Vanderbilt has reached the middle class of the SEC. For me, that means: there are clear wins, clear losses, and the whole season depends on the remaining toss-up games against other middle class teams.
I think that:
• We are better than we were last year on both offense and defense.
• We should beat: Richmond, East Michigan, Miami Ohio, and Ole Miss.
• We probably will not beat: #14 Auburn #13 Georgia, #3 Florida, or #15 Tennessee
• The essence of the season is found in those middle four games: Alabama, at Carolina, Kentucky, and Wake Forest. We could win every one of those games.
Look at Kentucky's "success" of last season -- it's the same formula:
• Easy, all wins: Texas State, Central Michigan, Louisiana-Monroe, and Miss State.
• Hard, all losses: at Louisville, at Florida, at LSU, at Tennessee.
• Toss-Up, three wins: Ole Miss, Georgia, Vandy (all at home) and a loss to Carolina.
Or South Carolina:
• Easy, all wins: at Miss State, Wofford, FAU, and MTSU
• Hard, all losses: Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas, at Florida
• Toss-Up, three wins: at Kentucky, at Vandy, at Clemson, and a loss to Georgia
Or even us last year:
• Easy, only three wins: TSU, Temple, at Duke, and a loss at Ole Miss
• Hard, four losses: at Michigan, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee
• Toss-Up, just one win: Georgia, with losses at Alabama, to Carolina, and at Kentucky.
You could argue about the category in which you put teams. For example, before the 2006 season, Georgia looked "hard" and Arkansas seemed like a "toss-up."
But the point is the same -- the 'success' of a middle class team in the SEC depends on a small number of games. And I don't think any technical analysis of Vanderbilt can prove how we'll do in those four games.
College football is unpredictable -- especially among teams with similar talent levels like the ones we're discussing. Personally, I think we beat Kentucky and Wake and lose to 'Bama and Carolina. But who knows.
Want reason to hope? Look at Nickson's last four games in 2006. He went 74-for-128, 1091 passing yards, and 280 rushing yards. That's a 58% completion percentage, 272 passing yards and 70 rushing yards per game.
It's only four games, but 272 passing yards a game would be tops in the SEC -- Andre' Woodson averaged 270, Erik Ainge 249, JaMarcus Russell 241. And those 70 rushing yards would be good for fifth in the league, behind only McFadden, Felix Jones, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Kenny Irons.
One fewer interception and we beat Alabama last season. We were beating Kentucky heading into the fourth quarter. Heck, with one more touchdown we beat Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Florida last season.
We're going to be good -- good enough that we can mark up four wins -- but there's no telling how we do in those toss-up games which will define the season. That's what makes it so compelling.