Editor's note: The spectacle that is SEC media days ended earlier this week. But with the newly-expanded four-day media event over, we're at a bit of a loss. Fall camp is still weeks away; the regular season is even further, with the 2014 campaign kicking off at the end of August. So what better time to roll out the preseason power rankings among teams in the SEC?
With that in mind, we'll count down the teams from worst to first. The format will involve a "best-case/worst-case" scenario for each team, taking our a page out of former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter's playbook from 2010. (One final note: Please, as Bitter said four years ago, remember all scenarios "are meant to be hyperbolic.")
No. 13: Vanderbilt
Derek Mason doesn't have time for rebuilding projects. (Or as captured perfectly in this viral video from a few years ago, "Ain't nobody got time for that!") In his first appearance at SEC media days, Vanderbilt's rookie coach declared that his team can "compete for an SEC East title right now."
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Which is well and good, but to do so, the Commodores won't only have to overcome their league foes; they will have to overcome history. Vanderbilt hasn't won the Eastern Division since the conference split into divisions in 1992. And to reach back even further, the last time the Commodores brought home the SEC championship was, well, never.
So while the task is akin to scaling a mountain, Mason intends to "sprint up to the peak," as it were.
Best-case scenario: Vanderbilt doesn't win the Eastern crown, per Mason's expectations, but they do quite well regardless, finishing third in the division behind Georgia and South Carolina. In the season opener, the Commodores race past Temple and then escape with a "neutral site" win against Ole Miss at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn. That momentum carries over into the following week, as Vanderbilt has no trouble dispatching Massachusetts. The zero in the loss column is erased in Game No. 4, as Steve Spurrier's South Carolina squad proves to be a bit too much for Vanderbilt to handle. But the Commodores get things righted the following week in a tougher-than-expected road victory versus Kentucky.
Then comes another road affair, with Vanderbilt making the trek to Athens, Ga. The Commodores, as always, give the Bulldogs fits, but come up on the short end of a 31-20 decision. But that marks the last time the Commodores are on the wrong end of the scoreboard for the rest of the season, as they end the regular season on a six-game winning streaks, taking W's against Chattanooga, a rebuilding Missouri, Old Dominion, Florida (the final nail in the coffin of the Will Muschamp era), Mississippi State and in-state rival Tennessee. While Vanderbilt fans are slightly disappointed a 10-win regular season isn't enough for an SEC championship game berth, it's hard to be too upset; after all, it's the first time the Commodores have EVER notched a double-digit victory total in one year. James Franklin never did it. Neither did Hall of Famer Dan McGugin.
Now Mason's the man. He's the man, he's the man he's the maaaa-aaan. Yes he is, yes he is, yes he isssssssss. (Apologies. The ubiquitous Aloe Blacc song "I'm the Man" is just impossible to avoid.)
But who says the fun has to end at 10 wins? Heading down to Tampa, Fla., for the Outback Bowl, Vanderbilt draws Iowa. Playing in arguably the most prestigious postseason game they've ever been in, the Commodores don't let the opportunity go to waste, as they smash the Hawkeyes 27-10. Fans start to wear "James Who?" shirts, expressing how quickly they've forgotten the Franklin era. The 11-win campaign does more than just help sell T-shirts, though — it helps sell the program, as the Commodores bring in the best recruiting class in school history. With Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky down, Vanderbilt positions itself nicely for a run at the 2015 Eastern Division title. And when Mason brings up this expectation at next year's media days, no one rolls their eyes.
Worst-case scenario: The march to the SEC Eastern Division championship goes off the rails immediately. No, the loss to Temple in the season opener doesn't affect Vanderbilt in the conference standings, but it doesn't bode well for the rest of the fall. That first league loss comes the following week, as Bo Wallace and Ole Miss walk all over Vandy in a 52-14 rout at the "neutral site" known as LP Field in Nashville. The Commodores pick up their first win of the year by beating hapless UMass, but they're quickly brought back down to earth by three more losses (South Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia). Falling to Kentucky represents the low point, as the Wildcats entered that contest on a 17-game SEC losing streak dating back to the season finale in 2011.
Vanderbilt only sees two more wins the rest of the year, topping Charleston Southern and Old Dominion. The game against the Monarchs — a school in its first year in the FBS (a member of Conference USA) after spending the 2013 season as an independent in the FCS — is far from a walkover, as the Commodores are forced to sweat out every minute of the 24-21 victory. Aside from staving off an embarrassing loss, the only thing the win does is help Vanderbilt avoid its 21st two-win season in school history. Instead, it's the Commodores' 15th three-win campaign. (Though it should be noted that on three different occasions, those three-win seasons still had the Commodores above .500: They went 3-1 in 1891, 3-2-2 in 1896 and 3-0-1 in World War II-shortened 1944.)
The season makes Vanderbilt backers think the program may be headed back to the days of (fairly recent) yore and a lot of losing. The "James Who?" shirts are never printed, and the Commodores are forced to watch Franklin win nine games in his first year at Penn State. The dismal season doesn't dampen Mason's spirits, however, as he shows up at media days in 2015 once again boasting that his team is capable of winning the SEC East. Eye rolls and sighs are had all around. And once he finishes his opening statement, Mason is forced to answer six questions from the legendary Bob Holt wondering whether the coach really believes the Commodores can finish on top of the Eastern Division.