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Pregame Six Pack: More than a consolation prize

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Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl matchup might not advance the Irish to their ultimate goal. But it will provide college football’s grandest day with a premier matchup between two of the sport’s proudest programs.

So while Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State and Oklahoma wage battle with a haphazard workday and New Year’s Eve revelers, the Irish and the Buckeyes will kick of January 1 with the most intriguing bowl matchup of college football’s postseason.

Notre Dame’s 127th team didn’t reach their ultimate goal. But they will have the opportunity to be remembered among the school’s best teams, an eleventh win—against Urban Meyer and Ohio State, no less—up for grabs on Friday morning in Glendale, Arizona. That’s more than a consolation prize.

The storylines are numerous. The rosters stocked with NFL talent. So before Brian Kelly leads the Irish into a battle against Meyer’s Buckeye juggernaut, let’s enjoy our final pregame six pack before we ring in 2016 with the Fiesta Bowl.

 

After a nightmarish second half of the season, Brian Kelly thinks he sees the C.J. Prosise of old. 

Senior running back C.J. Prosise’s first season at running back was a phenomenal one. Notre Dame’s winner of the Next Man In Award ran for 1,032 yards and averaged 6.6 yards, a big-play threat and home run hitter from Day One as he stepped into the starting role after Tarean Folston injured his knee three carries into the year.

Yet Prosise’s big season was short-circuited as his hit count grew. He was neutralized against Temple before injuring his shoulder and suffering a concussion against Pittsburgh, then held out against Wake Forest. Just a handful of carries into his return against Boston College, Prosise suffered a high-ankle sprain, keeping him out of contact until arriving in Arizona.

If the Irish are going to find a way to cut into the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense, they need Prosise at full strength. And for the first time in a long time, it looked like Prosise had the explosiveness back that turned him into one of the nation’s most dangerous big-play running backs.

“I’d like to get a lot out of him, a lot of big plays in particular,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He looked pretty good yesterday. I think yesterday was his first day that he really showed, I think, the best way to put it is, ‘That looked like C.J.’ That was the first time yesterday when we saw him cut and look explosive.”

 

After 13 months, Jarron Jones returns to one of the toughest assignments in college football: Slowing down Ezekiel Elliott

Not even a car crash with a suspended drivers license could slow down the Big Ten’s top offensive weapon. Now we’ll see if Notre Dame’s inconsistent defense can do it.

The Irish have one thing going for them that the Columbus P.D. doesn’t. That’s the return of Jarron Jones, the 6-foot-5, 330-pound run-stuffer who should help the middle of the Irish defense hold up against Ohio State’s veteran and outstanding offensive line.

How many snaps Notre Dame gets out of Jones will be interesting. Kelly has sounded optimistic. Brian VanGorder less so, pegging Jones’ contributions in the 10 play range. With sophomore Daniel Cage battling an ankle sprain and Jones getting on the field for the first time since he suffered a major foot injury, the Irish senior is one very large X factor.

“I think for him the biggest thing is gaining back the confidence,” Isaac Rochell told Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley. “After not playing for two years, your ego is kind of down, you doubt yourself, but after he gets into the swing of things, gets into the game, makes some tackles, he’ll start to get his mojo back and feel a little bit better about his game.”

The Irish certainly hope so, especially as they take on a running game that requires an answer for not just Elliott, but quarterback J.T. Barrett.

 

There’s going to be a bullseye on cornerback Nick Watkins. At least Brian Kelly thinks so.

With KeiVarae Russell’s leg still healing and Devin Butler breaking his foot during practice this week, the next man in at cornerback is Nick Watkins. That pushes the seldom-used sophomore into a difficult situation, making his first start against one of the nation’s most talented teams.

Kelly expects Watkins to get tested early and often.

“He’s going to get picked on. I sure would pick on him if I was them,” Kelly said.

But Watkins isn’t your ordinary third-stringer. The Dallas native was one of Notre Dame’s highest-rated recruits, a talented coverman out of a high school powerhouse. Physically, his skills have always looked the part, though he struggled to put the mental together with the physical.

After a strong bowl season of practices, Notre Dame’s head coach is confident that Watkins can do the challenging job Brian VanGorder asks his cornerbacks to do.

“I think he’ll hold up. He’s a kid that will compete,” Kelly. He’s got a lot of pride. He’s got some innate athletic ability to go out there and compete with some good players.”

