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Vanderbilt Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for 2023

Aug 22, 2023

Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball series concludes today with Vanderbilt. We broke down the SEC East all week. Last week, we predicted every game for every SEC West team.

Previously: Alabama | Arkansas | Auburn | LSU | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Texas A&M | Florida | Georgia | Kentucky | Mizzou | South Carolina | Tennessee |

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If you had told a Vandy fan entering last year that their team would be playing in a regular season finale with a bowl berth at stake, they would’ve taken that all day, every day. Shoot, Vanderbilt was just trying to beat its first Power 5 team in the 2020s decade.

Clark Lea did just that. It took wins against Kentucky and Florida, both of whom spent time in the top 15 of the AP Poll, in order for Vandy to have a bowl berth at stake. That hadn’t happened since 2018. Granted, the season didn’t end as the Dores hoped. A blowout loss to Tennessee squashed bowl hopes and served as a reminder that the climb is still a steep one.

But that promise in Year 2 still earned Lea an extension. He got a contract that’ll reportedly keep him at his alma mater through the end of the decade. Does that mean a bowl berth is on the table for the first time in the 2020s?

Let’s peak into the 2023 Crystal Ball:

After he split time with Mike Wright as a true freshman, Swann is QB1 entering 2023. Wright left Vanderbilt to be Will Rogers’ backup at Mississippi State, which only added to the notion that it’s Swann’s offense to run. That’s not a slight to third-year quarterback Ken Seals, but it was Swann who took over the starting job in Week 3 against Northern Illinois.

As a true freshman, Swann started 6 games and played in 9. A 10-2 TD-INT ratio came mostly in nonconference play, and efficiency (6.4 yards/attempt) was an issue. Still, though. Swann is a former Elite 11 finalist who came in with a different skill set than most Vandy signal-callers. He might not earn any Jay Cutler comparisons just yet, but Swann’s ability to attack downfield will be a major asset, especially as Vandy figures out what the ground game looks like without 1,000-yard rusher Ray Davis.

It’ll help that Swann will still be throwing to top targets Will Sheppard and 2022 classmate Jayden McGowan, who had a combined 1,229 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2022. Sheppard went off for 10 catches and 171 yards in Swann’s first career start last year. That connection figures to be the backbone of the Vandy offense.

Vandy is 1 of 3 SEC teams who returns both its starting quarterback and offensive coordinator. Swann taking the next step with offensive coordinator Joey Lynch would be a welcome sight.

Even though the Dores exceeded 2022 expectations, the defensive numbers weren’t exactly anything to write home about:

And no Power 5 team allowed more yards/pass than Vandy. Yikes.

The bad news is that Lea’s top 2022 player, linebacker Anfernee Orji, is off to the NFL. He led the SEC with 9.0 tackles per contest, and he was the team’s leading tackler for 3 consecutive seasons.

The good news is that his unit returns 66% of last year’s defensive production, which ranks in the top 1/3 in FBS. CJ Taylor emerged in the secondary. His ability to play that versatile “anchor” position was pivotal, especially in the Florida game. He should be able to help cover up some potential weaknesses on the back end.

The questions are at corner, where last year’s passing game woes were well-documented. That search included moving receiver Daveon Walker over to the other side of the ball. Whoever solidifies those starting jobs simply has to be better than last year’s group. That’ll have a big say in whether Lea’s defense becomes more reliable than the one who allowed 299 passing yards per SEC game in 2023.

Six touchdown passes for Swann. That’s right. SIX. The Dores get on the board in convincing fashion, just like last year in the Week 0 blowout of Hawaii.

Another week, another blowout victory. This time, it’s the ground game that takes off. Patrick “Cheeks” Smith hits the century mark for a Vandy offense that runs for 300 yards in a lopsided win.

Without Sam Hartman and AT Perry, Wake Forest’s offense takes a step back. Instead of playing catch-up like Vandy did last year in Nashville, it’s the other way around. McGowan scores a pair of first-half touchdowns, 1 of which comes on a long pass and the other via an end-around. A back-and-forth shootout leads to both teams getting into the 40s. Swann finds tight end Justin Ball in the corner of the end zone to break the tie in the final minute. Vandy avenges last year’s loss in dramatic fashion.

Vanderbilt catches UNLV at an ideal time. After getting bullied by Michigan in Ann Arbor, home cooking is nowhere to be found for Barry Odom’s squad. A Tyson Russell pick-6 in the third quarter gives Vandy some breathing room and Lea’s squad holds on for a road victory in consecutive games for the first time since 2012.

A revenge game in Nashville. It’s a revenge game for Kentucky after last year’s stunning home loss to the Dores, and perhaps there’s a little revenge for Vandy after Davis left for Lexington. What does that produce? A thriller. For the first time, Kentucky faces a team that can test its young secondary. It results in a halftime lead for Vandy. But unlike last year, UK finds offensive answers in the second half. Specifically, the passing game gets rolling. Veteran UK receiver Tayvion Robinson sparks a pair of scoring drives in the third quarter, and after a shaky start, Kentucky’s defense adjusts to Swann and Sheppard. A strip sack of Swann puts Vandy’s late comeback on ice and UK gets its revenge.

