The Commodores' season did not start off on the right foot however, as they were just 2-4 through mid-October, which included losses to top-10 teams South Carolina (17-13), Georgia (48-3) and Florida (31-17). They managed to turn things around in a hurry, however, by rattling off six straight wins to close out the regular season.
The team became bowl eligible for the second straight year for the first time in school history, and its 38-24 win over NC State in the Music City Bowl was just its third-ever bowl victory.
The 2012 campaign featured plenty of milestones for the Commodores. Their seven-game win streak to close out the season was the longest since 1948. It was also the first time they won five SEC games in 30 years, and they finished the season ranked in the AP Top-25 (No. 23) for the first time in more than 60 years.
"(I'm) very proud of where we're going and what we're doing," head coach James Franklin said. "(But) those are things of the past, and our focus is on where we're going now."
OFFENSE: The Vanderbilt offense was modest at best a season ago in terms of yardage (379.7 ypg), but thanks to a low turnover rate, it managed to put up 30.0 ppg.
The Commodores' most dynamic playmaker is wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who was named a unanimous First Team All-SEC selection in 2012 after tallying 94 receptions, 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns. Matthews had the opportunity to be a high pick in the 2013 NFL Draft but opted to remain in Nashville for his senior season.
"I made the best decision of my life coming back," Mathews said. "There (was) a little bit of time deciding what I wanted to do, but when I really laid out the pros and cons, coming back and playing with some of these guys was a no-brainer at the end of the day."
Chris Boyd (50 rec, 774 yards, five TDs) is also back to give Vandy arguably the best receiving duo in the conference.
Throwing the ball to Matthews will be Austyn Carta-Samuels, who saw limited opportunities in parts of six games last season (14-of-25, 208 yards, TD, 27 rushing yards). His production should be at least on par with the graduated Jordan Rodgers, who was unremarkable as a senior (.599 completion percentage, 2,539 yards, 15 TDs, five interceptions).
Zac Stacy (1,141 yards, 10 TDs) set many school records at running back during his career but is now battling for a starting job with the St. Louis Rams. Wesley Tate (376 yards) has been anointed the feature back, and while his yards per carry was lackluster in 2012 (3.5), he displayed a nose for the end zone with eight touchdowns.
DEFENSE: In a conference filled with stout defenses, the Commodores were able to hold their own and then some, yielding just 18.7 ppg and 333.9 ypg to opponents, with their crowning achievement coming in a shutout of Kentucky on Nov. 3.
The two top defensive playmakers from a season ago are both back for another go, as safeties Kenny Ladler (90 tackles, two INTs) and Javon Marshall (83 tackles) return for their senior seasons and are the unquestioned leader of the secondary. Linebacker Chase Garnham logged 84 tackles and was a menace behind the line of scrimmage as well with 12.5 TFL and seven sacks last year.
Linebacker Karl Butler (51 tackles, 11.5 TFL, two sacks), defensive tackle Rob Lohr (11 TFL), defensive end Walker May (10.5 TFL, three sacks) and cornerback Andre Hal (48 tackles, two INTs) were all key pieces to the defensive puzzle 2012, and should ensure another stellar campaign this year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Carey Spear earned Second Team All-SEC honors in 2012 after making good on 20-of-24 field goal attempts. Redshirt freshman Colby Cooke will take over the punting duties from Richard Kent (44.9 avg), who is currently in camp with the San Diego Chargers.
Brian Kimbrow was a solid kick returner as a freshman with 486 yards on 22 attempts. Jonathan Krause is a big-play waiting to happen as a punt returner after tallying 281 yards (11.2 avg) and a pair of touchdowns last season.
OUTLOOK: Of all the powerhouse programs expected to make a splash in the SEC last season, very few thought that Vanderbilt would make a run into the Top-25. It's combination of smart, mistake-free offense combined with a steady defense proved to be a winning formula down the stretch, but the Commodores won't be sneaking up on anyone here in 2013.
"Probably our biggest challenge is handling the success," Franklin said. "I think a lot of times when you're taking over a program, you're dealing with 18- to 22-year-old males, adversity is probably a little bit easier to handle than success. (We're) making sure our guys understand that we're going to have to play with the same type of emotion, passion, chip on our shoulder that we've had in the past."
Vanderbilt's schedule is no picnic, as it's set to face off against BCS hopefuls South Carolina, Georgia, Texas A&M and Florida, not to mention other tough conference matchups against Ole Miss and Missouri. The sheer difficulty of its schedule should prevent the Commodores from improving upon their 2012 record, but they still have plenty of pieces in place to qualify for a third straight bowl game.