That Kelly is showing confidence in Watkins is interesting considering he wasn’t earlier in the season. After looking like he had pulled ahead of Butler during spring practice, Watkins ceded backup duties to the veteran Butler, behind him all season, including the start against Stanford and what would’ve been the Fiesta Bowl until the injury.

Sometimes it takes an opportunity for the lightbulb to go on. And after hearing Watkins talk this week, maybe that’ll be the silver lining of another difficult injury situation the Irish will have to overcome.

“You can’t give up when things don’t go your way. When the chips are down, it’s how you respond,” Watkins said on Wednesday. “That’s still what I’m learning. To respond and be a great player for this team.”

 

When it comes to Notre Dame and Ohio State, there’s a lot of familiarity. 

This is just the sixth all-time meeting between two school separated by just 250 miles. But that doesn’t mean the connections don’t run deep.

Notre Dame has 12 players from the state of Ohio. Freshman C.J. Sanders‘ father played for the Buckeyes, while Jaylon Smith’s brother played for Urban Meyer in Columbus. Countless players on the Buckeyes count a Notre Dame scholarship offer and vice versa. Taylor Decker was an Irish commit before a late-game flip.

You might have heard that Urban Meyer coached at Notre Dame, working for Lou Holtz and Bob Davie before his first head coaching opportunity at Bowling Green. Meyer has filled his staff with coaches with Notre Dame ties, including Tim Hinton and Ed Warinner from Kelly’s first Notre Dame staff. Tony Alford left last offseason to go to Columbus as well, named assistant head coach in addition to his running back duties. Meyer’s longtime strength coach Mickey Marotti was the head of ND’s strength program from 1998-2005.

Expect pregame warmup to be filled with some friendly hugs and handshakes before the festivities begin.

 

Nobody wants to talk about the NFL Draft yet. But the eyes of the NFL will be on the Fiesta Bowl Friday morning. 

Credit Ronnie Stanley for getting it out of the way. Notre Dame’s left tackle confirmed the news he all but announced when he decided to come back for 2015—he’ll be entering the 2016 NFL Draft. Yet outside of Stanley, the rest of the game’s draft-eligible stars aren’t saying much.

Will Fuller isn’t talking about his NFL Advisory grade. Neither is Prosise. Ezekiel Elliott has made it known the Fiesta Bowl will be his final collegiate game, but Joey Bosa and Jaylon Smith, two of the draft’s elite prospects, are keeping their plans to themselves until after the game.

How much talent will be on the field? Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has 15 of college football’s Top 100 players on these two teams alone.

Here’s the group:

No. 2: Jaylon Smith
No. 3: Joey Bosa
No. 5: Ronnie Stanley
No. 13: Ezekiel Elliott
No. 22: Michael Thomas
No. 33: Eli Apple
No. 37: Joshua Perry
No. 41: Taylor Decker
No. 47: Vonn Bell
No. 50: Adolphus Washington
No. 57: C.J. Prosise
No. 66: Braxton Miller
No. 67: Tyvis Powell
No. 73: Sheldon Day
No. 88: KeiVarae Russell

“There’s going to be a lot of guys playing football on Sundays,” Meyer said on Wednesday.

 

Like they’ve been asked all season, Notre Dame’s offense needs to win the game for the Irish. 

If the Irish are going to win the Fiesta Bowl, the offense is going to need to carry the day. That means better efficiency in the red zone from DeShone Kizer. That means a running game that takes what it wants from an undermanned Ohio State defensive front. And it means another big-time performance from Will Fuller.

The Irish are one of the best big-play offenses in the country. And even Ohio State’s biggest defensive star, defensive end Joey Bosa, knows the Buckeyes need to bring their best to the field on Friday to win the game.

“You look at them, it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror,” Bosa said on Monday. “Athletes everywhere. Big, athletic offensive line. Quarterback that can run with the ball. Really talented receivers. There’s weapons everywhere. It’s going to be a challenge.”

For the Irish, the challenge will be cashing in their scoring opportunities. Having tight end Durham Smythe should help. So will C.J. Prosise, though expect Josh Adams to get the short-yardage opportunities.

