After taking Vanderbilt to three straight bowl games, James Franklin left for one of college football’s blue bloods in Penn State. But the Commodores found an intriguing replacement in Derek Mason, a defensive-minded coach for a defensive-minded conference.
Mason had an impressive run at Stanford, leading a defense that ranked among the top 15 in defensive efficiency for three consecutive years, the last two of those in helping the Cardinal reach the Rose Bowl.
Can Mason keep the momentum going? He’s going to have trouble considering the most prolific pass-catcher in SEC history is no longer in Nashville, but there are some promising pieces for the first-time head coach to work with in the defensive front seven.
The offense has a veteran to lean on in the running game in Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow (who will be pushed by redshirt freshman Ralph Webb) and, whether or not he beats out former LSU quarterback Stephen Rivers, redshirt junior Josh Grady and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary to be the starter come the season opener, Patton Robinette also returns. But the defensive front is whether the Commodores could make their mark as they transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 with new coordinator David Kotulski. Ends Caleb Azubike (9 1/2 tackles for loss) and Kyle Woestmann (six sacks) have both transitioned to outside linebacker and could provide some serious pass-rush ability, along with 6-foot-4, 300-pound sophomore tackle Adam Butler (six TFL).
The entire secondary is gone, though sophomores Paris Head and Toreen McGaster had strong springs and redshirt freshmen Tre Bell and Taurean Ferguson generated strong reports this spring. But the biggest hole for Vanderbilt is at wide receiver, where Jordan Mathews left a major void after becoming the conference’s all-time leading receiver. With Jonathan Krause also gone, the ‘Dores are down 2,191 yards, 154 catches and 10 touchdowns from a year ago. The top returning pass-catcher is sophomore Jordan Cunningham, but he had just 15 receptions and zero TDs. There’s a ton of inexperience at WR, and while someone is going to have to be on the receiving end for the Commodores, a major drop off is coming after years of watching Mathews dominate.
Having completed his undergraduate work at LSU in May, Rivers — the younger brother of Chargers QB Philip Rivers — is immediately eligible to battle Robinette and McCrary for the starting spot. He is a bit of an unknown, having attempted just two passes in three years for the Tigers and after serving as the backup in ’12, was passed up on the depth chart last season by freshman Anthony Jennings. The arrival of early enrollee Brandon Harris this spring pushed Rivers even further down, pushing Rivers to go elsewhere. The good news for him is that Robinette hasn’t claimed the job outright with 642 yards in 10 games as a redshirt freshman, Grady (a converted WR) has six attempts and McCrary has no experienced.
Mason can maintain the trajectory of the program and take the Commodores to a fourth straight bowl game for the first time ever. With five winnable games (Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion at home and Kentucky on the road), it’s only going to take an SEC upset to get postseason-eligible. The best shot may come Nov. 29 against Tennessee, a team that despite another high-level recruiting class, has plenty of questions on defense.
Sept. 27 against Kentucky: Winning one of the first two SEC games on the schedule — Sept. 6 vs. Ole Miss and Sept. 20 against South Carolina — seems unlikely, meaning the Commodores can’t afford to fall to the Wildcats if they’re going to stay on track to reach a bowl game. Kentucky is down its top tackler from a year ago and the secondary is missing three starters, setting itself up as a matchup that should provide the Vandy passing game with a confidence-builder one week after facing the Gamecocks’ J.T. Surratt-led defensive front.
Aside from the trip to Kentucky, this isn’t a schedule that sets up well for a team in the midst of a transition. The Commodores head to Georgia, Missouri in East games and draw Ole Miss and Mississippi State out of the West, with the Bulldogs on the road. Add in a potential rebound for Florida and the continued influx of talent for the Volunteers, and getting more than one conference win could be a difficult task.