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UConn football opponent preview: Vanderbilt

The Huskies are playing the Commodores for the first time since 2011.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

UConn football will mark the midway point in their 2021 season with a road trip down to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt. Despite being a member of the all-powerful SEC, Vandy has mostly been a doormat before and after James Franklin’s three-year run from 2011-2013.

This makes Vanderbilt a good opponent for the newly-independent Huskies, who have had their own major struggles over the past decade. This is a legitimately winnable road game against a “power five” opponent.

When UConn heads down to Vanderbilt on Saturday, October 2, they’ll have already taken on Fresno State, Holy Cross, Purdue, Army, and Wyoming. The Vandy game is the start of a stretch where the Huskies could either turn their season around or even approach bowl eligibility. After Vanderbilt, UConn takes on a generally bad UMass team on the road and welcomes Yale to Rentschler Field — so a stretch of three very winnable games.

Head Coach & Recent History

The Commodores are led by Clark Lea, who will begin his first season as Vanderbilt’s head coach in the fall. Lea previously served as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator from 2018-2020, helping the Fighting Irish to two College Football Playoff appearances in that span.

Vanderbilt fired former head coach Derek Mason immediately after the conclusion of the 2020 season. Mason coached the Commodores for six seasons, posting a 27-55 career. He was the second coach in program history to lead Vandy to two bowl games, appearing in the 2016 Independence Bowl and 2018 Texas Bowl, losing both.

2020 season

Due to COVID-19, Vanderbilt played an SEC-only schedule last season and paid the price for it. The Commodores went 0-9, losing six of those games by three or more touchdowns.

Vandy’s closest chance at a win came on the road at Kentucky, where the Commodores scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes in a 38-35 loss to the Wildcats.

Despite the winless season, Vanderbilt’s future showed some promise after a strong true freshman season from quarterback Ken Seals, who threw for nearly 1,700 yards with 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in nine games last season. Defensive lineman Dayo Odeyingbo was named second-team All-SEC before being selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft.

The highlight of the 2020 season for the Commodores was likely Sarah Fuller, who became the first woman to play and score in a Division I football game for a Power 5 team.

2021 outlook

Lea’s first season in Nashville won’t be easy, but the return of Seals under center, plus wide receivers Cam Johnson and Amir Abdur-Rahman and a new scheme under offensive coordinator David Raih should help the offense be at least better than last year. Throw in the return of tight end Ben Bresnahan, who had nearly 300 receiving yards last season, the addition of Temple transfer Re’Mahn Davis, and the return of three offensive linemen to the starting lineup after opting out of last year due to COVID, and there’s a pathway for this offense to formidable from day one, even with a new coach and new system.

Defensively, things are a little bleaker. One of the worst defenses in the country last year likely gets worse following the departures of Odeyingbo and Andre Mintze. With the ability to play non-SEC opponents this fall, the Commodores probably won’t give up nearly 490 yards per game like they did last season. The return of linebacker Fleet Afemui, who opted out of last season, should help stiffen up the defense as well. Even with Afemui’s return and a switch to a 4-2-5 defense under Lea and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, this is still a defense that barely forces any turnovers and struggles to pressure the quarterback. Offenses will have their way with them this season.

On special teams, Vandy shored up their kicking game by landing former Alabama kicker Joseph Bulovas, who has nailed nearly 76 percent of his field goal attempts and 94.4 percent of his extra point attempts in his collegiate career.

Athlon Sports has the Commodores ranked No. 90 out of all FBS teams, while SP+ has them ranked at 108. No Vanderbilt player was named to the SEC’s first, second, or third team all-preseason teams.


In terms of top to bottom talent, Vanderbilt may be a slightly more talented team. Despite the program’s overall lack of success, it still offers players the chance to go up against the best teams in the country and attend a nice school in a desirable city. But it’s going to take some time for Lea to get established and bring in the caliber of player needed to compete at the SEC level. By this point in the season, it’s entirely possible that Randy Edsall and the Huskies have shaken off the rust from not playing in 2020, and that there’s some momentum and chemistry building within the team, which should even things up enough to keep things interesting.

It could be simply come down to whose defense is less bad, and right now, it seems that Vanderbilt’s might be worse. Edsall and the offense should put the ball in the hands of running back Kevin Mensah early and often and let him break down a subpar Vandy defense. UConn 27, Vanderbilt 21.