It took Derek Mason three seasons to get Vanderbilt to a bowl game, as one-time coach James Franklin didn’t exactly leave the program in great shape upon taking the Penn State job.
The Commodores have gone from three to four to six wins thus far under Mason. The time is here to take another step to seven or eight. Franklin actually won nine two years in a row, which had never been done in school history, before departing for a high-profile gig with the Nittany Lions.
That appears unlikely, though. Franklin benefited from Tennessee being down in the dumps after the Derek Dooley disaster. While the Volunteers are yet to return to full health at this juncture, Butch Jones at least has them on the right path. Florida was also dealing with the ebbs and flows associated with the Will Muschamp era.
But Vandy is still Vandy. Only a fraction of SEC-caliber recruits are good enough students to be admitted there. As a result, the ‘Dores have to get creative filling in the gaps.
2016 Projection: 5-7 (1-7)
Actual Record: 6-6* (3-5)
* doesn’t include bowl game
You wouldn’t know it on game day, but Mason spent the beginning of his coaching career on the offensive side of the football.
He coached wide receivers at Weber State. He coached running backs at Idaho State. However, once Mason became secondary coach at Stanford in 2010, one of the brightest defensive minds at the collegiate level was truly unleashed.
On Mason’s watch from 2014-16, Vanderbilt has gone from 14th in the conference in points allowed per game — that’s dead last — to sixth to tied for fifth. In terms of yards allowed per game, the Commodores were 10th, sixth and then sixth again. Schematically, he’s a marvel at putting his defenders in position to make plays.
Mason’s offense is a different story, though. Vandy is yet to do better than 12th in the league in either points or yards per game.
Due to the presence of Ralph Webb behind him, Kyle Shurmur should be taking advantage of all those stacked boxes he’s seeing.
Instead, he was the lowest-rated QB in the SEC this past season among the 12 with enough pass attempts to qualify. He connected on only 54.4 percent of his throws with a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9-to-10. Still, he’s the guy in Nashville.
To be fair, Shurmur isn’t surrounded with the same level of talent that’s typically there for most signal callers in the best conference in America. His receiving corps is mediocre. His offensive line is adequate. And even though Webb is already the program’s all-time leading rusher, he’s not really a home-run hitter and tends to do most of his damage a few yards at a time.
That being said, Shurmur could do more. Accuracy tends to be his issue, so hitting his targets in the numbers would be a welcome sight.
Strengths & Weaknesses
The aforementioned Webb is the Alpha and the Omega offensively for the ‘Dores. He ran for 1,253 yards last year without a lot of help.
Fortunately for Shurmur, of his nine leading pass catchers in 2016, not one of them was a senior. C.J. Duncan, Caleb Scott and Trent Sherfield were all juniors a season ago, plus Kalija Lipscomb was just a freshman and might have the most upside of the bunch.
But considering the losses defensively for this team, Mason is going to be tested. Linebacker Zach Cunningham was so effective for this unit three years running before leaving early for the NFL Draft, so replacing him is an impossible task. Additionally, Adam Butler was one of the SEC’s more underrated D-linemen and has also left.
While safety-turned-linebacker Oren Burks remains and makes a lot of plays himself, more than ever will fall on his shoulders in 2017.
Week 1: at Middle Tennessee (W)
Vanderbilt doubled up on the Blue Raiders last year 47-24, so handling them this season on the road is a reasonable request.
Week 2: vs. Alabama A&M (W)
Welcome to Cupcake Week in the SEC. Most everyone will be focused on Georgia-Notre Dame, so the Commodores enjoy a quiet victory.
Week 3: vs. Kansas State (L)
The Wildcats are usually one of the more disrespected teams in America and closed out 2016 on a four-game winning streak.
Week 4: vs. Alabama (L)
Vandy really drew the short straw on its cross-division matchups this year. On the bright side, scalpers will make a small fortune with the Crimson Tide in town.
Week 5: at Florida (L)
More often than not, the ‘Dores give the Gators a hard time. Webb is a Gainesville native, but he comes up short here.
Week 6: vs. Georgia (L)
The Bulldogs are favored to win the East. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, was picked sixth. Two straight over UGA seems like a tall task.
Week 7: at Ole Miss (L)
After a brutal stretch the previous three weeks, the Commodores might not have much left in the tank for a Rebels squad with simply nothing to lose in 2017.
Week 8: bye
Week 9: at South Carolina (L)
The Gamecocks have enough skill-position weapons at their disposal to neutralize Mason’s brilliance as a defensive playcaller.
Week 10: vs. Western Kentucky (W)
Don’t sleep on the Hilltoppers. They know how to move the ball through the air. Vandy gets the benefit of the doubt at home, though.
Week 11: vs. Kentucky (W)
The Wildcats, conversely, prefer to run it at every opportunity. Mason can stack the box and take his chances with man coverage.
Week 12: vs. Missouri (L)
The ‘Dores were more reliable defending the run in 2016 than the pass. Mizzou can do both well when things are clicking.
Week 13: at Tennessee (L)
No question about it, the Vols will have revenge on their minds after surrendering 416 yards passing to Shurmur a season ago.
2017 Projection: 4-8 (1-7)
Final Standings: 7th in SEC East
An argument can be made that Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt all exceeded expectations last season since each went bowling.
But blue bloods Florida and Georgia aren’t going anywhere, and although Tennessee is projected to win a game or two fewer than it did in 2016, it has more resources than the Wildcats, Gamecocks and Commodores ever could when it comes to pigskin.
In other words, it’s borderline impossible for all programs in the East to keep ascending at the same time, not when the West continues to be the class of the two divisions. Optimism is surely deserved in Lexington and Columbia, as neither the ‘Cats nor ‘Cocks lost much off this past year’s roster. The ‘Dores can’t say that same thing, especially with a superstar like Cunningham gone.
If the SEC were a poker game, then Mason would be the guy looking for an inside straight. He doesn’t get dealt many aces.