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Projecting the SEC East in 2013: No. 4 goes to Vanderbilt

Could Vanderbilt really be in the top half of the SEC East again?

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

In a more wide-open SEC East, with a more forgiving schedule, these 'Dores might be able to walk away with it. For more on Vanderbilt, head to Anchor of Gold.

No. 4 Vanderbilt

Starters returning: Seven on offense, seven on defense

The good: Aside from Florida and Alabama, the Commodores are probably the toughest, grittiest team in the SEC. The Commodores do lose tailback Zac Stacy, but Wesley Tate has the potential to produce just as well. Tate will have a solid offensive line to work with, led by Wesley Johnson. If it all comes together, the running game could be a legitimate threat.

The passing game could be a positive as well (if Vandy's new QB is able to produce), with top targets Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd both returning. On defense, Kyle Woestmann really turned it on late last year, and if he continues to improve, he could develop into the SEC's next sack artist. Andre Hal also returns to anchor the secondary, and on special teams, Carey Spear is one of the most underrated kickers in the nation.

The bad: Losing QB Jordan Rodgers is a major blow to Vanderbilt. Austyn Carta-Samuels appears to be next in line, but time will tell if he's able to lead the offense like Rodgers; though he was good at Wyoming, it was Wyoming. The 'Dores also lose their top player at each level of the defensive side of the ball.

But none of their personnel losses are as much of a problem for them as much as their schedule. To put it simply, it's about as bad as it could get. Vanderbilt not only draws Texas A&M from the West, but three of their four toughest intra-division games are on the road (Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina) and Georgia at home is no pushover. That's a lot of pressure on a team that, suddenly, nobody takes lightly anymore.

The key: Vanderbilt could have a great season if Carta-Samuels is able to fill Rodgers' shoes. He's got the receivers and the running game to help him lead this team, but the rest is up to him.

Key game: Georgia. If Vanderbilt wants to be taken seriously, and rise above the "mediocre" echelon, they need to take out one of the SEC's best. Georgia at home presents the perfect opportunity.

Somewhat relevant fact: Vanderbilt has never won back-to-back bowl games.

Relevant fact: Last year, Vanderbilt was 3-1 in games decided by single digits.

Overview: Two years ago, some people around the SEC were taken aback by the Commodores' new, brash attitude. But nobody is amused anymore, not after the 'Dores could have easily won 11 games a year ago. No longer is Vanderbilt your average conference doormat, the team that everybody makes their homecoming opponent.

With a foundation built, Vanderbilt now looks to take the next step. But a grueling schedule will prevent them from doing so. They'll probably match last season's production, no more, no less.

Projection: 9-4 (4-4 SEC), Chick-Fil-A Bowl champions.