NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Vanderbilt's national championship in baseball has raised the bar on campus. The Commodores have a new football coach and setting their sights higher on the gridiron as well.
Linebacker Kyle Woestmann says the football team watched the Commodores clinch the College World Series in June and are inspired to make their mark in the Southeastern Conference.
"It's time for us to win a SEC championship," Woestmann said. "And people know if you're winning in the SEC, you're probably going to go to the national championship. All we've got to do is focus on one SEC game at a time and work our way through the East and see where we stand at the end of the season."
First-year coach Derek Mason already has talked about Vanderbilt's goal of winning the SEC — an idea previously laughable for a program that has never won 10 games in a single season.
He takes over a team coming off consecutive 9-4 seasons capped by bowl wins and a spot in The Associated Press' final top 25 rankings. The talent hasn't been this good or deep on this roster in decades, and the man who was defensive coordinator at Stanford has 12 starters returning, 13 if counting the punter.
Mason likes dreaming big, even though preseason predictions put Vandy near the bottom of the SEC East.
"I don't think I've ever picked on top," Mason said.
Woestmann says Mason's confidence has helped players who talked about winning the SEC yet didn't feel the previous staff thought that was possible.
"It's hard not to buy in and want to sell out for a man who's trying to take you to where you're trying to go," Woestmann said.
Here are five things to watch at Vanderbilt:
QB COMPETITION: Stephen Rivers, whose brother Philip is quarterback for the NFL's San Diego Chargers, saw a chance to start at Vanderbilt and transferred from LSU in June. Patton Robinette is back after starting three games last season. He also helped beat Georgia and Tennessee coming off the bench but wasn't asked to throw much. Mason wants to pick a starter by the opener Aug. 28 against Temple.
PROTECTION: Whoever starts at quarterback at least has four experienced linemen protecting him. Vandy lost only left tackle Wesley Johnson to the NFL, and center Joe Townsend is the anchor with 20 career starts.
DEFENSIVE CHANGE: Mason switched Vanderbilt from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4, and that moved Woestmann, who led the team with six sacks last season, from end to outside linebacker along with Caleb Azubike. Woestmann is one of five starters back. The secondary lost all four starters, though safeties Jahmel McIntosh and Andrew Williamson have experience.
WHO'S CATCHING: Jordan Matthews, the SEC's all-time leader in catches and yards receiving, now is in the NFL in Philadelphia. Vanderbilt also has to replace second-leading receiver Jonathan Krause. The top returning receiver is Jordan Cunningham, who started six games as a freshman but caught only 15 passes. Tight end Davis Dudchock transferred from Stanford along with receiver Chandler Dorrell, son of Vandy offensive coordinator Karl.
FAVORABLE SCHEDULE: The Commodores play only Mississippi and Mississippi State from the SEC West, hosting Ole Miss for a second straight year on Sept. 6. The non-conference schedule starts with Temple in the season opener and gets easier with visits from Massachusetts, FCS Charleston Southern and Old Dominion. The Commodores also host South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee with their SEC road trips to Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi State.
AP college football website: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker