By Russell Lorentz, for Vandy Insider
Vanderbilt Football has qualified for eight bowl appearances in program history, five of which have come within a nine-year span dating back to 2008.
However, Kyle Shurmur could change the Commodores football fortune in a miraculous way heading into the 2017 season, doing something that no Vanderbilt Football team has done – compete for an SEC East Title.
It’s no secret the most important position on a football roster is the man under center, in order to compete. But for Vanderbilt, the only private institution in the Southeastern Conference, the margin of error is that much smaller making three-year starter Kyle Shurmur’s job all the more important. A job arguably more demanding than the other 13 teams within the SEC, the toughest football conference in the country.
In Derek Mason’s third year on West End, the Commodores turned a corner qualifying for the Camping World Independence Bowl, while earning three wins in SEC play – the most in the Derek Mason Era, thus far. The Commodores reached the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Vanderbilt in recent years has garnered serviceable quarterbacks, but none comparable to the star power of Jay Cutler who has since retired from the NFL after stints with the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears, joining Fox Sports.
Upon entering his third season in a Vanderbilt uniform, Shurmur has been a mixed bag in terms of his play, and the Vanderbilt offense will go as Shurmur’s play rises.
Shurmur is the most prestigious recruit at the quarterback position to ever play at Vanderbilt to date. Shurmur was rated just outside the ESPN 100 at 110th in the class of 2015, but has only shown flashes of potential.
Vanderbilt complied a 3-2 mark in the team’s final five regular season games. The only losses came in road tilts with Auburn and Missouri.
In that stretch, Shurmur threw for 1,305 yards, six touchdowns against four interceptions and completed 59.2 percent of his passes. Shurmur turned in his best performances in games against Ole Miss and rival Tennessee, which propelled the Commodores into bowl season. It was the Commodores’ highest offensive scoring output in SEC games to date with Shurmur behind center.
During the Commodores’ other eight games, in which the team compiled a 3-5 record, Shurmur threw for 1,104 yards, three touchdowns against six interceptions and completed 51.2 percent of his passes.
In SEC East Division games, Vanderbilt came within 17 points of defeating the likes of Kentucky, South Carolina, and eventual SEC East Champion Florida in which all defeats came down to a single possession, thanks in part to a struggling offense at times during the season.
Shurmur will have key assets returning on the perimeter as the senior laden trio of Trent Sherfield, Caleb Scott, and C.J Duncan all return as primary pass catchers. In addition, Vanderbilt all-time rushing leader Ralph Webb returns for his senior season after being named Preseason All-SEC, according to Athlon Sports for 2017.
Moreover, Vanderbilt lists three on the Athlon Preseason All-SEC squad on the defensive side of the ball: Seniors Nifae Lealao, Oren Burks, and Ryan White all return from a defense that collectively finished 35th nationally in points allowed and 1st in red-zone defense.
With 18 starts at Vanderbilt, Shurmur enters 2017 as one of the SEC’s most experienced starters. He and Missouri’s Drew Lock are the only projected quarterbacks in the conference who started more than a season’s worth of games.
Year four for Derek Mason means playing more with his recruits, instead of those inherited from previous head coach James Franklin. Vanderbilt returns 16 starters in 2017, the 9th most among FBS schools, all the more reason for Vanderbilt to win now.
With as much uncertain future with the rest of the SEC East heading into the year, Derek Mason believes Vanderbilt can be more than just a six-win team, but Vanderbilt’s success ultimately depends on the right arm of Kyle Shurmur.