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2016 season preview: Vanderbilt Commodores

We conclude our team-by-team preview of the SEC this week with a look at a Vanderbilt team that many believe might break through this season.

Key question heading into Week 1: Can the Commodores improve on offense? The defense was ranked top 10 nationally in efficiency last year, and with eight starters returning, that unit should be strong again this season. The offense, though, remains a question mark. It has been a problem area for Derek Mason since he has been at Vanderbilt, and the revolving door at the quarterback position hasn’t helped. But Mason has already named Kyle Shurmur the starter for 2016, and the hope is Shurmur, who started five of the team’s final six games last year, can keep the job all season. The freshman threw for 503 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions last year, but his completion percentage (42.7) left something to be desired. He’ll have to improve, along with the entire offense, if the Commodores want to take the next step.

Position battle to watch: Mason sees the direction college football is headed, and that’s why he’s moving starting safety Oren Burks to Star, a hybrid linebacker/safety position that will put him closer to the line of scrimmage. The only problem with the move is it leaves Vanderbilt thin at safety, where they were already trying to find a replacement for Andrew Williamson. Juniors Ryan White, Arnold Tarpley, Emmanuel Smith and LaDarius Wiley are all in the rotation heading into the season opener, and all four have played before. White played some at safety last year and finished with 26 tackles. Tarpley had 36 tackles primarily playing the nickel position.

X-factor: The coaches were expecting sophomore C.J. Duncan to have a breakout season last fall. He caught 28 passes for 441 yards and four touchdowns the year before, and all signs were pointing to him being one of the team’s top receivers in 2015. That was until he suffered a lower leg injury in fall camp that kept him out for the entire season. Duncan returned to practice in the spring, though, and now that he’s back, the wide receiver position looks to be a strength with Trent Sherfield, Caleb Scott and Duncan all expected to contribute.

Make-or-break stretch: It’s important for Vanderbilt to get off to a fast start, beginning with the season opener against South Carolina next Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). Then it’s three straight nonconference games, against Middle Tennessee State, Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky, and while those won’t affect their SEC record, they will have a significant impact on their chances of making a bowl game. The Commodores play No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 9 Tennessee the last two weeks of the season, and if they want to play in a bowl game, they might need to win six of their first 10 games to do so.

Best-case scenario: The record might not show it, but this team improved dramatically under Mason last year. They won two conference games, nearly beat Florida on the road. And now as they head into Year 3 under Mason, nobody is expecting them to win the East. But there’s no reason the Commodores can’t emerge out of that second tier of teams in the division and win seven games. They’re capable of beating South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri, plus all four of their nonconference games if they play well. They might even pull an upset.

Worst-case scenario: Just because Vanderbilt can win all of those games mentioned above doesn’t mean it will. At least five of those seven games could go either way, and it might be a lot asking the Commodores to win them all. If the offense doesn’t improve or if the defense can’t replicate what it did a year ago, they could just as easily finish below .500 again this season.