. However, the unit returns every starter and should be improved. Junior Wesley Johnson, who earned All-SEC honors in 2011, anchors the Commodore line. He will move back to tackle from center in 2012. Sophomore Spencer Pulley will likely take over the center spot. Veteran Ryan Seymour and Chase White sat out the spring with injuries. Seymour can play either tackle or guard while the younger White will add depth at tackle. Guard Josh Jelesky and tackle Andrew Bridges also both have extensive experience. Six incoming freshmen are expected to provide more depth for this unit.

Defensively, Vanderbilt will have a tough task replacing now graduated middle linebacker Chris Marve, defensive end Tim Fugger and cornerback Casey Hayward.

Freshman linebacker Darreon Herring, an early enrollee who participated in spring practice, was the biggest surprise on defense in the Commodores' spring sessions. Herring exhibited excellent tackling and playmaking ability. While Herring likely won't take over Marve's middle position, he may take over veteran Chase Garnham's outside spot so Garnham can move to the middle.

Senior Archibald Barnes, who had two interceptions against Tennessee -- including one returned for 100 yards -- is back at the other outside position.

On the defensive line Vanderbilt returns both tackles and one end. Veteran tackle Rob Lohr had five sacks last season while fellow tackle Colt Nichter added 26 tackles and a sack. Redshirt junior Walker May had three sacks in seven starts. Fifth-year senior Johnell Thomas, Kyle Woestmann and incoming freshman Caleb Azubike should contend for the open starting position in the fall.

Senior Trey Wilson is the lone returning cornerback. He had three interceptions last season. Junior Andre Hal appeared to be in the lead to replace Hayward. Jovan Marshall (strong) and Kenny Ladler (free) should be the safeties. The two broke up a combined 10 passes last season.

Vanderbilt returns punter Richard Kent (42-yard avg.) and kicker Ryan Fowler (4-of-7 field goals). Junior Carey Spear should handle kickoffs.

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