The SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Vanderbilt football in 2022 (2022)

Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Vanderbilt. Last week, we predicted every game for every SEC West team. This week, we’ll predict every game for every SEC East team.

Let’s try that one again.

Year 1 was really more like a Year 0 for Clark Lea. He took over a program in need of a major roster overhaul after a 2020 season which Vandy failed to win a game during its all-SEC slate. Shoot, it was a challenge just to field a roster at times with all the COVID-related depth issues the Commodores endured.

So no, there were not any realistic expectations for Vandy in Year 1 (or Year 0 if we’re sticking with that). The program started 2 different quarterbacks, neither of whom won an SEC game. Starting off with a 20-point loss to an FCS team squashed any hope that 2021 was going to yield imminent improvement. At least not in the record column. I’d argue that in the latter half, Vandy began to flirt with the idea of looking the part of an SEC program.

As it relates to 2022, well, it’s hard to set realistic expectations for the Dores. The oddsmakers have Vandy’s regular season over/under at 2.5 wins, and despite the lone person who picked Vandy to win the SEC, well, let’s just say we’re years from that not being met with laughter.

Then what awaits Lea in Year 2? Let’s discuss.

Mike Wright, this is your team

Lea made the surprising announcement at SEC Media Days that Wright was QB1 to start the season. Well, maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising. Wright did finish as the starter for the injured Ken Seals, and given Wright’s mobility, that might’ve been considered a better move with an expectedly subpar offensive line. Oh, and Wright was 1 of 3 player representatives for Vandy at SEC Media Days. Perhaps the timing of the announcement was interesting, but players were made aware of the decision after spring ball.

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Now, though, all that matters is Wright has an opportunity. Vandy hasn’t had a quarterback start every game since Kyle Shurmur in 2018. Can Wright be that guy? It’s possible. Spend 5 minutes talking with him and you’ll see the leadership skills are undeniable. The offense did steadily improve with him as the starter. In those last 6 games, he averaged 46 rushing yards per contest, and he was only sacked twice per game.

That’s the good news for Vandy’s offense coming off a season in which it ranked dead last in scoring among Power 5 teams. The bad news is that its most experienced offensive lineman, Tyler Steen, transferred to Alabama. Vandy has a position battle at right tackle and it turned to a redshirt freshman at left tackle. On top of that, go-to target Chris Pierce is also gone.

Ideally, Vandy would avoid obvious passing situations and at least be within a couple scores in the second half. The ground attack of Wright, Patrick “Cheeks” Smith, Re’Mahn Davis and Rocko Griffin should be a strength. Vandy lost Steen, but it returns the majority of its offensive line.

Still, though. Vandy needs Wright to look the part and stay on the field for all of 2022.

Clark Lea’s Year 2 defense has to be better … right?

It’s unfair to compare Lea’s Notre Dame defense to Vandy’s, so I won’t mention that Lea’s Year 2 defense in South Bend finished as a top-15 unit in 2019. I’ll instead point out that Vandy allowed just as many points in November as it did in September (36.7 points per game) and Lea was frustratingly quiet in the transfer portal with just 3 defensive additions. But Lea did make the move of bringing in Nick Howell from Virginia as his new DC. That decision came after Michigan poached defensive coordinator Jesse Minter.

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So what does all of that mean? Well, the good news is that the start of the schedule is more favorable than it could’ve been. Hawaii was gutted by roster turnover, Elon is an FCS team and Wake Forest lost quarterback Sam Hartman to a non-football medical issue. It’s Year 2 in the 4-2-5, and Vandy does at least return 67% of last year’s production, including leading tackler Anfernee Orji, who had 13 tackles for loss in 2021. Along with Clemson transfer Kane Patterson, linebacker should be a strength.

The bad news is that the Commodores didn’t get a single player on the preseason All-SEC team. A group in desperate need of some playmakers could struggle to stop the bleeding once again. Vandy only held 1 of its 9 Power 5 foes to less than 30 points last year. Obviously life would be easier on the defense if the offense could sustain some drives and not rank No. 122 out of 130 FBS teams on 3rd down conversions.

Still, though. It’s been 6 years since Vandy finished better than No. 10 in the SEC in scoring defense. I wouldn’t bank on that trend stopping anytime soon.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Hawaii (W)

Oh, bless Hawaii. The Todd Graham player mistreatment story gutted an already lackluster Hawaii roster. A 6-win Group of 5 team who ranks No. 130 in FBS in percentage of returning production with a first-time head coach should not beat an SEC team. Will Sheppard has a big day to get Vandy on the board with a 28-21 victory.

Week 2: vs. Elon (W)

This is where that 4-headed rushing attack of Wright, Davis, Smith and Griffin really get going. A year removed from letting an FCS team come into Nashville and push Vandy around, it gets its first multi-score victory of the 2020s decade.