Ultimately, this game will come down to Kizer. Much has been made this week about not receiving a scholarship offer from the hometown Buckeyes as they passed by him on their extended recruiting list at quarterback. But more will be made of a victory over a Buckeyes defense that’ll challenge Kizer with man coverage opportunities and an aggressive scheme.

Kizer has had a month to prepare for this defense. He’s drilled in the red zone, a place where his efficiency has struggled. Now he’ll have a final chance to prove no moment is too big for him.

Even the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

 

 

Notre Dame reveals Yankees-inspired look for 2018 Shamrock Series

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“This is 161st Street—Yankee Stadium.”

Those are the only words included in Notre Dame and Under Armour’s initial unveiling of this year’s Shamrock Series uniforms, but not much else need be said. The jerseys will be worn Nov. 17 against Syracuse in Yankee Stadium and bear clear homages to the franchise with 27 World Series championships.

The shoulders and pants include pinstripes, a la the New York Yankees’ home uniforms. The jersey’s primary color looks to be a dark navy blue, both in line with Notre Dame’s home uniforms and the Yankees’ color. (Contrary to most’s thoughts, the Yankees colors are navy blue, white and gray, not white and black.)

If guessing at the design intentions of the simplistic helmet, the circular logo may be a nod toward New York City subway symbols.

Across the front of the uniform, “Notre Dame” appears in a script unfamiliar to Irish fans. It is one typically used by the Yankees, best-identified by the lead-in tails on capital letters.

The Irish and the Orange are scheduled to meet at 2:30 ET on Nov. 17, and broadcast on NBC.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Wake Forest

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In an odd quirk of Notre Dame’s partnership with the ACC, Wake Forest shows up on the schedule two years in a row. Some remember last year’s 48-37 victory as the moment the Irish defense started to weaken in November, but it would be more accurate to say the defense lost its focus that afternoon thanks to a 48-23 fourth-quarter lead.

Notre Dame cruised that day thanks to its running game. While that was true most of the season, it was not usually to the tune of 380 yards and an 8.3 yards per carry average. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush added 280 passing yards with a touchdown, completing 15-of-30 passes before turning the offense over to backup Ian Book, who went 8-for-8 on his way to 50 more aerial yards and another score.

2017 REVIEW
That blowout was extremely atypical of the Demon Deacons’ season. The only other team to trounce Wake Forest was Clemson, who casually led 28-0 in the fourth quarter before giving up two garbage time touchdowns in a similar fashion as the Irish did a few weeks later.

Georgia Tech also beat the Deacons by two possessions, but that 38-24 loss included a 70-yard Yellow Jacket touchdown run in the final minutes.

Not to diminish those three losses — the Tech loss especially must have felt like a missed opportunity — but the season was otherwise very much a success for Wake Forest. In an 8-5 campaign, the other two losses came by seven to Florida State and by eight to Duke as the Blue Devils scrapped for bowl eligibility.

The Deacons won a bowl game for the second straight year, topping Texas A&M in a shootout truly worthy of the Belk Bowl. The 55-52 absurdity included 1,260 yards of total offense. Perhaps both most inexplicable and most predictable, the bookmakers predicted Wake Forest to win by three. Vegas knows, Vegas always knows.

WHAT WAKE FOREST LOST
For a program on the rise, this is not usually a long entry, but here it should be. For that matter, it would not usually include a four-year starter at quarterback, but the Deacons are indeed now without John Wolford, second-team All-ACC last year thanks to 3,192 passing yards with a 63.9 percent completion rate and 29 touchdowns against only six interceptions.

The critics of Notre Dame’s casual close against Wake Forest generally overlooked how accomplished and savvy Wolford was. He also added 683 yards and 10 scores rushing. Few quarterbacks in the country were more productive.

Wolford relied on tight end Cam Serigne, first-team All-ACC thanks to 44 catches for 556 yards and nine touchdowns, and he learned to go to receiver Tabari Hines (53, 683, 7). Serigne is now working with the Carolina Panthers while Hines took a graduate transfer to Oregon.