Four of the past 5 games in this matchup were decided by single digits. This one makes it 5 out of 6. An up-and-down Mizzou passing attack struggles on the road. Facing a 14-7 halftime deficit, Eli Drinkwitz turns to Sam Horn. That move proves to be a smart one. Horn shows poise on the road while Mizzou’s defense bounces back after allowing 2 chunk plays to Swann in the first half. Vandy can’t put a touchdown drive together late and Mizzou holds on for a 21-17 victory.

Revenge game? Absolutely. Instead of abandoning the running game like he did last year in Nashville, Billy Napier sticks with it. That does the heavy lifting until Florida WR Andy Dean busts loose on a play-action pass over the top for a key second-half score to give the Gators enough breathing room. A strip sack of Swann ends Vandy’s 4th-quarter comeback attempt and the Gators grind out a 27-17 win.

Want a bold prediction? This will be the closest game these teams have played in the 2020s. Also of note, the lone games they played in the 2020s were 62-0 and 55-0. OK, so not so bold. A 3-interception day for Swann keeps the Vandy offense stuck in neutral in a game that’s over by the middle of the second quarter.

Remember last year when Vandy had a 10-point lead with a minute left in the first half? That wasn’t a fluke. Granted, neither was Ole Miss scoring 35 points to erase that deficit and avoid the letdown. But this year, Vandy doesn’t splinter with defensive lapse after defensive lapse. Instead, Swann plays the best game of his young career. Ole Miss’ secondary can’t find answers. After a fast start, Ole Miss QB Jaxson Dart reverts to some old habits with 2 red-zone interceptions. Vandy ends the 4-year losing streak to Ole Miss and Lea earns his first SEC win of 2023.

I believe Swann has Vandy entering the 4th quarter with a lead and Auburn has to find options late. That comes in the form of 2 long touchdown runs from Auburn RB Jarquez Hunter. A prime opportunity slips away from Lea, and Auburn avoids spoiling a prime opportunity for its bowl chances.

This is a day in which we’re reminded why South Carolina safety Nick Emmanwori is already one of the SEC’s best defensive players. He’s everywhere. Whether it’s separating receivers from the ball downfield or applying pressure to Swann, Emmanwori does it all en route to SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors. It’s needed for the Gamecocks on a day in which Lea’s Year 3 defense keeps the emerging passing game at bay. But South Carolina hangs on for a 21-10 victory.

Dare I say, for the first time in 7 years, we get a relatively close game involving these teams. On the heels of an emotional loss to Georgia, Tennessee doesn’t come out firing on all cylinders. Taylor, who reportedly turned down NIL opportunities to transfer to Tennessee, has a big day all over the field. He has an interception and a sack of Milton to keep the Vols’ offense flustered. But once again, Tennessee turns to the ground attack to save the day. This time, however, it’s Dylan Sampson who steals the show. He reaches pay dirt twice and the Vols pull away for a 35-21 win.

Yes, it would be frustrating to miss out on the postseason for the 5th consecutive year. There’s no denying that. Two bowl game appearances in a 10-year stretch (both losses) would be a tough pill to swallow, especially with that 6th win being on the table in 3 winnable games to close the season.

At the same time, going on the road and beating a pair of Power 5 teams who had winning records last year would be another step in the right direction for Lea. This program had to be rebuilt from the ground up when he took over. He’s still just trying to get the first defensive All-SEC player (Sheppard is the lone honoree on either side of the ball during the Lea era), and beating an SEC West team for the first time since 2018 is also on the table.

It would help if he had a true quarterback of the future to build around, which Swann should establish this year. There’s a world in which the gunslinging sophomore benefits greatly from an experienced group of receivers and he’s among the SEC leaders in touchdown passes. He just might lead the conference in interceptions, too.

If Vandy does indeed check those boxes and take another step, it’ll have a much better chance of continuing that climb in the new SEC. It’s fitting that it’ll start the season with a stadium that’s totally under construction. That’s been the story of the program so far under Lea.

Perhaps that foundation is still being built.

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So Vandy, the team predicted to lose to every SEC East opponent, it also predicted to beat Ole Miss, a team predicted to take down LSU?

You guys really need to stop soaking your w e e d in formaldehyde.

Vandy will win 2 SEC games, possibly 3. If they finish OOC 4-0, they could end up 6-6 or 7-5.

I don’t think they win any SEC games. They struggled against Hawaii, and they’re terrible.

Just checking to see if anyone is in here…

I think Vandy ends up 6-6 and going to a bowl game. They will beat either Florida or Kentucky again, and play Tennessee close.

Vanderbilt is not beating Wake Forest. They have mastered the slow mesh option concept. Clawson has been there for almost a decade. Even without Hartman and Perry that system is extremely hard to defend, and Wake plays with heart and passion, despite a lesser talent level. Clawson has his guys ready every week. I don’t think Lea has built the type of program that can go into Winston Salem and walk out with a win. Remember Wake Forest were ACC runner ups and a 11 win team in 2021.

In case this doesn’t post right, this is in response to GeauxTigers.

I agree with you. I’m not sure Vandy beats Ole Miss, but I definitely think they’ll win a couple of conference games.

Commenting on Vandy football…guess there is a first time for everything. Will predict that the only SEC W will be in Gainsville and not Oxford as the Gators could be looking at 2 or 3 losses (possible losses to Utah/Vols/Kentucky) prior to the Vandy game and will be playing not to lose instead of dominating Vandy