Week 3: vs. Wake Forest (L)

No Hartman, no problem, right? Not so much. The Demon Deacons still return 8 offensive starters from an 11-win team. Vandy doesn’t allow 500 passing yards, but A.T. Perry gets past the secondary on multiple occasions to put Wake Forest ahead early. It’s not a total rout with a Vandy offense who slows the pace down a bit, but ultimately, Wright can’t put together quick scoring drives down the stretch.

Week 4: at Northern Illinois (L)

Jordan Lynch might not be running the show for the Huskies, but former Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi is. That’s after he led NIU to a MAC title last year. That squad ranks No. 8 in FBS in percentage of returning production. A week after Wake Forest reminded Vandy how far it has to go defensively, Northern Illinois has a field day throwing the ball in a 3-touchdown victory in DeKalb.

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Week 5: at Alabama (L)

The Tyler Steen Bowl! There’s your intrigue for this otherwise snooze fest of a matchup. This game might get so lopsided that Alabama backup QB Jalen Milroe doesn’t even get a 4th quarter snap.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: vs. Ole Miss (L)

A pair of mobile quarterbacks really get a chance to shine. Does that set up for Wright to lead Vandy to an upset? Not quite. Ole Miss stops trading touchdowns in the 3rd quarter and sinks Lea’s defense with a long touchdown off play-action.

Week 8: at Georgia (L)

UGA is going to have a handful of instances in which we see a young skill player look like they’re ready to become a star. In this given week, Dillon Bell is that man. The true freshman receiver torches Vandy over the top and reaches the end zone twice. Wright spends too much of the afternoon running for his life and UGA cruises into the bye week still perfect.

Week 9: at Mizzou (L)

Brady Cook and Wright operate similarly. Both have no problem making things happen when plays break down and while their arms aren’t necessarily NFL-level, they can make defenses pay for loading the box. Both quarterbacks do most of their damage with their legs, and we get a fun back-and-forth that turns into a high-scoring affair. But for the first time in his college career, we see Mookie Cooper take over a game. He busts loose for 2 long touchdowns in the second half and Mizzou escapes Vandy’s upset bid.

Week 10: vs. South Carolina (L)

It’s worth noting that Vandy was 1 defensive stand from winning in Columbia last year. That didn’t happen. That ended up being a massive exhale for South Carolina. This time, South Carolina puts the game away much earlier. Austin Stogner gets involved early and often. Spencer Rattler attacks the middle of the field against Vandy’s secondary and South Carolina sees just how different things are a year removed from last year’s scare.

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Week 11: at Kentucky (L)

Will Vandy help UK stop the bleeding? Definitely. Kentucky gets a much-needed home exhale after a pair of road losses. Lea’s defense can’t find answers for the Tayvion Robinson-Dane Key combination, and Wright spends the afternoon operating from a multi-score deficit. Kentucky takes a couple of frustrating weeks out on Vandy.

Week 12: vs. Florida (L)

One of the signs that Billy Napier has things on the right track will be that Florida doesn’t suffer letdowns in consecutive weeks. Even an improved Vandy squad would be a significant letdown for the Gators. Justin Shorter and Keon Zipperer make their presence felt with key red-zone scores to fuel a blowout win in Nashville.

Week 13: vs. Tennessee (L)

Tennessee might not be playing for a division title, but it could very well still have a New Year’s 6 Bowl berth up for grabs. What the Vols do better than anyone in the country is get ahead from the jump. That puts pressure on Wright to throw out of some obvious passing situations, and with a leaky offensive line, a turnover-happy Tennessee defense pounces. Gone are the days of Tennessee getting embarrassed by the less-talented in-state program. Make it 4 consecutive lopsided wins for Tennessee against Vandy.

2022 projection: 2-10 (0-8), 7th in SEC East

#AnchorDown

No fanbase should have to endure 3 consecutive seasons without a conference win. Vandy fans, I hope I’m wrong. Y’all don’t deserve this kind of pain.

(For what it’s worth, I predicted an upset of Mizzou last year. So I was actually too bullish on Lea’s squad in Year 1).

But depth is still a major concern. I worry about Wright lasting the entire season and potentially watching the offense go through more growing pains with true freshman AJ Swann, who passed Seals on the pre-Week 1 depth chart. With the questions at tackle on offense and on the defensive line, it’s hard to envision even flirting with a bowl berth.

I know my guy Dari Nowkhah predicted a 4-0 start for Vandy, but that nonconference slate is still tricky, even with the Hartman injury. If Vandy somehow gets through September with a 3-1 mark having already surpassed its regular season over/under of 2.5 wins, well, I’ll gladly tip my cap to Lea and Co.

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I just can’t get there yet.

More Crystal Ball previews

Want to read about Vanderbilt’s rivals? The entire Crystal Ball series is here.

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