I can’t get it out of my head.

The collapse that was Vanderbilt’s 2017 season was a different kind of low. It wasn’t a low because the Commodores only won 1 SEC game.

The worst part was that expectations actually got high. Like, really high.

I remember watching Derek Mason celebrate that Kansas State win and wondering if this was the year that he got to a James Franklin-level of success at Vanderbilt. I also remember watching the”Alabama, you’re next” comment and wondering if there was any chance that the Commodores could hang with the Tide. After all, I argued that they probably should have been a Top 25 team at the time.

And then it all came crashing down.

Getting outscored by 184 points in 7 consecutive SEC losses is the ultimate “back to Earth” stretch. Vandy couldn’t even use the spin of “we were a few plays from being an 8-win team” because only 1 of the Commodores’ 7 SEC losses was by fewer than 14 points. And sure, the Tennessee game retained some in-state bragging rights, but nobody should have been bragging about beating the dumpster fire Vols last year.

That brings us to Vandy’s 2018 outlook, with an important question attached to it.

Has anything that happened since the Kansas State win suggest that things are changing for the better in Nashville?

2017 regular season record: 5-7 (1-7)

What is Kyle Shurmur’s upside?

There are going to be plenty of NFL scouts making their way to Nashville to see Shurmur this year. Given his dad’s new position as the head coach of the New York Giants, word has likely already spread about his pro potential. As frustrating as 2017 was, we did see Shurmur’s emergence.

Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Someone who was widely considered the weakest SEC quarterback entering 2017 proved a lot of people wrong by season’s end. The 6-4, 227-pound signal-caller threw for 25 touchdown passes and 2,823 yards. If not for his 7 interceptions in the final 3 games of the season, Shurmur would have owned one of the more impressive touchdown-to-interception ratios in the country.

Now, the question is what kind of season we’ll see from Shurmur with the NFL eyes on him. He got to work with former Vanderbilt star Jay Cutler this offseason (hopefully that’s coming to an episode of “Very Cavallari” soon). Shurmur is already the program’s best quarterback since Cutler.

Can he be even better? Perhaps. I expect Shurmur to develop into one of the conference’s better pure passers. He’s certainly got the resources to do so.

Besides getting on the same page with a new group of receivers, this could be about whether the Commodores can have a backfield presence to keep teams honest. Lord knows how much that helped Shurmur last year.

Ralph Webb’s replacement

Losing the program’s all-time leading rusher is a major blow, regardless of the fact that 2018 was Webb’s least-productive season. Vandy does have some capable replacements, though.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn once looked like he was going to be the centerpiece of Lovie Smith’s offense at Illinois. Now, the Commodores are banking on him being their workhorse back. He flashed plenty of potential when he had 723 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns in limited work as a true freshman at Illinois.

Vaughn figures to be the go-to guy, but Khari Blasingame, Jamauri Wakefield and Josh Crawford will also try and carve out roles. Blasingame might be the best complement to Vaughn given his size (235 pounds) and experience (142 carries, 10 touchdowns).

But with all eyes now on Shurmur, that running game has to do more than it did last year. Vanderbilt was No. 120 in FBS in rushing offense, even with Webb. That wasn’t just the result of game flow. That’s the result of getting just 3.7 yards per carry. Part of that is on the offensive line, and part of that is finding guys who can gash a defense.

The Commodores need both of those areas to improve significantly.

The optics of another step back

Take a look at Mason’s record since he arrived in Nashville:

  • 2014: 3-9 (0-8)
  • 2015: 4-8 (2-6)
  • 2016: 6-7 (3-5)
  • 2017: 5-7 (1-7)
  • 2018 — TBD

I’m not saying that it’s Mason’s job to be competing for division titles on a yearly basis. We know that Vandy’s football resources aren’t on the same level as the rest of the SEC. And weekly sellouts in a place like Nashville is probably a bit unrealistic.

But what happens if this winds up being a 3- or 4-win season without any improvement in SEC play? How would that look on Mason’s résumé?

  • 2014: 3-9 (0-8)
  • 2015: 4-8 (2-6)
  • 2016: 6-7 (3-5)
  • 2017: 5-7 (1-7)
  • 2018: 4-8 (1-7)

That looks like a clear rise and fall. No coach ever wants their athletic department wondering if they’ve peaked. But let’s be real. If you’re back to a similar place to where you started when you arrived 5 years earlier, that’s not the best look.

I’m not saying that Mason needs to hit a certain win total to keep his job. I am saying the best way he can avoid any sense of doubt about his future is by at least maintaining and not taking another step back. That won’t be easy.