Defensively, the Deacons will now have to learn to live without their Nos. 2 and 3 tacklers, linebackers Grant Dawson (90 with 10.5 for loss) and Jaboree Williams (85, 14), as well as the next on that list, safety Jessie Bates (79, six). Bates missed three games due to injury, but was arguably the second-best defender on the team, hence his second round drafting by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Wake Forest’s best defensive player was second-team All-ACC defensive end Duke Ejiofor (43 tackles with 16.5 for loss including 6.5 sacks). Throughout last season, the Irish faced a number of top-tier ends such as Ejiofor (along with Georgia’s Roquan Smith and North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb). Holding Ejiofor to only two tackles undoubtedly played a role in the Notre Dame offensive line winning the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in the country.

Ejiofor’s counterpart Wendell Dunn (46 tackles, seven for loss with three sacks) left a void of his own having exhausted his eligibility.

WHAT WAKE FOREST SUSPENDED
Junior Kendall Hinton (pictured above) actually beat out Wolford for the starting quarterback gig in 2016 when an injury ended his season after just one game. Wolford soon developed such that Hinton saw only spot action last year, namely in that loss to Clemson when Wolford was out injured.

Hinton looked to be the presumed starter this past spring, ahead of sophomore Jamie Newman and early-enrolled freshman Sam Hartman. A dual-threat quarterback, Hinton rushed for 190 yards and a touchdown last year. He seemed ready to add wrinkles to head coach Dave Clawson’s schemes.

In June, though, Clawson suspended Hinton for this season’s first three games due to a violation of team rules. The Deacons play the Irish in week four, so it initially appeared Hinton would be back behind center.

That is until this preseason, as he has reportedly spent most practices working at receiver in such a way that it looks to be a long-term position change.

WHAT WAKE FOREST GAINED
The No. 31 quarterback in the country, per rivals.com, Not only did Hartman set himself up for success with his early enrollment, but his overall timing also could not have been better. Wolford is the only quarterback Clawson has relied upon during his Wake Forest tenure. The vacuum at quarterback may be overblown — hard to say no one is around when both Hinton and Newman certainly are — but it may feel that way to those around the program and Wolford the last four seasons.

Dave Clawson (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Clawson’s rise up the coaching ranks has been an old-fashioned, prototypical one. From Fordham to Richmond to Bowling Green to Wake Forest, this now equals his time at Bowling Green for the longest stretch. At each stop, Clawson has gradually added wins each season until a worthwhile promotion arrived.

With the Deacons, that progression began with back-to-back 3-9 seasons before yielding two bowl-winning years (7-6, 8-5).

If 2018 goes well for Wake Forest, do not be surprised to hear Clawson’s name mentioned when openings begin popping up in November. There is no obvious alma mater or hometown university for him to consider, having gone to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and originally hailing from Youngstown, N.Y.

In a continuing effort to realize everything in football ties back to Lane Kiffin, it can be noted Kiffin cut short Clawson’s only other Power Five coaching experience when Kiffin took the head coaching gig at Tennessee. Clawson had spent the 2008 season as offensive coordinator with the Volunteers in a year assistant coaching between head gigs at FCS-level Richmond and Bowling Green.

In other words, there is also no school where Clawson spent years as an assistant to consider as an obvious destination for him if he opts to move upward from Winston-Salem.

A dramatic injury cut short his true freshman season, but Wake Forest receiver Greg Dortch still managed to catch all of college football’s attention for a few weeks last fall as he broke out of the gates with 722 yards and nine touchdowns on 53 receptions in eight games. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
When then-sophomore receiver Greg Dortch dove for the end zone to score his second touchdown in a 42-32 victory over Louisville last season, he made the Irish defense’s job much easier a week later. Though Dortch went on to score twice more that day, finishing with 10 catches for 167 yards and the most receiving touchdowns in a game in Deacons history, it was the landing on a pylon that prompted abdominal surgery.

In just six starts in eight games, Dortch caught 53 passes for 722 yards and nine touchdowns. Whoever starts at quarterback for Wake Forest, Dortch will be his favorite target.

Aside from that, the passing game will have much to prove, but likely with time on each snap to prove it. The offensive line gave up only 20 sacks last season while paving the way for 188.9 rushing yards per game. That entire line returns this season, including first-team All-ACC center Ryan Andersen, third-team All-ACC left tackle Justin Herron and third-team All-ACC left guard Phil Haynes.

Then-junior running back Matt Colburn ran for 904 yards and seven touchdowns with an average of 5.4 yards per carry behind that line last year. He should have little trouble boosting those stats this season.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This remains a scheme abnormally familiar to Notre Dame fans. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel replaced Mike Elko when Elko went to South Bend for a season, but enough of Elko’s concepts remain, including the rover position, manned by senior Demetrius Kemp (63 tackles last season).

