While SEC traditional powers Auburn and Tennessee had a rare look at or near the cellar last year, James Franklin's Vanderbilt Commodores were getting a rare look as well: The view from above .500. Vandy went 5-3 in league play, over .500 for the first time in 31 years. Improved play at the line of scrimmage and stingy defense were the common threads in wins over Missouri, Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
Vandy has averaged only two players drafted per year since 2008, and met that mark last year with guard Ryan Seymour (a seventh-round selection by the Seattle Seahawks) and running back Zac Stacy (a fifth-round selection by the St. Louis Rams), the first Vandy running back drafted since 1980. That pace should pick up soon under Franklin, however, and at least three Vandy seniors are likely to be chosen in next year's draft.
Top senior prospects
WR Jordan Matthews: The first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American led the SEC in receptions last year with 94, and his 1,323 yards ranked second. Matthews (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) will undoubtedly be the first Vandy player drafted next spring, and with another big season possibly a first-day choice.
OL Wesley Johnson: Having started at center, guard and tackle, Johnson's versatility makes him Vandy's answer to former University of Alabama swingman Barrett Jones (a fourth-round pick by the St. Louis Rams in the 2013 NFL Draft). Like Jones, he'll be a four-year starter and excels in the classroom as well. According to Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand, Johnson (6-5, 285) has never been called for holding in three seasons.
CB Andre Hal: Vanderbilt always seems to have a top-shelf player at cornerback, and Hal qualifies as the latest. His 12 pass breakups led the team last year. Hal (6-0, 185) was named second-team All-SEC and should anchor a strong secondary this fall.
DB Kenny Ladler: The 6-foot, 205-pound safety led Vandy in tackles with 90, and 60 of those were solo. Excellent in run support, Ladler's performance in coverage this fall will be the key to his draft stock. Ladler was an impact player from the time he stepped on campus, earning nine starts as a freshman in 2010.
K Carey Spear: Vandy's three-point specialist connected on 20-of-24 field-goal attempts last season, the best percentage in the SEC among kickers with at least 12 attempts. His long was 52 yards. He also has what every NFL team wants when investing a draft pick in a specialist: A strong kickoff leg (22 touchbacks last year).
DE Caleb Azubike: Keep an eye on this 6-4, 255-pound pass rusher. A true sophomore, Azubike's four sacks last year set a Vandy freshman record. He played in every game and figures to play a major role this fall for the Commodores. Will need to add size, but has the frame to play on Sundays. He has reportedly had an excellent fall camp.
WR Chris Boyd: Boyd's playing status is in limbo as he has been suspended indefinitely after incurring a felony charge of accessory after the fact in a sexual assault case. If he is allowed to return to the team, he is among the SEC's top receiving talents. As a sophomore last year, he made 50 catches for 774 yards, and he already has 13 career touchdown catches with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
DL Vince Taylor: This 6-2, 310-pound defensive tackle isn't yet lighting up the radar of NFL scouts. That's understandable, given that he made just 14 tackles last season and shared time at the position. But having made offseason strides physically, Taylor entered fall camp as one of the strongest players on the roster and has been very difficult to block in the preseason. Mark him down as one to watch.
Three must-see games of 2013
Oct. 19 vs. Georgia: Vandy was embarrassed by Georgia last year in 48-3 drubbing. If the Commodores truly take another step forward in 2013, that won't happen again at home.
Oct. 26 at Texas A&M: One of the brightest young coaches in the college game, James Franklin, gets his chance to scheme up Johnny Football in College Station.
Nov. 23 at Tennessee: The Commodores put an exclamation point on a forgettable season for in-state rival Tennessee last year with a 41-18 win. To do so again in Knoxville this year would be a new low for the Volunteers.