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Middle Tennessee (W)

It baffles me that this was a home-and-home series. But in the fourth and final game of the series, Vanderbilt’s offense has a big day. Vaughn shines in his debut and the Commodores pull away in the second half for a comfortable victory to kick off 2018.

Week 2: vs. Nevada (W)

Nevada does rank No. 14 in percentage of returning production, but that’s from a 3-win team. Shurmur lights up the Wolfpack secondary to pace a blowout win.

Week 3: at Notre Dame (L)

You know how Mason said that he wasn’t scared to face Notre Dame?

Uh, he might worry when the Irish defense stymies his offense and he’s staring at a 3-touchdown deficit at the end of the first half. I like Shurmur, but that hole is too big to climb out of against an experienced Irish defense.

Week 4: vs. South Carolina (L)

This is where ranking No. 105 in percentage of defensive production will really show up. Assuming the Gamecocks stick to their new up-tempo offense, this will be a difficult game for the Commodores’ defense to keep pace. This has the makings of a “shake the rust off” game for Deebo Samuel, who finds a variety of ways to light up the scoreboard.

Week 5: vs. Tennessee State (W)

The Odeyingbo brothers will be licking their chops for this one. After a frustrating couple of weeks, they feast on some FCS cooking to fuel an easy victory.

Week 6: at Georgia (L)

And this is when the wheels fall off. Shurmur might be able to try and stretch the field against the Georgia secondary, but this battle in the trenches will be completely lopsided. We’ll see plenty of Justin Fields in this one.

Week 7: vs. Florida (L)

An angry Florida team coming off consecutive losses rolls into Nashville. The Gators pound the rock and control the clock from start to finish. It serves as another reminder of how much Vanderbilt has to improve up front before it can compete with teams on a regular basis.

Week 8: at Kentucky (L)

There’s a decent chance that Georgia, Florida and Kentucky wind up with 3 of the SEC’s top 4 rushing attacks. It’s hard to say the Commodores are suddenly going to be vastly improved coming off a season in which they ranked No. 100 in FBS against the run. Off a bye, a fresh Benny Snell is the latest SEC running back to take advantage of the Commodores’ porous run defense.

Week 9: at Arkansas (L)

If you put this game in the second week of September, I actually might pick Vanderbilt. But 9 weeks into the season, there’s a decent chance that Chad Morris’ offense will be significantly improved. Like with South Carolina, the tempo bothers the Commodores and they can’t keep pace on the road.

Week 10: Bye

Week 11: at Mizzou (L)

Shurmur vs. Drew Lock will have no shortage of NFL eyes watching. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, they’ll be watching one quarterback who has plenty of weapons to rely on, and another who could use a bit more help. The Commodores keep it interesting with a shootout, but Mizzou takes care of business late.

Week 12: vs. Ole Miss (L)

If the Commodores have a ground game identity, this one could be interesting. But I’m still not crazy about Ole Miss’ offense being contained for 60 minutes. AJ Brown cements his All-America status and prevents Vanderbilt from taking one of the more winnable games on the SEC slate.

Week 13: vs. Tennessee (L)

Like with Arkansas, I might give the Commodores the edge against Tennessee if we’re talking about a September game. But we’re not. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense should make some noticeable strides over the course of 3 months. The Vols get revenge after last year’s debacle, end their 2-year skid in the series, and clinch a winless SEC season for the home team.

2018 Projection: 3-9 (0-8)

Final Standings: 7th in SEC East

Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports


I get it. I might not be allowed in Nashville anytime soon. It’s easy to say that Vanderbilt will finish at the basement of the SEC without a conference win. To those opposed to that, let’s circle back to my original question.

Has anything that happened since the Kansas State win suggest that things are changing for the better in Nashville?

Sure, Mason hired Jason Tarver to take defensive coordinator duties away from him. Maybe that’ll yield some improvements. But they lost Oren Burks and return just 52 percent of their defensive production.

And like I mentioned earlier, losing your most productive tailback in program history is a tough pill to swallow. It’s not like Vandy just brought in a bunch of big-time transfers or a top-20 recruiting class, either. There are talented players on each side of the ball that I didn’t mention like Charles Wright and Jared Pinkney, but this is still a roster that didn’t earn a single one of the 80 preseason All-SEC spots.

After the year that was, banking on an improved 2018 seems like a shot in the dark. That’s not a shot that I’m willing to take.


Alabama | Arkansas | Auburn | LSU | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Texas A&M


Florida | Georgia | Kentucky | Mizzou | South Carolina | Tennessee