Vanderbilt football game-by-game predictions: How will Clark Lea fare in Year 1?

Aria Gerson
Nashville Tennessean

A 12-game college football season is back and Vanderbilt has a new look under coach Clark Lea.

The Commodores lack depth at several positions and, like most teams that have a coaching change, had their fair share of offseason attrition. But Lea is also injecting a new attitude into the program that has resonated with the players.

It will be an uphill battle for Lea in his first year, but he also has a low bar to clear to improve on 2020's winless season that resulted in the end of Derek Mason's tenure.

Here are game-by-game predictions for Vanderbilt in 2021.

Sept. 4: vs. East Tennessee State

Last season: Did not play. East Tennessee went 4-2.

The buzz: This is the second of a two-game series. Vanderbilt won 38-0 in 2019. The Buccaneers finished ranked in the FCS poll in 2020, though it was an odd spring season where many teams opted out of playing altogether.

The pick: Vanderbilt wins, 28-7.

Sept. 11: at Colorado State

Last season: Did not play. Colorado State went 1-3.

The buzz: Colorado State players and athletic staff claimed coaches told players not to report COVID-19 symptoms during preseason practice last year. Colorado State had four games canceled and only won one of the games it did play. But Fort Collins isn't an easy place to play due to the altitude that can make the ball move differently.

The pick: Colorado State wins, 33-28.

Sept. 18: vs. Stanford

Last season: Did not play. Stanford went 4-2.

The buzz: It was hard to draw too many conclusions about the Cardinal in a season where they played just six games, all against Pac-12 competition. But the team got better as the season went on and handed Washington its only loss. This game is at home, but Stanford is an underrated opponent and ultimately proves too much for the Commodores.

The pick: Stanford wins, 35-17.

Sept. 25: vs. Georgia

Last season: Did not play. Georgia went 8-2.

The buzz: The Bulldogs made it to the Peach Bowl last season and could be even better this year with potential Heisman candidate JT Daniels at quarterback. Georgia, which has garnered some College Football Playoff buzz, is the toughest opponent on Vanderbilt's schedule and will overmatch the Commodores in every aspect.

The pick: Georgia wins, 48-10.

Oct. 2: vs. UConn

Last season: Did not play. UConn opted out of playing due to COVID-19.

The buzz: The Huskies have long been one of the worst FBS programs and have beaten one FBS team since 2018 (UMass). This is a game Vanderbilt should win. If the Commodores don't, they have bigger problems.

The pick: Vanderbilt wins, 35-3.

Oct. 9: at Florida

Last season: Florida won, 38-17.

The buzz: Florida is a perennial New Year's Six contender loaded with top athletes. While the Gators likely aren't quite as good as Georgia, they will provide the same sort of mismatch for Vanderbilt.

The pick: Florida wins, 35-10.

Oct. 16: at South Carolina

Last season: South Carolina won, 41-7.

The buzz: The Gamecocks have had their share of struggles and like the Commodores are in the first year of a new coach. On paper this is one of the easier SEC matchups, but this game is on the road and South Carolina's homecoming. As Vanderbilt's baseball team showed in the College World Series, a huge and hostile crowd is hard to overcome.

The pick: South Carolina wins, 24-17.

Oct. 23: vs. Mississippi State

Last season: Mississippi State won, 24-17.

The buzz: The Commodores selected this game as homecoming and the choice makes sense, given that the Bulldogs went 4-7 last year and played one of the closer games against Vanderbilt. But the Bulldogs will be in the second year of their Air Raid offense under Mike Leach, and the bet is that the Commodores' defense will struggle to stop them.

The pick: Mississippi State wins, 34-21.

Oct. 30: vs. Missouri

Last season: Missouri won, 41-0.

The buzz: Missouri is one of the more underrated teams in the SEC. The Tigers aren't a national championship contender but they won't play down to their opponents and they beat Vanderbilt by more than any other SEC team last year. While this game will go better than that one, Missouri is just a better team.

The pick: Missouri wins, 38-14.

Nov. 13: vs. Kentucky

Last season: Kentucky won, 38-35.

The buzz: Mark Stoops has turned the Wildcats into a surprisingly solid squad. Kentucky doesn't have the talent to hang with the best of the SEC, but good coaching and fundamentals allow the Wildcats to consistently beat the bottom-tier teams. Vanderbilt made this one close last year but hasn't beaten Kentucky since 2015.

The pick: Kentucky wins, 27-21.

Nov. 20: at Ole Miss

Last season: Ole Miss won, 54-21.

The buzz: The Rebels had one of the most potent offenses in the country but couldn't stop anyone. Odds are it's a similar dynamic this year. Vanderbilt will score against Ole Miss, but its defense won't have enough to stop Matt Corral and company.

The pick: Ole Miss wins, 58-28.

Nov. 27: at Tennessee

Last season: Tennessee won, 42-17.

The buzz: Tennessee is a bit of a mess right now, with a new coach and a looming NCAA investigation. Joe Milton, the favorite to win the quarterback job, transferred from Michigan after getting benched twice, including once when he was unable to move the ball against Rutgers. This game is in Knoxville, yes, but the Vols are exactly the type of dysfunctional team that the Commodores, who will build cohesion as the season goes on, can take advantage of.

The pick: Vanderbilt wins, 28-17.

Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at agerson@gannett.com or on Twitter @aria_gerson.