The hope that James Franklin built a sustainable program that would return to bowl games annually until the end of time died hard in 2014.

In one season, the team dropped from nine to three wins, and new coach Derek Mason already fired both his coordinators. Not exactly a resounding statement for the future of the program under his leadership.

Still, to immediately write off the team as a non-factor in the SEC with no shot to make postseason play for years to come is overdramatic. The roster isn’t void of talent and to be fair, Mason had a lot to learn and faced relatively high expectations.

Mason and Vandy face much different circumstances in 2015. Will the team exhibit new growth, or will the rest of the on-the-verge SEC East get ripe too quickly? A Tale of Two Cities, or the phoenix rising from the ashes?

The 2015 season will have one thing in common with ’14: It should be a fork-in-the-road juncture for Vandy football.

Let’s take a look at the State of the Union, taking into account the last three years and expectations for 2015.


SEC standing: Bottom third (last three years), easily last (2014)

Grade: C+

Vandy’s three-year record currently is 21-17, which averages to seven wins per season. That’s strong by Commodores standards.

This is a tough grade, though, because the team’s on-field performance bottomed out with first-year head coach Derek Mason. Vanderbilt failed to win a single SEC game and suffered an embarrassing home loss to Temple. Without a significant turnaround in 2015, this grade will slip below “passing” and into failure.


SEC standing: At the bottom

2015 rank: 47

Grade: C+

Going back three years, the team’s 2013 class — Franklin’s last — ranked just outside the Top 25.

The team doesn’t have the best talent in the SEC. It doesn’t take quantum physics to figure that one out. But the gap is smaller than you think. With the right coach, as Franklin proved, and good execution, Vandy has enough talent to pull itself from the bottom rung of the SEC standings.

Even this year, the team brought in several recruits that could be feisty SEC players with the right coaching and development.


SEC standing: Upper third (Franklin era)/bottom third (Mason’s first year)

Grade: C+

Speaking of which … the Franklin era did a fantastic job in this area. Again, mind the gap: RB Zac Stacy, G Ryan Seymour, WR Jordan Matthews, C Wesley Johnson and CB Andre Hal all were drafted in 2013 or 2014. This year? Vandy is the only SEC school without a NFL Combine invite.


SEC standing: Bottom third

Grade: C-

The team just completed indoor football practice facility last fall as part of $31 million in upgrades. That’s one of the reasons it opened spring practice so early (on Monday, just the second FBS program to start).

Franklin may well deserve credit for that upgrade as well, though it feels inevitable even at a program like Vanderbilt due to the current climate in big-time college football. It’s almost a requirement to stay relevant.

Facilities have a lot to do with athletic department budgets, private donations, ambition and the overall power and prestige of the football program, all of which Vanderbilt lacks. The digs aren’t comparable to places like Alabama, and they aren’t going to wow any high school recruits also looking at big-time teams. But they’re more than functional.


SEC standing: Upper third (Franklin era)/dead last (Mason’s first year)

Grade: C+

Franklin did a good enough job at Vanderbilt to land a head coaching position at one of the most storied programs in all of college football (even with the scandal and NCAA punishments). He turned the Commodores into a legitimate fringe Top 25 program.

It’s difficult to put the subsequent collapse all on Mason. The first-time head coach arrived from Stanford to a recruiting class falling apart and watched the SEC’s all-time leading receiver get selected in the NFL draft before he could start summer workouts, along with several other crucial outgoing talents.

We’ll give him as much benefit of the doubt as we can here, and see what he’s learned during his second season. Still, it’s difficult to imagine Mason ever morphing into a coach of Franklin’s caliber — that’s not an every-year occurrence at a program like Vandy. The program would take significant, sustained progress for the next two or three seasons. If not, the team likely will search for another leader.