In this space last year, Will asked a relatively simple question: can Vanderbilt compete again?
I know how you're going to respond. You'll dismiss it out of hand, point to last year's 53-28 thrashing in Knoxville, and make a snarky remark about "same old Vandy." I get it. The Commodores are 3-30 in their last 33 games against the Vols, have had a winning SEC record exactly once since 1982 (5-3 in 2012), and went 53 years between bowl wins. Derek Mason has done little to change that perception during his tenure, representing a stark reversion to the mean after the highs of the Franklin era.
How stark was that reversion? In 2014, Vanderbilt's primary problem was, essentially, everything.
|2014 National Rank
After Mason declared they were ready to win the East at SEC Media Days, Vanderbilt employed Karl Dorrell, lost by 30 to Temple, and rotated 4 quarterbacks. And that was just opening night. Whoops.
It's possible that Mason was playing the long con by setting the bar so low that there was nowhere to go but up in his second season, but he should get credit for making changes. Mason fired both coordinators, replacing Dorrell with Andy Ludwig (he of the Melvin Gordon offenses at Wisconsin in 2013 and 2014) and hiring himself as DC. One of those moves was successful.
|2015 National Rank
Mason's impact on the defense was evident in 2015. The combination of Mason being able to communicate directly to his team and players feeling more comfortable in the 2nd year of his system reminded us all that, oh yeah, this dude can coach defense. Ask Chip Kelly or Mark Helfrich about it.
The offense under Ludwig, though, was somehow...worse? Scoring less per game while generating more yards is pretty impressive, but if you watched any Vandy games last year, you know how you accomplish that: fail spectacularly at converting in the red zone. A full 37% of the time the Dores made the red zone, they didn't score. Like at all. That figure was 127th in the country and cost the team dearly against Western Kentucky (2 end zone INTs, a missed FG, and a dropped TD); Georgia (another end zone INT down 24-14 in the 4th); and South Carolina.
Some of the overall struggles can be chalked up to a full-on, "bless his heart" situation at quarterback. After the embarrassment of rolling out 4 QBs in the opener, Mason tried really hard to stick with one guy all year. That guy should've been Patton Robinette, but he decided a non-porous brain was important to being a doctor, so he quit football and left Johnny McCrary as the starting QB. McCrary was, well, terrible. He finished the year completing 54% of his passes with a spectacular 1:2 TD to INT ratio (6 TDs, 12 INTs) before ceding his role to 4* freshman, Kyle Shurmur. Shurmur, with his redshirt aflame, presided over wins over Missouri and Kentucky, though his stats were basically identical (43% completion, 5 TDs, 3 INTs).
Some of it can be chalked up to injuries to presumed starting WR CJ Duncan, presumed starting LT Andrew Jelks, and potential breakout TE DeAndre Woods. Vanderbilt will always struggle to build the kind of top-end depth that the best teams in the conference have, and those injuries put them behind the 8-ball on offense. All those guys are now back and it's fully Shurmur's show (McCrary transferred in the offseason). Will their return coupled with a (lightly) seasoned QB produce more points? Can Vanderbilt make a bowl game if they pair a salty defense with an offense that looks slightly less like...
Those questions are really just different ways to ask, "Is Derek Mason a serviceable SEC coach?" That question led to some...spirited...debates among Vanderbilt fans last year. If you thought things were tense around here during the Dark Days of Dooley, allow me to show you Anchor of Gold. Last year, whether in a win or a loss, every single comment thread devolved into heated debate about whether Mason is a victim of his circumstances who has shown progress or a terrible coach who will be responsible for the total ruination of Vanderbilt football if he's not fired yesterday.
As with a lot of things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, which is where this Vanderbilt grad resides. Mason looked awful in 2014, but grew into the role in 2015 both on and off the field (his media presence has been another oft-debated topic on AOG). I don't worry about the defense; they return starting experience at all 3 levels with Zach Cunningham as the anchor (he was named 2nd team All-SEC last week).
I do worry about the offense and the schedule, though. Shurmur has the talent to be the Dores' best quarterback since Cutler, but the offensive support is thin. Duncan, Trent Sherfield, and Ralph Webb are nice pieces, but they'll have a lot of pressure to produce. The non-conference schedule includes road games at Western Kentucky (why?!) and Georgia Tech, plus a visit from MTSU. The SEC slate is manageable with Auburn as the rotating west opponent, but it's on the road as are Mizzou and UK, last year's SEC scalps.
I went out on a limb and picked Vandy 4th in the East in our RTT preseason poll, but that's mostly a reflection of how bad I think Mizzou and South Carolina will be. The bottom of the East is weak, which presents an opportunity. Can Vanderbilt seize the moment and win 6 games? If they don't, will Mason have a job in 2017? We'll start finding out the answers on September 1st.