However, it is a defense filled with personnel somewhat unfamiliar to Deacons fans. Replacing two defensive ends, two linebackers and a safety spells little but inexperience.

SEASON OUTLOOK
In Clawson’s first three years at Wake Forest, the offense never gained more than 333 yards per game. In his first two seasons, it scored 14.8 points and 17.4 points per game before jumping to 20.4 in 2016.

Then last season, the Deacons averaged 466 yards and 35.3 points per game. Without Wolford, regression may seem probable. If quarterback drama ensues, it likely is, but if Clawson can stabilize that position, the program should continue the overall trends of late.

Some states would allow those interested to guess if Wake Forest will win more or fewer than 6.5 games this season. In the ACC, that is a tougher ask than it may seem, and it likely comes down to quarterback play. The schedule includes three should-be wins in a season-opening trip to Tulane and visits from Towson and Rice. Three conference contemporaries all visit the Deacons: Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Perhaps the season will come down to Thanksgiving weekend’s trip to nearby Duke, but an upset of Notre Dame, Florida State, Louisville or North Carolina State would conceivably render that concern moot by then.

Notre Dame backup QB Ian Book’s progress removes some restrictions on starter Brandon Wimbush

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Odd as it may sound, Brian Kelly’s increased confidence in Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book could actually lead to greater comfort with Irish senior and starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

A year ago, neither had taken competitive snaps and the head coach had seen only Wimbush spend time with the starters. There was little trust in Book, more due to a lack of opportunity than as an actual reflection of Book. Opportunity arrived at North Carolina and in the Citrus Bowl last season.

“Everybody is quite confident in [Book’s] ability to run our first team,” Kelly said Wednesday. “That’s no longer an effect. If you asked me last year at this time if Ian went in there with the ones, there might be some hesitation as to can he lead us.

Obviously, both quarterbacks have now played winning football for the Irish and have had another offseason to develop only further.

“We’re way ahead of where we were last year with both quarterbacks, certainly just by experience alone,” Kelly said. “We came into this (2017 iteration of media day), and your No. 1 and No. 2 quarterback hadn’t played.

“That’s a different feeling for a head coach than coming in here and they’ve won football games and they’ve had success, they’ve been in the mix.”

How does that change Wimbush’s season for his own betterment? Shouldn’t it simply mean he has a shorter leash, with a proven and competent backup behind him?

Rather, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long are no longer petrified of losing Wimbush for a quarter or a week to injury. They can utilize the full breadth of his skills, in particular his rushing abilities.

Last year, Wimbush had 141 carries by the NCAA’s count, but that included 24 sacks. Of the remaining 117, 49 came in the season’s first three weeks, including 21 for 201 yards and four touchdowns at Boston College. As the year progressed, Wimbush took off running less, in part because of opponent’s adjustments and in part because of Kelly’s and Long’s wishes. They recognized the lower ceiling the season would have with Wimbush sidelined by injury.

Now, that lowered ceiling is not quite as low. Thus, there is less reason to rein in Wimbush.

“We’re less concerned about carries with him and more interested in highlighting his strengths and being productive with him,” Kelly said.

That ability does not mean Wimbush’s focus changes, though.

“It’s just consistency with accuracy,” Kelly said. “He’s made progress there. He’s not where he wants to be, but he’s made significant progress even from the spring, and that’s better than what we saw during the year.

“Incremental progress. We’re all striving for better, but again, we’ve made the progress necessary.”

That progress theoretically opens up Notre Dame’s offense for all its weapons. As the preseason progresses, Kelly continues to add names to that list which already included senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior receiver Chase Claypool and the continuing-to-emerge sophomore converted running backs Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, not to mention a couple unproven tight ends high on potential. Add freshman receiver Kevin Austin to the tally.

“[Austin is] a finely-conditioned athlete in the sense that he comes back the next day, recovers extremely well, knows how to take care of his body,” Kelly said. “… When we see a freshman that can handle the volume, we’re just going to push him in there. He doesn’t know 50 percent of the playbook, but he’s got that volume and that skillset. He’s a guy that can help us this year.”

