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Can Vanderbilt Compete Again?

How much distance is between James Franklin and Derek Mason, and how much of it can be made up this year?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our series on Tennessee's 2015 opponents.  Today:  Show your gold.

Two summers ago I picked Vanderbilt as the most important game of Tennessee's season.  Last year the closest Vanderbilt came to winning an SEC game was against Tennessee, a 24-17 loss that ended the Commodores' season at 3-9 (0-8).  The last two years under James Franklin Vanderbilt went 9-4 and finished in the Top 25.  In 2014 Vanderbilt's nine losses came by an average of 23 points.

We, like all Tennessee fans, are not big on Franklin.  I'm openly rooting for a Tennessee-Penn State bowl match-up in the near future.  But last year was clearly a return to the proverbial, "Same old Vandy."  Any school facing a coaching transition in a major conference is going to be in for a bumpy ride, we know this.  But most of them don't end with both coordinators getting fired after the first year.

So the question for Derek Mason right now isn't how quickly he can get Vanderbilt back to Franklin's level, but if he can get Vanderbilt back above their same old place at the bottom of the league.

To do that, Vanderbilt will need better players.  Rocket science, I know.  Here's Vandy's recruiting under Franklin in the 247 Consensus:

  • 2011:  52nd overall, one four-star
  • 2012:  48th overall, one four-star
  • 2013:  26th overall, four four-stars
The Commodores were building real momentum at the tail end of Franklin's time, even though pieces of his final class ended up spread out between Penn State and the SEC.  Mason's recruiting doesn't look like anything to write home about in direct comparison to Franklin's final year - 46th in 2014, 47th in 2015 - but go back before Franklin, and you find Vanderbilt recruiting like this:
  • 2010:  52nd overall
  • 2009:  69th overall
  • 2008:  82nd overall
  • 2007:  74th overall
  • 2006:  60th overall, one four-star
  • 2005:  86th overall
  • 2004:  67th overall
  • 2003:  65th overall, one four-star
  • 2002:  69th overall
  • Average in nine years before Franklin:  69.3
Between some combination of Mason's work and any remaining momentum from Franklin, Vanderbilt is still recruiting at a level north of their norm before Franklin's arrival.  In the decade prior, if you were a Vanderbilt student you got to see one four-star play during your four years in Nashville.  Now the Commodores are pulling in one every year.  It's still a long way from competitiveness in the SEC, but it is an improvement.

Will that competitiveness show up on the field this fall?  For better or worse, trying to find a senior among last year's contributors is mostly futile.  Leading rusher Ralph Webb was a freshman.  Four different quarterbacks started last season and only Stephen Rivers was a senior, though Maryville's Patton Robinette has left football behind for med school.  Tight end Davis Dudchock graduated, but that shouldn't be a problem with Steven Scheu returning at the same position as one of the league's best.  And only one of the team's top 14 tacklers last season was a senior.  The pieces weren't very good last year, but many of them were brand new and they're all back this time around.

Tennessee has spent every year of the last three decades other than Franklin's last two counting Vanderbilt as an automatic win, and that's how the vast majority of Vol fans will look at this year's match-up.  The Dores shouldn't bounce right back to the Top 25 or anything close to it, but the pieces can still be in place for "Same old Vandy" to be a little better in the aftermath.  We'll see if that's enough for Mason to keep his job; it shouldn't be enough to stop the Vols this fall.