Vanderbilt is coming off one of the best three-year stretches in program history. The Commodores won 24 games under James Franklin, including back-to-back bowl victories and top-25 finishes in the Associated Press poll for the 2012-13 seasons. Franklin left for Penn State after Vanderbilt’s win over Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl and was replaced by Derek Mason.
Mason arrives at Vanderbilt after three years as Stanford’s defensive coordinator. Under Mason’s watch, the Cardinal defense was a driving force in the program’s back-to-back Pac-12 Championships. Stanford ranked first or second in fewest yards per play allowed (conference-only games) and points allowed in Mason’s three-year tenure.
Franklin set the bar high for Mason. Vanderbilt has just three seasons of nine victories, with two coming under Franklin’s direction.
After a successful three-year stint under Franklin, Mason is tasked with taking the program to new heights and pushing the Commodores into SEC title contention.
Expectations are usually high for any first-year coach. There’s a new excitement and buzz throughout the program. However, immediate success isn’t always guaranteed.
Let’s take a look at Mason’s history and set the realistic expectations for 2014:
Mason’s Job History:
2011-13: Stanford – Defensive Coordinator
2010: Stanford – Defensive Backs Coach
2007-09: Minnesota Vikings – Asst. Defensive Backs Coach
2005-06: Ohio – Wide Receivers Coach
2004: New Mexico State – Wide Receivers Coach
2003: Saint Mary’s – Co-Defensive Coordinator
2002: Utah – Wide Receivers/Special Teams Asst. Coach
1999-01: Bucknell – Defensive Backs Coach
1997-98: Idaho State – Running Backs Coach
1995-96: Weber State – Wide Receivers Coach
1994: Mesa Community College – Wide Receivers Coach
Obstacles to Overcome:
The Passing Game: The Commodores finished ninth in the SEC in passing offense last season, averaging just 227.5 yards per game. Total yards per game can be deceiving when judging offenses, but Vanderbilt has not ranked higher than eighth among SEC teams in passing offense in the last seven years. The passing game is a huge concern for Mason and coordinator Karl Dorrell in 2014. The Commodores could turn to LSU transfer Stephen Rivers at quarterback, while top receiver Jordan Matthews (112 of Vanderbilt’s 243 receptions in 2013) departs. The offensive line and rushing attack should carry the offense, but the Commodores have to develop a passing game to top last year’s win total.
The Secondary: The defensive backfield was a strength for Vanderbilt last season, finishing sixth among SEC teams (conference-only games) in pass efficiency defense. This unit heads into fall practice under construction, as four new starters must emerge. The secondary isn’t without talent, as junior Andrew Williamson and sophomore Paris Head are two building blocks for 2014.
Team Strengths for 2014:
Rushing Attack/Offensive Line: The backfield is headlined by Jerron Seymour (716 yards in 2013), Brian Kimbrow (341 yards) and freshmen Ralph Webb and Dallas Rivers. Until a quarterback emerges, expect Vanderbilt to rely on its ground attack and an offensive line that returns four starters.
Front Seven on Defense: Mason plans to change Vanderbilt’s scheme on defense to a 3-4. Although it’s a significant shift in philosophy, the Commodores have the personnel to make it work. Vince Taylor is poised for a breakout year as the team’s nose guard, and the outside linebacker positions are manned by Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike (10 sacks in 2013). Establishing a pass rush is critical with four new starters in the secondary.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
Despite a late start on recruiting in 2014, Mason managed to ink the No. 45 overall class (247Sports Composite). Vanderbilt’s class ranked last in the SEC, but Mason and his staff signed two four-star and 16 three-star prospects. Those totals were almost equal to Franklin’s class in 2012 but did not match the No. 26 rank in 2013. The No. 26 class in 2013 is the outlier in Vanderbilt’s five-year recruiting trend. Over the last five seasons, the Commodores averaged a 46.5 rank in recruiting and have only one finish (26) above 45.
Vanderbilt should be favored in its four non-conference games (Old Dominion, Temple, UMass and Charleston Southern), which leaves the Commodores just two wins short of bowl eligibility. Getting two wins in SEC play will be a challenge, as Vanderbilt plays an improving Ole Miss team in LP Field on Sept. 6 and travels to Mississippi State on Nov. 22 in crossover games with the West. The Sept. 27 date at Kentucky and the Nov. 29 game against Tennessee are two key swing games.
Mason is walking into an interesting situation. The Commodores could show improvement on the field, yet finish with a worse record. Last year, Vanderbilt was outgained by 75.5 yards per game in SEC play and finished with a -28 scoring differential. A +6 turnover margin helped the Commodores narrow the gap in yardage and scoring.
Winning eight games in 2014 would be a surprise, especially with Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky all expected to improve.
Vanderbilt isn’t hiring a head coach to rebuild or help the program get to a bowl game. Instead, Mason was picked to take this program to the next level and in contention for SEC titles. This is Mason's first season as a head coach, and life in the SEC is never easy. Expect plenty of growing pains over the next few years, as Mason needs time to mold the roster to his liking and settle into his new role. Defense will be the backbone of Mason's teams, especially in 2014 while the offense develops under Dorrell.
The Commodores closed the gap under Franklin and should chip away at it even more under Mason. But expecting Mason to elevate Vanderbilt into SEC title contention in 2014 is too much to ask. With a glaring question mark at quarterback, along with a scheme change on defense, a bowl game (and seven wins) is a reasonable first-year expectation for Mason.
Vegas Expectations: 6.5 over/under (5Dimes)
Athlon 2014 Magazine Projection: 6-6