Everyone likes Derek Mason and the image he projects for Vanderbilt. It hasn’t produced enough victories, though.

Former coach James Franklin inherited a two-win team and took it to three straight bowl games. Mason, on the other hand, was handed a nine-win club and won seven games combined his first two years in Nashville.

On offense, the Johnny McCrary era is over at QB. He’s left the program, which means it’s now Kyle Shurmur’s job. Defensively, the Commodores feature two impressive tacklers. Linebacker Zach Cunningham can do it all. Oren Burks moves from safety to more of a hybrid position down in the box.

Unquestionably, Franklin took advantage of a watered-down East and made some noise in the division. But with Florida and Tennessee no longer struggling, Vandy again fights an uphill climb.

Mason has some superstars, guys who can play anywhere. He just doesn’t have enough of them.


SDS 2015 projection: 3-9 (0-8)
Actual record: 4-8 (2-6)

Predicting every Vanderbilt game in 2016:

Sept. 1 vs. South Carolina (W): The way the Gamecocks have failed to get off the field defensively the past two years, look for Ralph Webb to have a big day on the ground for the ‘Dores.

Sept. 10 vs. Middle Tennessee (W): Another home game, another win for Vanderbilt. Shurmur should be fully settled at the quarterback position by now.

Sept. 17 at Georgia Tech (W): No coordinator enjoys game-planning for the Yellow Jackets and their triple-option scheme. Mason is a brilliant defensive mind, though.

Sept. 24 at Western Kentucky (W): With quarterback Brandon Doughty and his 48 touchdown passes no longer there, suddenly the Hilltoppers aren’t so scary throwing the ball.

Oct. 1 vs. Florida (L): Had the Commodores made a few more plays last year in Gainesville, they would have beaten the Gators. Webb needs more help, but yet again he doesn’t get it.

Oct. 8 at Kentucky (L): If the Wildcats are going to pose any threat to the blue bloods in the East, then they have to take care of Vandy at home. They will.

Oct. 15 at Georgia (L): Run-stuffing defenders like Cunningham and Burks will be put to the test in Athens. If freshman quarterback Jacob Eason starts, he’ll be handing the ball off liberally.

Oct. 22 vs. Tennessee State (W): A one-week vacation before going back to work in the SEC, the ‘Dores end a three-game slide and start thinking about a bowl game.

Nov. 5 at Auburn (L): With uncertainty at quarterback and another new defensive coordinator on the payroll, the Tigers are vulnerable at Jordan-Hare Stadium. But not vulnerable enough.

Nov. 12 at Missouri (L): Don’t expect a lot of offensive fireworks in this contest. Both Mizzou and Vandy will rely on their defenses in 2016. The Commodores come up short again.

Nov. 19 vs. Ole Miss (L): Burks made the position switch due to the depth behind him at safety. He might question that decision against the Rebels. Chad Kelly produces chunk plays in bunches.

Nov. 25 vs. Tennessee (L): Franklin beat the Volunteers twice when their program was in disarray. However, the Vols have cleaned up their act considerably since then.

SDS 2016 projection: 5-7 (1-7)
SEC race: 6th in the East

The Skinny: Assuming everything goes according to plan, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee are in a three-team race for the East crown. The best Vanderbilt can hope for is bowl eligibility and an upset or two along the way. Mason gets one step closer to a bowl invite, but he’s still one victory short.

John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.