Other freshmen who have similarly impressed: offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson and cornerback TaRiq Bracy. Of course, no one can apparently match Armstrong’s endurance and positive impressions made these last few weeks.

“Jafar is in a different category,” Kelly said. “I haven’t seen a guy like him in terms of the volume that he carries, and he doesn’t break down at all.”

Davis, meanwhile, is working on the learning curve in that process. The former quarterback is not quite used to running routes and taking handoffs all practice, not to mention the exponentially increased number of tackles innate to the position change.

“It’s a mindset now that his recovery is much more important for him in some instances because we know what he can do as a football player,” Kelly said.

HAINSEY’S TIMETABLE TO RETURN
Sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey has missed the last few practices with an aggravated tendon in his lower leg. He will retake his spot as the starter on the edge Tuesday, per Kelly, largely as a matter of caution.

“We wanted a full seven-to-eight days, somewhere in that range, so we didn’t risk inflaming the tendon again,” Kelly said. “We’re on that timetable. He’s weight training, conditioning.”

In Hainsey’s absence, sophomore Josh Lugg and senior Trevor Ruhland have taken snaps at right guard with junior Tommy Kraemer moving from guard to right tackle — some of that would have been planned anyway so as to find a level of comfort mixing the starters with the backups as the season may deem necessary.

Aside from Hainsey, the only injury of note is a case of patellar tendonitis slowing junior defensive end Daelin Hayes. Such ailments typically pop up here and there in preseason practice.

“Nothing that’s keeping anybody out of long-term competition,” to use Kelly’s words.

ROBERTSON TO RECEIVER
Sophomore Isaiah Robertson moved to receiver Wednesday, his second position switch this offseason after first moving from safety to rover. At rover, Robertson would have needed to jump senior Asmar Billal, sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and freshman Shayne Simon without becoming too redundant when compared to senior nickelback Shaun Crawford. It would have been a tough needle to thread, if not a distinction without a difference all along.

“He’s got some skills, he showed that today,” Kelly said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing offensively, but in the blue zone showed soft hands, went up and caught the football with dexterity, didn’t feel like it was clumsy to him. It was natural. He’s a guy that will continue to progress on the offensive side.”

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Vanderbilt

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Derek Mason was not knocking Notre Dame, no matter what the Stadium looked like the last time an SEC team visited. (Read: Georgia.) Rather, the Vanderbilt head coach was simply pulling from the bottomless pool of coach-speak deployed at conference media days.

“We play in the SEC. I don’t worry about going to South Bend,” Mason said last month. “Right now, I am worried about [Middle Tennessee State]. … We’re about Notre Dame when that game comes. Right now, it’s about MTSU. It’s about going to camp.”

There was nothing negative about that. It was what any coach would and should have said in that moment. That some tried to make a story out of it just goes to show how mundane July media days often are.

2017 REVIEW
The Commodores began last season 3-0, including a 14-7 upset of Kansas State. In the process, they gave up 4.3 points and 198 yards per game, earning recognition as the country’s top defense to that point.

Then Alabama came to Nashville. What followed is considered a crime in some countries.

Vanderbilt never truly recovered from that 59-0 shellacking. If looking past the scoreboard, the contest was not even that close. The Tide gained 677 yards. The Commodores managed 78. They gained three more first downs than this scribe would have on his own.

Vanderbilt lost its first seven SEC games, getting a respite during that streak only with a visit from Western Kentucky. To avoid a winless conference season, the Commodores took advantage of a deteriorating situation at Tennessee, notching a 42-24 victory at their rival.

Even after acknowledging that losing streak and 1-7 conference record, it hardly depicts just how bad things got after Alabama’s work was done. The following week’s 38-24 loss at Florida looks good when compared to what came next, a 45-14 beatdown at home from Georgia. By the end of the season, Vanderbilt gave up more points than any SEC team ever had in one conference slate, allowing an average of 43 along with 472 yards per conference game.

In retrospect, the disaster tied to the schedule as much as anything else. SEC teams play two games a year against the opposite division. Drawing the eventual national champion Tide, let alone to open conference play with Nick Saban’s powerhouse, was unfortunate. Even a down Ole Miss program is nothing to take lightly.

