Derek Mason was not knocking Notre Dame, no matter what the Stadium looked like the last time an SEC team visited. (Read: Georgia.) Rather, the Vanderbilt head coach was simply pulling from the bottomless pool of coach-speak deployed at conference media days.
“We play in the SEC. I don’t worry about going to South Bend,” Mason said last month. “Right now, I am worried about [Middle Tennessee State]. … We’re about Notre Dame when that game comes. Right now, it’s about MTSU. It’s about going to camp.”
There was nothing negative about that. It was what any coach would and should have said in that moment. That some tried to make a story out of it just goes to show how mundane July media days often are.
The Commodores began last season 3-0, including a 14-7 upset of Kansas State. In the process, they gave up 4.3 points and 198 yards per game, earning recognition as the country’s top defense to that point.
Then Alabama came to Nashville. What followed is considered a crime in some countries.
Vanderbilt never truly recovered from that 59-0 shellacking. If looking past the scoreboard, the contest was not even that close. The Tide gained 677 yards. The Commodores managed 78. They gained three more first downs than this scribe would have on his own.
Vanderbilt lost its first seven SEC games, getting a respite during that streak only with a visit from Western Kentucky. To avoid a winless conference season, the Commodores took advantage of a deteriorating situation at Tennessee, notching a 42-24 victory at their rival.
Even after acknowledging that losing streak and 1-7 conference record, it hardly depicts just how bad things got after Alabama’s work was done. The following week’s 38-24 loss at Florida looks good when compared to what came next, a 45-14 beatdown at home from Georgia. By the end of the season, Vanderbilt gave up more points than any SEC team ever had in one conference slate, allowing an average of 43 along with 472 yards per conference game.
In retrospect, the disaster tied to the schedule as much as anything else. SEC teams play two games a year against the opposite division. Drawing the eventual national champion Tide, let alone to open conference play with Nick Saban’s powerhouse, was unfortunate. Even a down Ole Miss program is nothing to take lightly.
WHAT VANDERBILT LOST
This list starts with Vanderbilt career-rushing leader Ralph Webb, who finished last season with 831 yards and 10 touchdowns. The offense also now looks to replace two of its top-three receivers, Trent Sherfield (50 receptions for 729 yards and five touchdowns) and CJ Duncan (52, 517, 5). Webb added 188 more receiving yards.
On the other side of the ball, the Green Bay Packers may immediately rely on linebacker Oren Burks (82 tackles with seven for loss and three passes broken up), drafted in the third round, while Vanderbilt’s interior defense looks to replace not only him, but also defensive tackles Nifae Lealao (23 tackles with four for loss) and Jonathan Wynn (23 tackles with 1.5 sacks).
Just to add a cherry on top of Mason’s sundae, the Commodores also need to revamp their kicking game, as both their kicker and punter have moved on.
WHAT VANDERBILT GAINED
This is a longer entry than usually expected, and its four headliners come at positions of need considering some of the aforementioned losses. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran for 4.7 yards per carry and nine touchdowns in his two seasons at Illinois before transferring. A four-star recruit, Vaughn may have the talent to legitimately replace Webb.
Receiver Alex Stump never caught on (pun intended) at Ohio State, but as another highly-touted recruit he is presumably expected to step right into the depleted depth chart, perhaps along with four-star freshman Camron Johnson.
Defensive tackle Louis Vecchio arrives from Penn fresh off two consecutive years of first-team All-Ivy honors. Again noting the above attrition, Vecchio should start.
Mason is not on a hot seat, but it could quickly get warm. Last year’s SEC results were that bad and served to underscore the fact that he has not even reached .500 in conference play in any of his first four years.
Vanderbilt has gone 0-5 against the top 10 under Mason and 2-14 against the top 25, one of those victories being week three against Kansas State last year (No. 18 at the time) and the other coming in the 2016 season finale against Tennessee (No. 24).
If anything can keep Mason’s job status comfortable despite what will inevitably be another tough year in the SEC, it would be topping the Volunteers for a third-straight time.
Four-year starter and son of New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur, quarterback Kyle Shurmur completed 57.9 percent of his passes last year, throwing 26 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. If he can find some new go-to targets at receiver, an appropriate coda to his collegiate career seems possible.
That said, the Commodores should rely on the run and Vaughn. Why? They return 97 career starts along the offensive line. Last year they averaged just 107 rushing yards per game and 3.7 per carry, so improvement should not be hard to find.
While his computers do not anticipate the rushing game to progress much (114.7 projected yards per game), Phil Steele does posit, “This should be the most productive offense in Mason’s five seasons.” To give that context, the points per game number to beat would be last year’s 24.6 and Mason’s highest yards per game comes in at just 356 in 2016. That framing shows Steele’s praise to be marginal, at best.
First-year defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has his work cut out for him. If anything goes right there this season, presume the credit ties to senior outside linebacker Charles Wright, whose 43 tackles with nine sacks, was enough to earn him second-team All-SEC honors last year.
Wright’s recognition came in spite of Vanderbilt giving up 31.3 points per game across the season. That was more than a touchdown worse than the 2016 Mason-coordinated defense managed, despite improving its yards per game numbers by 15.
Relatively speaking, optimism may be warranted. Much of that hope comes at the rest of the state’s expense.
Bookmakers set the metric of success on the Commodores’ season at 4.5 wins. Two of those should come before visiting Notre Dame when both Middle Tennessee and Nevada visit. To end September, Vanderbilt hosts Tennessee State, a third hypothetical victory.
SEC play again begins in earnest in an ugly fashion, traveling to Georgia and then hosting Florida. (The Commodores host South Carolina between facing the Irish and *insert plural form of Tennessee State mascot here*.) (Yes, that remaining placeholder was intentional. If fun cannot be poked at the Fighting Tennessee States, then where can it be?) There is a very real chance Vanderbilt can come out of that two-game rough stretch at no worse than 3-4.
From there, two wins could exist: at Kentucky, at Arkansas, bye week before heading to Missouri, vs Mississippi and vs Tennessee.
A bowl game may be a reach, but Mason should be able to survive back-to-back 5-7 seasons if both include victories over the Volunteers.
P.S. The Tigers. The Tennessee State Tigers.