Vanderbilt's 2013 season is beginning a lot like its 2012 campaign.
After three games last year, the Commodores were just 1-2, just as they are this season. One of those games was a gut-wrenching opening-day loss (Ole Miss this year, South Carolina in last), another was a blowout against an overmatched FCS opponent (Austin Peay, Presbyterian) and the other, a disappointing 10-point loss on the road (South Carolina, Northwestern).
As coach James Franklin reminded the press on Monday, the Commodores' schedule has been tougher than most.
"South Carolina was ranked 12th or 13th going into that game. A few weeks ago we played Ole Miss, who is now ranked in the Top 25. Not many teams have played two Top 25 teams in their first three games. Also, we were on the road against South Carolina making it that much tougher. We had a similar conversation last year in that, we are 1-2, the sky is falling on our season. We've talked to our guys about this, we have two losses to very good football teams," he said.
The Commodores are the Southeastern Conference's only team besides Georgia to play two opponents currently ranked in the Top 25. Four SEC teams haven't faced a ranked team yet.
Again, that's similar to last season, as both Northwestern and South Carolina finished in the Top 25.
But in other ways, the season's start has dissimilar.
Vanderbilt was a good first quarter team a year ago, out-scoring opponents 67-43 and leading after a quarter in two of the first three games. This year, VU has held a lead after one quarter just once, and has been throttled by a 31-3 count after the first period.
"Offensively we need to start out better. We need to execute and make plays to avoid three-and-outs which will hep our defense. We need to be much more efficient on third downs and we also need to protect the ball and the quarterback better," Franklin said.
Vanderbilt hopes this season ends like the last one. The 1-2 start turned into a 8-2 finish, and the 'Dores have great opportunity to get things headed in the right direction the next two weeks. Saturday's opponent, Massachusetts, is 0-3, and Alabama-Birmingham follows the week after.
Last year's schedule didn't ease up at a similar point. VU was blown out by Georgia in its fourth game, and lost to Florida two games later, before running the table.
-- WR Jordan Matthews continues his climb up both the VU and SEC career charts. He now has 174 catches for 2,682 yards, ranking him fifth and fourth, respectively, on Vanderbilt's all-time charts. On Saturday, Matthews passed Alabama's Julio Jones for the No. 15 spot on the league's yardage chart, and is three shy of tying Tennessee's Marcus Nash for 20th in receptions. He leads the league with 24 catches and ranks second with 395 yards this season.
-- CB Kenny Ladler had 14 tackles on Saturday, with 10 being solo stops. Ladler leads the SEC with 18 solo tackles, and ranks tied for third overall with 24 total stops.
-- P Taylor Hudson shanked his first collegiate punt vs. Ole Miss, and his first effort on the road was a mediocre 37-yard effort. Otherwise, he's been lights-out, averaging 44.9 yards per attempt, which ranks sixth in the league. That included a 75-yarder on Saturday.
-- QB Austyn Carta-Samuels ranks eighth in the league in total offense with 231.7 yards per game. His three interceptions tie him with Aaron Murray for the conference lead.
SERIES HISTORY: Vanderbilt and Massachusetts have played once, that being a 49-7 VU win in Nashville on Oct. 27 last year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I do think we have some concerns. I think some of it is the inexperience at the position and we will take a look at that this week. More than anything we need to play faster and we need to play confident." -- coach James Franklin, on the team's sub-par play at linebacker.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Vanderbilt ranks last in the league in rushing yards per game (138.7) and attempt (4.1). However, it got a boost from Wesley Tate on Saturday. Tate, who didn't have an attempt in the first half, played "angry" in the second half according to teammates, and picked up 71 yards on 10 tries operating mostly out of the wildcat formation. UMass is giving up 7.2 yards per carry, so VU should find things easier this week.
Scouting the passing game: Carta-Samuels was just 12-of-22 for 147 yards, one touchdown and one interception on Saturday, but was limited by a line that couldn't protect him: he was sacked five times. Matthews caught eight of the 12 completions as VU limited the number of players running routes in order to get better protection. Again, that should get better against a UMass defense giving up 10.3 yards per throw. The Minutemen have also failed to register a sack in three games.
Scouting the run defense: Vanderbilt gave up 220 yards on 49 carries, and once again got hurt by a mobile quarterback when Connor Shaw carried 19 times for 84 yards. The 'Dores rank 11th in the SEC in yards per game (170.3) and seventh in yards per carry (4.26). The Minutemen gain just 3.2 yards per try.
Scouting the pass defense: After allowing 28 completions on 38 attempts for 359 yards and three scores, VU has now given up 232 yards per game, which ranks 11th. Teams are completing 69.3 percent of their passes, the worst rate in the conference. Opponents are doing much of their damage underneath, as VU gave up 178 yards to tight ends and running backs against Carolina. But UMass has had troubles throwing the ball, splitting reps between two quarterbacks and getting just 4.3 yards per try.
Scouting the special teams: K Carey Spear hit A 54-yard field goal with plenty to spare, and has been consistent in not allowing returns (12 touch-backs in 17 tries). But VU simply can't seem to get anything going in kickoff returns (18.3-yard average, with a long of 34) or in punt returns (a 4.7-yard average).
-- WR Chris Boyd was expected to return soon from a suspension related to a rape by teammates. Boyd was not a participant, but police were not pleased with his answers and he was therefore slapped with felony accessory after-the-fact charges. Those were reduced last Friday to a misdemeanor, but Vanderbilt -- which had stayed out of the case and let the Nashville police and district attorney handle the case -- was unaware of the severity of the charges until their announcement last week. Boyd remains suspended indefinitely and Franklin will not comment as the school handles discipline from here.
-- MLB Chase Garnham has not played since the opener. VU does not disclose injuries, so it's unknown how long Garnham will be out, though the fact that he's not listed on the depth chart means it will likely be an extended absence.
-- RB Wesley Tate is listed in an "or" situation with Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour for Saturday, but perhaps it's telling that his name is listed first after Saturday's quality performance.