WHAT VANDERBILT LOST
This list starts with Vanderbilt career-rushing leader Ralph Webb, who finished last season with 831 yards and 10 touchdowns. The offense also now looks to replace two of its top-three receivers, Trent Sherfield (50 receptions for 729 yards and five touchdowns) and CJ Duncan (52, 517, 5). Webb added 188 more receiving yards.

On the other side of the ball, the Green Bay Packers may immediately rely on linebacker Oren Burks (82 tackles with seven for loss and three passes broken up), drafted in the third round, while Vanderbilt’s interior defense looks to replace not only him, but also defensive tackles Nifae Lealao (23 tackles with four for loss) and Jonathan Wynn (23 tackles with 1.5 sacks).

Just to add a cherry on top of Mason’s sundae, the Commodores also need to revamp their kicking game, as both their kicker and punter have moved on.

WHAT VANDERBILT GAINED
This is a longer entry than usually expected, and its four headliners come at positions of need considering some of the aforementioned losses. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran for 4.7 yards per carry and nine touchdowns in his two seasons at Illinois before transferring. A four-star recruit, Vaughn may have the talent to legitimately replace Webb.

Receiver Alex Stump never caught on (pun intended) at Ohio State, but as another highly-touted recruit he is presumably expected to step right into the depleted depth chart, perhaps along with four-star freshman Camron Johnson.

Defensive tackle Louis Vecchio arrives from Penn fresh off two consecutive years of first-team All-Ivy honors. Again noting the above attrition, Vecchio should start.

HEAD COACH
Mason is not on a hot seat, but it could quickly get warm. Last year’s SEC results were that bad and served to underscore the fact that he has not even reached .500 in conference play in any of his first four years.

Vanderbilt has gone 0-5 against the top 10 under Mason and 2-14 against the top 25, one of those victories being week three against Kansas State last year (No. 18 at the time) and the other coming in the 2016 season finale against Tennessee (No. 24).

If anything can keep Mason’s job status comfortable despite what will inevitably be another tough year in the SEC, it would be topping the Volunteers for a third-straight time.

With 30 career starts to his name, Vanderbilt senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur has one last chance at finishing a season with a winning record. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Four-year starter and son of New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur, quarterback Kyle Shurmur completed 57.9 percent of his passes last year, throwing 26 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. If he can find some new go-to targets at receiver, an appropriate coda to his collegiate career seems possible.

That said, the Commodores should rely on the run and Vaughn. Why? They return 97 career starts along the offensive line. Last year they averaged just 107 rushing yards per game and 3.7 per carry, so improvement should not be hard to find.

While his computers do not anticipate the rushing game to progress much (114.7 projected yards per game), Phil Steele does posit, “This should be the most productive offense in Mason’s five seasons.” To give that context, the points per game number to beat would be last year’s 24.6 and Mason’s highest yards per game comes in at just 356 in 2016. That framing shows Steele’s praise to be marginal, at best.

Charles Wright (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
First-year defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has his work cut out for him. If anything goes right there this season, presume the credit ties to senior outside linebacker Charles Wright, whose 43 tackles with nine sacks, was enough to earn him second-team All-SEC honors last year.

Wright’s recognition came in spite of Vanderbilt giving up 31.3 points per game across the season. That was more than a touchdown worse than the 2016 Mason-coordinated defense managed, despite improving its yards per game numbers by 15.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Relatively speaking, optimism may be warranted. Much of that hope comes at the rest of the state’s expense.

Bookmakers set the metric of success on the Commodores’ season at 4.5 wins. Two of those should come before visiting Notre Dame when both Middle Tennessee and Nevada visit. To end September, Vanderbilt hosts Tennessee State, a third hypothetical victory.

SEC play again begins in earnest in an ugly fashion, traveling to Georgia and then hosting Florida. (The Commodores host South Carolina between facing the Irish and *insert plural form of Tennessee State mascot here*.) (Yes, that remaining placeholder was intentional. If fun cannot be poked at the Fighting Tennessee States, then where can it be?) There is a very real chance Vanderbilt can come out of that two-game rough stretch at no worse than 3-4.

From there, two wins could exist: at Kentucky, at Arkansas, bye week before heading to Missouri, vs Mississippi and vs Tennessee.

A bowl game may be a reach, but Mason should be able to survive back-to-back 5-7 seasons if both include victories over the Volunteers.

P.S. The Tigers. The Tennessee State Tigers.