Vanderbilt football may very well make a bowl game this year. This prediction has nothing to do with their schedule, as it will remain tough given the conference they play in along with the recent expansion.
It has everything to do however with the changes that head coach Clark Lea is making heading into his fourth season for the Commodores.
In his first year, Lea led the Commodores to a 2-10 record and improved on that mark to 5-7 in year two. The team however digressed again this past year posting another 2-10 mark. So despite the lower expectations and Lea being a Vanderbilt alumnus, there is still a level of expectation, which puts Lea squarely on the hot seat heading into the 2024 season.
Here is the changes Lea has made in the offseason and why we should look for Vanderbilt to be bowl eligible in 2024:
Lea returning to play-calling duties on defense
After a disappointing past three seasons which have seen the Commodores rank last in the SEC in points per game allowed, Lea demoted defensive coordinator this past season, Nick Howell to assistant secondary coach and will take over defensive coordinator duties himself.
Lea played fullback himself at Vanderbilt, but has been a defensive-minded coach throughout his coaching career. Lee served as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame under Brian Kelly from 2018-2020.
During this three-year stint, Lea had the Irish in the top 15 each year for points per game allowed with an average of 18.4 points per game. One can assume this is the reason he will be taking these duties back over to get the defense back up to par.
Transfer quarterback Nate Johnson will be a difference-maker
Former four-star Utah transfer quarterback, Nate Johnson will join the Commodores this year as the assumed starter. The Commodores have had a mass exodus of transfers at the quarterback position over the past few seasons and will look to Johnson to stabilize.
Unlike this past year’s quarterbacks AJ Swann, Walter Taylor, and Ken Seals who all saw game action, Johnson is a dual-threat quarterback, which brings an element that could help to Commodores become bowl-eligible
Jerry Kill and Tim Beck will add experience to the coaching staff
Remember that team that went into Auburn this past year and upset the Tigers? That was New Mexico State. Their head coach was Jerry Kill.
Kill stepped down at the end of the season as head coach of the Aggies, but was hired on by Clark Lea as chief consultant and offensive adviser. Not only is Kill now in Nashville, but Lea also brought Kill’s offensive coordinator from that same Aggies squad Tim Beck over as well. Beck will serve as the offensive coordinator for the Commodores in 2024.
The Aggies finished this past season 10-5, which was the teams second 10-plus win season, and the first since 1960. The team ranked second in their first season in Conference USA amassing 6.206 yards of total offense.
While Lea is having to make some moves demoting and firing previous staff, he knows his back is against the wall, so he seems to be pulling out all the stops. And that is what you need to do to win games in any conference at the FBS level, let alone the SEC.
If the Commodores do become bowl eligible, it would be the first time since 2018 that the team has compiled six wins.
Between the collective unit being brought in on the offense side between coaches and players, combined with Lea’s ability to call plays, do not be surprised if the Commodores upset some folks this season. And that should mean Lea retains his job in 2025.