USC opponent preview: For rebuilding Vanderbilt, nowhere to go but up?

Kick returner Darrius Sims is back, as are 18 starters this season for the Vanderbilt football team. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

COLUMBIA — It can’t get any worse, can it?

It’s hard to imagine after last season, when Derek Mason took over a Vanderbilt program which had been revived by James Franklin, and promptly went winless in the SEC. It was hard to watch the Commodores get routed by Temple, go through three different quarterbacks, nearly lose to Massachusetts and Charleston Southern, struggle to score any points, and get torched by Georgia and Mississippi State.

OK, enough piling on. Mason was forced to start almost from scratch after Franklin (and a bunch of his signees) bolted for Penn State. This is the year some of that struggle should pay off, given that Vandy returns a boatload of starters, and has a tailback to build a program around. It all has to come together on the field, of course, but really there is nowhere for this program to go but up.

Offensively the rebuilding starts with tailback Ralph Webb, probably the most underrated freshman rusher in the country last year. Vandy lost just two starters on offense — its center and fullback. The defense is similarly intact, with Vandy’s top six tacklers returning. And yes, Darrius Sims is back to once again potentially torment South Carolina on kickoff returns.

Granted, the quarterback situation remains a muddle, and no, this isn’t a program headed to the Sugar Bowl anytime soon. But Vanderbilt has a lot of young players who should be better because of the struggles they endured last season. And for a team that lost winnable games to Missouri, Kentucky and USC, that could unquestionably make a difference.

Head coach: Derek Mason (3-9 in one season at Vanderbilt and overall)

Returning starters: 18 (Nine offense, nine defense)

2014 record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC, seventh in Eastern Division)

Scoring offense: 17.2 points scored per game (119th nationally)

Scoring defense: 33.3 points allowed per game (106th nationally)

Series: South Carolina leads 20-4

Opposing beat writer: Adam Sparks, the Nashville Tennessean (@AdamSparks)

Last meeting: South Carolina 48, Vanderbilt 34 on Sept. 20, 2014 in Nashville. The Gamecocks gave up two kickoffs returned for touchdowns, allowed the freshman tailback Webb to rush for nearly 100 yards, and did just enough to win in what head coach Steve Spurrier termed an “embarrassing” performance against an opponent nearly beaten by Massachusetts the previous week.

1. The quarterback situation remains unsettled. Johnny McCrary is the returning starter after taking over for Vandy’s final five games last season. But Wade Freebeck will again compete for the job, as will redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage. “There is no front-runner,” Mason said after the spring game. Patton Robinette, who started against USC last year, has given up football due to health issues.

2. Mason shook up his staff. Vanderbilt finished 119th nationally in scoring offense, so Mason brought in Andy Ludwig from Wisconsin to be his new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Mason also fired defensive coordinator David Kotulski, and took over those duties himself. Assistants overseeing receivers, cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers were also changed.

3. The ‘Dores are growing up fast. Vanderbilt’s struggles of a season ago are somewhat understandable in hindsight, and with the knowledge that the Commodores had 31 true or redshirt freshmen forced into action. There simply weren’t many experienced players around, though that changes this year. Vandy’s 18 returning starters are the most in the SEC, tied with Tennessee.

Week before: LSU

Next week: Off week

On the horizon: Memories of 52-28